Are You Leading the Room or Is the Room Leading You?

Posted 04.26.2022

Back in the early days of my public speaking career, I got some invaluable feedback that eventually changed everything for me.

My book, The Next Level, had been out for about a year and I was asked to be a regular speaker at a companywide leadership program for a major investment firm. The company ran the program four times a year and my role was to come in each time they did to deliver a half day workshop for managers on the behaviors they needed to either pick up or let go of to lead at the next level.

Sometimes my sessions would go great and I’d walk out of there feeling on top of the world. Other times, the whole session would feel flat and I’d walk out exhausted with my confidence shaken. The weird and scary thing for me was the content was always the same so I could not predict when a session was going to be great or be a grind.

After watching me grind it out around the fifth time I delivered the program, the company’s director of leadership development asked me if I wanted some feedback. I took a deep breath and said, “Sure.”

“Here’s what I notice about you,” she said. “When the room is high energy, you’re high energy. When the room is low energy, you’re low energy. I’m not paying you to follow the room’s energy; I’m paying you to lead the room’s energy.”

That was the proverbial whack up the side of the head for me. It immediately crystallized what I had to work on if I was going to be a consistently successful public speaker. I needed to get really clear about the level of energy I needed to bring to a room and be on target and consistent in delivering it.

Figuring out how to deliver on that insight wasn’t as simple as flipping a switch. Honestly, it took several years of work and trial and error to get it right. Based on the feedback I get from clients and the number of repeat engagements I’m asked to do, I think I eventually figured it out.

Since most leaders have to speak in public either inside or outside their organizations or both, I want to share three steps to take to lead the energy of the room. They’ve worked for me and I think they’ll work for you too:

Visualize the Outcome: Everything goes better if you have a clear vision of the outcome you want to create. That’s certainly true in the case of public speaking. I always start with visualizing and getting clear about what I want the audience to think and how I want them to feel at the end of my presentation. The thinking is about the content; the feeling is about the connection. Getting clear on the outcome I want to create with what they think and how they feel guides me on how I need to show up.

Visualize Yourself: If you’ve read my blog or my books for any amount of time, you know how fond I am of the idea that leaders control the weather. However a leader shows up is completely predictive of how their team will show up. The principle also applies to public speakers. How you show up as a speaker is predictive of how your audience will show up. This idea should guide the energy you’re putting out there. If, for instance, you want them to feel excited, energized, and engaged, you need to be excited, energized, and engaged. Sticking with this example, a big part of your preparation for the event should be visualizing yourself delivering the presentation with your best and most authentic version of excitement, engagement and energy.

Adjust the Dial: Most of us have a natural set point in terms of the energy we show up with in our day-to-day activities. To be effective as a public speaker, you need to tune into your natural set point and adjust the dial if you need to. It’s still you; it’s just you with your energy dialed into where it needs to be to lead the room. This takes practice and feedback to get right. My natural set point is conversational and personal. I can still be that on stage; I just need to be a bigger version of that to lead the room. For me, smiling, humor and telling stories that move me personally are proven ways to get my energy where it needs to be.

What these three steps do for me is give me confidence that I’ve done my internal homework and that the presentation is going to go great. Having that sense of grounded confidence is key to leading the room. If people sense that you don’t really believe in yourself, they quickly tune you out. If, on the other hand, they sense that you know what you’re talking about, are excited to share it, and having fun doing it, they’re almost always going to be with you.

That’s when you know you’re leading the energy of the room.

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