5 qualities of successful speakers

If you like new experiences, pay attention to details and have thick skin, you’ll thrive as a speaker.

In the world of psychology, it’s typical to refer to five personality traits to determine most of the differences among our fellow human beings:

1. Openness to experience

2. Conscientiousness

3. Extroversion

4. Agreeableness

5. Neuroticism

If you imagine each of these traits as a continuum and place yourself on it, you’ll quickly get an idea of how you shape up as a human—and as a speaker. This list is useful for the insights it gives us into what makes for a successful public speaker.

1. A speaker should be highly open to experience.

If you’re open to experience, you’re flexible in the face of change and ready to cope with unexpected people and circumstances—which happens at least once a speech.

I once showed up to a speech expecting 100 people. There were 600 in the room, and another 200 very cranky individuals in the overflow room where I was on speakerphone. It was a test of my openness to experience, and I admit it rattled me. I got through it, but not gloriously.

2. A speaker should be highly conscientious.

I gave my first overseas speech back in the ’90s. This was the era of VHS tapes, and I had video clips cued up and ready to go. Imagine my surprise when I found out my VHS tapes didn’t play outside of North America!

I had no videos. I had to give the speech cold without the examples and comic relief I had prepared. Plus, the audience (all engineers) had a hard time believing I didn’t know the difference between PAL and NTSC.

From that experience I learned to focus relentlessly on the details.

3. A speaker should be highly extroverted.

Of course introverts can be great speakers, and many are. But it costs them much more than it does an extrovert. Introverts are depleted by human interaction instead of energized.

If you only give an occasional speech, you’ll do fine. But if you’re a professional and speak once a week or more, you’re going to be very tired if you’re introverted.

At the close of a speech, an introvert only wants to get to the hotel room—or the bar—and relax. An extrovert can handle, even enjoy, the stream of people that come up to him and relate their impressions, ideas, concerns and peeves. This is often extremely valuable information, so you should still be on your best game when it happens to you.

4. A speaker should be highly agreeable.

Too many successful speakers become prima donnas. They require certain kinds of bottled water, hotel suites of a certain size and other amenities. Otherwise they’ll throw a hissy fit and make everyone miserable—and greatly reduce the chance they’ll be hired again.

Dick Cheney purportedly had to have a minimum of three TVs all tuned to Fox News, the room set a certain temperature, and Cold War bottled water. (I made up that last one.)

I once worked with a well-known speaker whose expertise was in interpersonal dynamics, yet he left a trail of angry support staff wherever he went. The hypocrisy was not lost on anyone, and his bookings suffered accordingly.

5. A speaker should be minimally neurotic.

Speakers need to be resilient and thick-skinned. They must be able to take criticism easily and hear it dispassionately. They need to be clear about their faults and tolerant of others’. They must be patient and quick to forgive. They also need to be highly resistant to road rage, air rage and TSA rage-rage of any kind.

That’s what it takes to be a successful speaker. How do you rate?

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.


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