‘Focus on what you love about what you do’: Top speaking coach Bill Smartt

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Being able to nail a presentation is more important than education to your career success. Isn't that an eye-opener?

Here, top public speaking coach Bill Smartt explains how to have authentic conversations with your audience.

Smartt Talk has to be about the best business name I can think of for a public speaking coach. Its owner, Bill, is one of the most sought after coaches in both New York and San Francisco.

I spoke to Mr Smartt himself about coaching, clients, and the challenges he helps people overcome.

Tell us a bit about yourself Bill. Where are you from?

I'm originally from Tennessee, from a small town southeast of Nashville called McMinnville. I grew up there but then moved to Nashville later on, and immediately joined a New Wave band. This was in the 80s (I'm dating myself). I also studied acting for many years and have a masters in acting.

What did you do before Smartt Talk?

I moved to New York in 2002, with the intention of pursuing an acting career. But I had to have a day job, so I got a job at Credit Suisse and had a variety of roles, ending up working in IT.

In the evenings I taught acting classes at Queens College. I saw that people left that class feeling much more confident about themselves. It seemed like their perception of who they were shifted.

A big light bulb went on in my head and I thought, 'I've got to find a way to do this with more people and not people that just want to be actors.'

So I started helping a colleague at Credit Suisse with some communication workshops. One of the first groups I led was for women in IT, helping them move forward in their careers. I loved it, they loved it, and I knew immediately – this is what I want to do.

An actor and a musician. Any scary on-stage moments you care to share?


I was up in front of an audience for the first time in my life. I forgot everything, I forgot my lyrics and panicked. A friend of mine had told me, 'If you ever forget your lyrics just sing numbers and letters.' Which is what I did, and I somehow made it through our six-song set.

I was traumatised and ran out to the car. Then the bass player, Jennifer, came out and said, 'Well Bill, are you ready to do a second set?' Horrified, I said, 'No way am I going to go back out there and make a fool of myself a second time.' She said, 'Look. The band is waiting and we're ready to go. So if you don't want to do the second set you need to tell the band that you're quitting, and then tell that audience that you're not going to give them a show.'

So I thought, 'Well, it certainly couldn't be any worse that the first set.' So I just got out there. This time I held a notebook with all my lyrics for reference – and it actually went really well. And people liked it.

As an actor, I forgot my lines many times in front of hundreds of people. That's why I can so powerfully identify with people who get up in front of groups and have issues with it. It's because I've had challenges with that myself, and I understand how hard that can be.

I try to give my clients an experience in front of other people that shows that they can make some improvement, and have them re-experience what may have been a bad experience in the past.

That's why a lot of people leave my workshops feeling energised and hopeful. Because public speaking is really not rocket science, it's pretty straightforward – but we get in our own way and worry about what the audience is thinking, as well as worrying about being perfect. My motto is 'Be prepared, not perfect.'

What inspired you to start Smartt Talk?

After the success of the workshops I led at Credit Suisse, I knew I wanted to start my own coaching practise. I left Credit Suisse, and worked for a software company doing tech support, sales, customer support, testing, and training.

At the same time, I started to teach workshops at General Assembly and people would ask, 'Why don't you come into my place of work?' That started my relationship with clients, and Smartt Talk took off from there.

The time I spent both at Credit Suisse and the software company helped me to understand the challenges people in both large and small companies have around presenting ideas and what a crucial part it plays in their relationship with clients as well as how they can advance in their careers.

What's the most rewarding part of your job?

I do this to empower people to find their own voice. Particularly people who are convinced that they're terrible, that they're bad public speakers.

I encourage people not to define themselves as bad. Just say that you could be better and you can work on it. If you define yourself as being bad, then you're telling yourself there's no way you could ever improve.

The way we feel about ourselves has a huge effect on the way we are in front of other people. If you feel better about yourself and feel more confident, that's going to translate when you're speaking in front of a group.

Helping people find their voice, move past their fears and feel empowered is what is so rewarding about this work. It can transform how people feel, improve business and personal relationships, help them advance in their career, and strengthen the organisation that employs them.

Do your clients share common fears, motivations or goals?


What everybody has in common is that they want to improve. You've got people who are really good speakers, and speak at conferences, and they want to be even better. Then you have engineers and tech workers who have really good ideas but they're challenged to communicate them effectively, whether that's to co-workers, teams or clients.

A lot of people that I work with are very driven, successful in so many areas of their lives. And that almost puts even more pressure on them, to somehow be perfect. So they come to me with a huge amount of self-doubt despite how far they've gone in their careers.

Being able to stand in front of a group and exude that confidence makes a huge difference in anyone's path, in anyone's career.

A lot of what I do, I see as helping to manage anxiety. I think that's where a lot of coaches miss the boat. They give people technical skills, but they don't help someone work through all this anxiety and pressure that people are feeling.

That's why companies hire me. I come in and work with people, sometimes people who've just started, to help them understand how important it is to come across with confidence. And it will affect every part of your career.

You help people make 'authentic connections with their audiences'. What makes a connection authentic?

I define it as: being present in the moment with the people in the room, and truly connecting to what you're saying, as you say it.

How do you get to that place? It's really rooted in remembering to breathe, in taking your time, and making eye contact.

You give a point, you look at someone, you check to see that they've received it, then you move on to the next person. You give them a point, you check to see if they've received it.

What you're doing is having a real conversation with somebody. Don't think of it as a lecture, as a report. And since every one of us has conversations with people everyday, we already know how to do that. You're just doing it with more people in the room. And that can really help you be present, because you're checking in with other people.

It's about taking your time, taking pauses, and making eye contact – that’s really how you’re going to be authentic. When you take your time, it forces you to be connected to the words that you’re saying.

You work in lots of ways. Do you have a favourite style?

Any time I can help clients redefine who they are, in a positive way, I'm happy. But I really want to be live in the room with people. That's my favourite thing.

But a lot of my clients do spend time in virtual meetings, on video and voice calls, so we look at the things they can do to make that a better experience for their audience.

A big piece of that is the voice. Sometimes that's all you have. It's about vocal variety, and hitting different pitches, and really making sure that you're not speaking in a monotone voice that's going to put everybody on the other end of that call to sleep.

How do you help people control such powerful feelings of fear?

Fear is a huge issue with a lot of people, absolutely. They're terrified. For me, the most important part is to be supportive.

I've gone into companies and they'll say, 'God, the last coach that came in here made everybody feel terrible. There were a couple of people in tears.' That doesn't help anybody. Those people will never want to get up in front of people. That seems to confirm their worst fears.

If they've had a bad experience, my job is to help give them a positive experience in front of a group. So that then they can go, 'Oh you know what, I can do this and I can move forward.'

At the start of my workshops, each person talks a little bit about what they want to work on and some of the things they find challenging. People often hear someone else say exactly what they're thinking, and they'll think, 'You know what? Everybody feels this.'

Every single person who has to speak has a certain amount of anxiety, a certain amount of adrenaline, and that's normal. When you get up you just have to go, 'Oh yeah I'm sweating profusely, and my heart rate is up, and that's normal. And that's what usually happens.' Normalise it, instead of catastrophizing it.

So that's the first part, providing a supportive environment.

And really the second thing is finding out what’s driving the anxiety. Sometimes it helps to make a list of all the possible things that you’re afraid of in this situation.

Often, once you identify what’s driving the nervousness, you’re like, ‘Oh that’s why I do this thing.’ And it can be really helpful.

Is it part of your job to help clients 'get on with the show'?

It depends on what the goal is. What does that client want? By working on this and getting better at it, what are you going to get out of it? How is this going to help you or your career?

I worked with a couple of women who were starting their own business. It turned out one of them really just did not like public speaking, and it brought her high anxiety. She told me later, 'You know, I really want to go into library science. I just want to be in the library.' And I said, 'Well maybe that's what you should do!' And she had to make a choice.

Was it worth it for her to go through the anxiety she felt in order to be a better speaker? The answer is, it really depends on each person. How badly do you want it? How important is it? If it's important enough, you will figure a way and you will work through getting better at it.

Do I feel like everybody can get better? Yes, I feel like everybody can make some improvement. But if it's so traumatising and you hate it so much, then that's where you have to make a decision whether to pursue it or not.

A lot of it has to do with repetition. You just get up and you just keep doing it. You find opportunities to get in front of people as much as you can and then you start to normalise it. You still may not love it but it starts to become much less of a demon.

You mentioned the 'r' word. Just how important is repetition?

It's absolutely one of the most important parts. The number one thing people don't do when they're preparing to present is practise it out loud.

I had a client once who was irritated with me after she did a run-through of her talk. She said, 'It was so much better in my head!' And I said, 'I'm sure it was but it's not going to be in your head when you're talking to people.'

What you're doing is translating what's in your head into language. How are you going to articulate your ideas?

When people don't practise that out-loud translation process, they get up and stumble, or ramble, and it doesn't come out the way they wanted it to.

People will spend 95% of their time coming up with their content, working on PowerPoint. But I tell my clients that practising out loud will absolutely pay off.

This doesn't mean memorizing your talk. It's knowing the points that you want to hit, but keeping it conversational.

The only thing I advise memorizing is the first couple of sentences and the final words you leave your audience with.

Everyone is pressed for time, and it can seem impossible to carve out more time for practise, but I guarantee that you'll be better having spoken through what you're going to say 5-10 times before you speak. Of course, the more high profile your talk, the more hours you should invest in rehearsal for it.

If you had just a minute with a nervous speaker, how could you help them?

The first thing I would have them do in that moment is breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, release for four, do nothing for four. I'd have them do that two or three times and that's going to bring their heart rate right down.

When I'm working with clients, sometimes I'll send them outside the conference room. I'll say, 'You are now in the green room. You have five minutes and the speaker before you is just winding up. I want you to be in that space for a while. And I want you to do these breathing exercises and calm yourself down.'

The second thing I would tell that person is remember what you love about what you do, and connect with that when you're speaking.

I give clients a variety of techniques and strategies to improve based on what they are challenged with. Some of the most common are:

  • speaking too quickly
  • not pausing
  • lack of eye contact
  • monotone delivery.

They practise improving in everyday situations – low stakes meetings, calls, and casual conversation. In addition, they do lots of run-throughs of their presentation out loud. But I advise:

Once you hit the stage, forget the technical stuff and just focus on one thing: what do you love and what is it that you really want to give to the audience?

You have this gift of information. Focus on how much you love to give the audience that gift. That's where authenticity comes from, and that's when you can really connect with the words as you're speaking them.

Finally Bill, what excites you about 2016?

Feeling confident is so important and it's interesting how little information there is about the easy ways to improve, so I'm thrilled to play a part in that process.

In addition to my seminars, full and half day workshops, I'm now offering a program where I work with groups of eight people over multiple sessions. Each person gets individual coaching in front of the group and then applies what they've learned in subsequent sessions.

This leads up to a final session where they present in front of a larger audience at their organisation.

I've had a lot of success with this format and I'm excited about expanding my team as we roll this program and others out to more organisations.

Find out more about Bill and Smartt Talk at smartttalk.com.

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