Keeping your speaking knives sharp: Executive Coaching for the seasoned speaker

This is a guest blog from a friend and a client, speaker coach Denise Graveline –  It was emotional for me to read. To say the least. 

Denise GravelineKeeping your speaking knives sharp: Executive Coaching for the seasoned speaker

When I shared the news with my clients and readers that I, a speaker coach, had hired Peter Botting, also a speaker coach, to get ready for chairing a conference, I got some pushback from the curious. “Why would you do that?” they wondered. The implication was that I’d somehow admitted I wasn’t as good as I make myself out to be. After all, I’ve been coaching speakers for nearly 30 years, at first within large nonprofit organizations and the U.S. federal government as a senior official in the Clinton Administration, then for the past 10 years in my own consultancy. I’ve put speakers in front of the U.S. Congress, on the TEDMED stage and on TED.com, and on national television. And I’ve done the same myself, delivering industry keynote speeches, testifying before Congress, speaking in the British Parliament.

One might consider me, after all that time, to be an expert without having to stretch the truth. A seasoned speaker, certainly.

Of course, Peter had the right comeback for me: “It’s a poor chef who fails to keep her knives sharp,” he said, dismissing the critics and wonderers. I didn’t want to stretch the truth. I just wanted to stretch myself.

I wrote about being a seasoned speaker and getting coaching from Peter on my public speaking blog, The Eloquent Woman:

A trainer who seeks no training after she hits ‘expert’ status is just sharing the expertise of long ago, over and over again. I wanted to set the bar higher for myself. Peter struck me as a professional’s professional, someone who could add value to the skills I already bring to the task. He agreed that I should push beyond rote and strive for exceptional.Then I got what I asked for, and I clutched….Despite knowing better, I acted as any speaker might when pushed. It’s been a while since this shoe was on the other foot, and you’ll be relieved to hear that I’m just like anyone else on this score.

My coach listened, advised, nudged, and teased out the needed results. “I want to stretch you. Quality needs to be pushed,” he’d say, reminding me that “good enough seldom is,” a challenge to the ambitious lion if ever there were one…I knew without question that I’d picked the right coach. He was doing just what I’d asked him to do, and my feeling turned inside-out was something I could control. I went back to responding, rather than reacting, to the challenges. I decided to say “yes” to my coach, and even better, “got to yes” with myself. Instead of running from the power, I ran toward it. At one critical point, my coach reminded me that “turning yourself inside out is a bit like spring cleaning–you find old treasures and assets almost forgotten.” I’d been in search of grace notes and mindset and themes when I decided to seek coaching, and I found them…..

In Washington, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a speaker coach or media trainer. I’ve hired or worked with many of them, and have heard them say the same things over and over again. It’s a cookie-cutter, off-the-shelf, robotic method of coaching. Peter takes a personalized approach, uncomfortable yet powerful precisely because it focuses on you as a unique speaker. Far from merely spouting tips and advice, Peter listens and reads with care, catching nuances and seeing gaps I miss. His ear is especially sensitive to what an international audience will hear, a real advantage as I head into this global conference. But it’s also good at catching woolly thinking and flabby language.

He’s also good at pushing and insisting you do better, saying, “Good coaching can change my clients’ careers, their reputations, their income and their lives. So I apologise for not apologising to my clients if I am sometimes tough with them.” Peter’s seismic approach to speaker coaching can make you feel as if there’s earth moving under that once-stable place you were standing. You can view that as a danger, something outside your control, and run away from it. Or you can view it as the early rumblings of your own power as a speaker, and run toward it.

You, too, may be an experienced speaker with a big speech or speaking task coming up. Perhaps you’ve just been elected an officer of your professional society, or started a new management role, one that requires presentations to the board of directors or to external audiences. You might, after speaking in smaller halls, be about to give that TEDx speech you’ve always dreamed of doing, or be tackling an important keynote or AGM speech. Your friends and colleagues will tell you this is a sign of your expertise, and it is. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t use some coaching right about now. Peter makes the case for 1:1 coaching to improve your performance and notes something he learned as a tennis coach from a pro:

Ian Barclay coached me in Johannesburg. He was Pat Cash’s coach and I was a young, ambitious tennis coach totally focused on learning all his best coaching techniques and skills. He said that teaching beginners, like he taught Cash initially, was all about skills and just 5% about what’s in your head. By the time Cash was playing serious professional tennis, the ratios had reversed and it was now at least 95% head and the rest skills. If you are helping people with what’s in their head – it’s personal. Huge trust is needed and that’s best done very carefully and sensitively without others listening in.

Peter says 1:1 coaching is for people who want to win.That’s the kind of coaching I chose to keep my speaking knives sharp. Here’s how I did at the task for which I was coached, chairing an international conference of speechwriters in Brussels last year. What will you use your coaching with Peter to advance?

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