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Glenn van Zutphen: How to become a master communicator

High level executives who have grown comfortable addressing internal staff often overestimate their ability to be clear, concise, and memorable in front of a less familiar external audience, says veteran journalist and communication expert, Glenn van Zutphen.

In this exclusive interview with Altafy, he offers some useful pointers on how business leaders can elevate their speaking game, and become sought after spokespersons in their respective industries.

1. You coach high performance business leaders. What are some key challenges/roadblocks that they face, when it comes to public speaking?

Depending on the person, there can be any number of stumbling blocks. But I’ll mention two: First, the biggest problem is that executives often don’t consider the needs of the audience. This may sound obvious… but hear me out. There are countless cases where I have seen the executive only concerned with “pushing” their message or information. Every audience cares the most about ONE thing: itself. The most effective communication occurs when a spokesperson understands what the audience needs or wants and then tailors her remarks accordingly.

Another challenge can be, frankly put, ego. High-level executives often overestimate their ability to be clear, concise, and memorable. Over the years they have become accustomed to stakeholders and staff nodding their heads in agreement every time they speak, because of their elevated position in the organisation…even if they are a lousy communicator. They may have some skills for things like one-on-one meetings. But giving presentations or media interviews or town hall meetings is a very different communication challenge. Often, C-Suite executives are surrounded by people who are not comfortable telling them the truth about their public speaking abilities or the executive simply will not listen to them. This leads to the misguided belief that they are great at public speaking when they are probably just okay.

The most effective and professional spokespeople that I work with set aside their ego and get some amount of communication coaching each year; it may be for an important interview or presentation to their Board. They know that feedback is a gift and that it is important to grow and improve.

2. Most business leaders run on a full schedule. Is it worth their time to take on speaking engagements?

Absolutely. Our communication landscape is packed with people trying to be thought leaders. Most of them are not, but the competition is stiff and there are so many channels. So, accepting strategically important interviews or speaking engagements is imperative in order to reach key audiences. If one wants to be effective on a larger stage, then they need to be a memorable, master communicator; somebody the media calls for quotes and interviews because the interview or presentation is delivered in a confident, concise, and credible way. 

Since early-to-mid last year, virtual presentation portals have also increased in importance. It was okay back then to be bad at virtual (and more recently, hybrid) presentations, to fumble with your PowerPoint or forget that your microphone was muted, etc. From now on, speakers are expected to have developed those skills for smooth virtual presentations. If business leaders are taking the time out of their schedule to deliver a virtual or hybrid presentation, they will need to be rock-solid if they want to hold their positions or to be promoted. Learning how to deliver great presentations will be non-negotiable in 2021 and beyond.

3. How is a keynote presentation different from a regular presentation? What does the audience expect?

A great keynote starts with audience needs, as does all communication. Giving a keynote is more than just passing information; it grabs and holds your attention so much so that when the keynote speaker steps off the stage, the audience still wants more. The keynote often weaves a story or theme in a way that engages on a deeper level than a regular presentation. It is often entertaining, educational, or even transformational. We see this in TedTalks all the time.  

4. What are some key elements of a killer keynote presentation?

Storytelling. Suspense. Audience engagement. Humour. A good keynote address has to be more than just an information dump. One needs to be physically and emotionally present; be knowledgeable; and be memorable in the way you present your information. A good keynote might also use something called a callback. This means you start talking about something at the start of your speech and then you go back to it later to put a button on a topic. Comedians sometimes use this technique; it’s very effective. 

5. What are common mistakes to avoid?

Not understanding what the audience already knows and what it wants from the speaker. This is often accomplished in advance of the speech, by a speaker who takes time and initiative to reach out to the organiser for input and may even send a pre-speech questionnaire to attendees to better understand them and their needs.

6. How do you enhance the visual experience in a keynote presentation?

A good presentation is important. Use short videos, photosand appropriate graphics to demonstrate key points. Spend some time upping your graphics. Keep text simple (if at all) and make it huge so that it is easily seen from the back of the room. If you use a prop on stage, make sure it is big enough for people to see. ALWAYS use a microphone and test it in advance. Even if it is a smaller room… using a microphone will help the speaker command the room and be heard if audience members have hearing challenges.

In a large venue where there is one or more big screen monitors, the audience will tend to look at the screen rather than the person on stage. So think of the presentation as a TV appearance. Practice movement, gestures and eye contact as if you are giving a television performance. 

7. How important is it to build your brand and online presence, in order to raise your influence and be considered as a keynote speaker?

It’s a huge topicHow much time do you have? *laughs* Needless to say, many books have been written on this subject and personal branding is very important and can be achieved via many channels. But here’s the most important thing: Be excellent in your field and in your given topic. When somebody hires a keynote speaker, they want the best person that they can find (and afford).

If you have a website, YouTube channel, social media accounts, and a showreel, that’s very useful for getting the word out. But all of these are not absolutely necessary. At the very least, have a solid LinkedIn account and post weekly on your area of expertise. Do a video once or twice each month, even a short one.

If you have got nothing else, at least people will see that you are part of “the conversation” in your field.  You can also promote yourself in speaker groups or business groups that are in line with your expertise. Do an audio and/or video recording of your presentation and make it into a vlog or podcast. Send it out to current or potential clients. 

8. The pandemic has led to a rise in virtual events. What new challenges has this brought along? Have you had to tweak your presentation style?

The whole world has had to figure this out. As a TV and radio reporter for over 20 years, talking to a camera or microphone is second nature to me. Still, I have had to add more visuals and think about how to be more compelling in what I say. No longer can I read the audience, so I have to go with my gut more and try to use more interactivity such as polling and calling on people when I ask questions. My presentations have to be a shorter because people’s attentions spans are shorter online. And I have to bring my energy up almost even more as the audience members do not get energy from each another. 

9. Do you have a favourite orator? Who makes you sit up and listen? And why?

There are a couple of old-time American radio guys that I have immense respect for: Paul Harvey and Ken Nordine. Most people don’t know those names. But they were giants in how they used their voices and in their verbal communication. Walter Cronkite and Canadian newsman Peter Jennings were also favorites; so authentic and good at their craft.

10. What is your top advice for aspiring speakers?
First, define yourselfWhat’s your topic? What is your expertiseWhat is your passionEveryone must have their own “secret sauce.” It’s okay to have a gimmick, but make sure that you have got substance to back it up. 

work for free when you first start, if no one will pay youGet as much experience as you can. Talk to church groups, business groups, professional organisations, speaker’s groups… whoever will have you. Record your early efforts. Watch or listen to them and learn how to be better. Offer to emcee events to get experience. And practice! Nothing takes the place of preparation. 

About Glenn

In over 25 years as a professional journalist, Glenn van Zutphen worked in print, radio, television, and online news while based in the U.S., Japan, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Singapore as Regional News Editor for CNBC Asia/Pacific, Anchor, Producer & Reporter at CNN International, reporter, and anchor for Hong Kong’s Wharf Cable Television, and a TV and radio broadcaster for NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corp).

Glenn is a Past-President of Singapore’s Foreign Correspondents Association and the Atlanta Press Club, the second-largest such organization in the US. He’s a Board member of the Asian American Journalists Association as well as the East-West Center in Hawaii, and an active member of the Singapore Press Club.

A career international journalist and a frequent TV, radio, and podcast commentator, Glenn is the founder of VanMedia Group Pte Ltd, an international media consultancy coaching high-performing C-Suite and D-Suite leaders, government officials, and entrepreneurs. He is an accomplished global keynote speaker, meeting facilitator, and event host.

Glenn holds a master’s degree in Digital Media Management from Hyper Island Singapore/Teesside University (UK) and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Southern California.

For more information, visit: https://www.altafy.com/speaker-profile?profileId=Z8kGin8uNhfXuCZ

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