The Importance of Speaking as a Signal Skill

In the inaugural episode of The Podium Project podcast, I talked about speaking as a "signal skill". The concept generated a lot of interest and feedback so I thought it would be helpful to expand on the idea a bit further here on the blog.

Here’s the rub when it comes to speaking: if you're a compelling and confident speaker, people assume you're good at other things too. If you're a great speaker, people think you're a great leader, a strategic thinker, a trustworthy advisor, a charismatic and a friendly person. The act of speaking confidently signals that you have competence in a variety of other areas, even if you have less experience than the people around you.

One of the best examples that illustrates speaking is signal skill is the ascendency of Barack Obama. When he ran for the Democratic nomination, he was a junior Senator from the state of Illinois with a couple of years experience under his belt. Everyone else vying for the nomination in 2008 had more experience than him. But his ability to share his ideas with clarity, conviction and an infectious sense of possibility shaped the way the electorate viewed him—someone fit to hold the world’s highest elected office.

But you don’t need to be a politician to benefit from speaking as a signal skill. It’s available to everyone, whether you're an management consultant, a lawyer, an investment advisor, a creative director or an entrepreneur. Improving your ability to speak takes hours (and not 10,000 of them) and it enhances people's perceptions of you in a way that might otherwise take years.

After coaching thousands of speakers over the past two decades, I can assure you that speaking is a learned skill. You don’t need to be born with Margaret Thatcher’s brain or Bill Clinton’s charm. A few small changes to how you prepare, frame and deliver your communication makes a big difference to how others perceive you and that shift in perception can help you quickly you achieve your bigger picture goals.

One of my clients made a few tweaks to her presentation and delivery before getting on the podium at a big off-site meeting. The next day, one of her colleagues approached her and said, “I’ve been watching you speak for 30 years and you have never spoken like that. You had the hair on the back of my neck standing up, the room was in the palm of your hand...". Those simple tweaks she made transformed how others viewed her as a leader and emboldened her belief (and theirs) in her broader capabilities. The best part? She didn’t need another degree or to get up an hour earlier every morning to get better. She just needed to spend a few minutes of focusing on the right things.

So, if your speaking skill set is sending a signal to the people around you, how strong is yours and what message is it conveying? What would shift for you professionally if you improved your speaking skills and took things to the next level? I'd love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

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