Public Speaking for Business Owners and Leaders – Elizabeth Peavey

Public speaking, whether from the stage or in a boardroom, is a critical skill for business owners. Whether you’re looking to generate leads, close sales, or position yourself as a thought leader, being able to persuade and influence people with powerful communication is something all leaders require. Today we’ll learn how to do a better job at this with communications coach Elizabeth Peavey. 

Rich: My guest today provides communications training to institutions and organizations in fields ranging from finance and health to the arts, education, and advocacy. She served as lecturer of public speaking at the University of Southern Maine for over 20 years and is a frequent keynote and guest lecturer at conferences, schools, and associations.  

Her one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother, received the Maine Literary Award for Best Drama. She’s also the author of three books and countless print columns and features. 

Today we’re going to be talking about what business owners need to know about public speaking, with Elizabeth Peavey. 

Elizabeth: Thanks so much for having me, Rich.  

Rich: So I’m curious what led you to get up on stage and then to help other people feel more comfortable up there as well?  

Elizabeth: Well, what led me to get up on stage is the fact that I am the only girl and I have two older brothers, and I needed to figure out a way to get attention when I was a kid. 

But honestly, I wandered into a classroom when I was a sophomore in high school, and I was enlisted to start competing in public speaking. And that led me to a lifetime of dedicating my life to saying words out loud. So my stage aspect of what I do is less theatrical than it is really just about, because I’m also a writer, as you mentioned in my introduction. And that’s probably what people know me best for is, is my journalism work. I wrote for Down East for over 25 years, I had two humor columns that ran the course of 20 years. But that confluence of trying to figure out what your message is, what you want to say, and how you want to say it. And then actually making those words come out of your mouth, which are two very different creatures, is just something that my two careers brought together. And then I realized that I was pretty good at teaching people how to do that. So that’s how I got here.  

Rich: All right. So for a business owner or leader, what role do you feel that public speaking plays?   

Elizabeth: Everything. I mean, it’s the basis of everything we do. I mean, there is nothing without communication. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a warehouse worker and you need a raise, or if you’re running a multi-million dollar corporation with the scores of people underneath you, it is all about knowing how to craft a message effectively, and then communicating it clearly.  

And we go into our professions without proper training in this area. And there is nothing that is more important, and yet we get the least training about. And I am astounded when I walk into an office of boardroom, a conference room, a classroom, and I ask people about their background and their training, and they look at me like they’re German shepherd retriever dogs, you know, waiting for a treat. And it’s like, “Ooh, I don’t know”.  

Rich: So obviously you’re working with people to improve their stage presence or ability to deliver the message that’s important for them, important for the people to on the other side to hear. What are some of the myths or the misconceptions that people bring with them that you kind of have to break right at the beginning? Things that they think are true about public speaking that just aren’t.  

Elizabeth: The first one is the, ‘imagine your audience in their underwear’. That is, well, you know, I mean, it’s gross, first of all. And it’s also creates an adversarial relationship with your audience, where you’re trying to put yourself at odds against them. 

Everything is about symbiosis. So communication is all about an exchange of energy and ideas and information. And if you have a connection with the people that you’re talking to and create that connection, and that is only really done by crafting a message that is tailored for the people that you’re talking to. Whenever I work with anybody, the first thing I say is, who’s your audience and what do you want them to think or do or know? You can’t go out with a canned message and just make those words come out of your mouth for every audience. It has to be tailored to that particular thing.  

And then the other is that I don’t need to repair if I have a winning idea, if I have great talking points, if I have a salient message, all I have to do is open my mouth and those words will come out magically. And quite frankly, it is 50/50. Craft your message and then craft your delivery.  

Rich: All right. So let’s break that down a little bit. So there’s the message or the script, some people might consider it. And then there’s the actual presentation. So what are some of the things that we should keep in mind when we’re first preparing the script or whatever we want to call it, the message that we want to get out? 

Elizabeth: Don’t call it a script. That’s the first thing, don’t call it a script. When somebody contacts me and says, “I have to give a talk”. And I say, “Have you started working on it yet?” And they say, “No”. And it’s like, ”Good. Don’t.” That’s not entirely true. I mean, particularly, the higher up the food chain that you go, if you are a politician, obviously every pause and comma is going to be parsed by everybody that’s listening. 

But what I like to try and instill people is to craft your structure so that you don’t go wandering off into the weeds someplace, but that you leave enough flexibility and room and white space that you can be off the cuff and natural sounding. I say go for the essences, not the sentences, of what you prepare. 

But from that point, you really have to start saying the words out loud. When people Figure they’re going to have to give an address or give a talk or a presentation in a meeting, they treat it like an English assignment, and they sit down, and they start writing sentences and create what I call a ‘brick’. And the brick has no light, it has no air, it has no white space. And that’s what lands on people’s ears. The more white space and open concept that you have with that kind of preparation that you do, the more you have that, again, coming back to that symbiosis with your listeners.  

So the first thing I say is get those words start coming out of your mouth, create that muscle memory, hear what you’re saying so that you know what it sounds like. 

Rich: All right. So let’s just break this down a little bit because I find this interesting. So presentations have been a huge part of my success, my growth, and obviously doing the podcast is just one iteration of it. Although here I’m putting the spotlight on my guests rather than myself. So I have a message and the message could be about anything. It could be about why we need more growth. It could be about why my product’s better than anybody else’s. It could just be training people, establishing myself as an expert. I’m sure there are a lot of messages people are trying to get out. Are you suggesting we write it all out, or are you suggesting we just do an outline? What do you find works the best for leaders that may not have a history of doing presentations or doing presentations well?  

Elizabeth: Well, again, you know, it comes back to how you craft your message is going to impact the way those words come out of your mouth. So if you sit down and you, as I said, treat it like an English assignment, an essay, and you write a thesis and then you have this “script” in front of you and you try and read it through a million times and get it embedded in your brain as much as you can. What you’re going to be doing is going back and trying to re retrieve those sentences rather than the essence of what you’re saying.  

The thing I try to do with the people that I work with, and always do for myself. I just gave a talk to the Maine Public Relations Council on Friday. And the week before that I gave a eulogy at a funeral. I had treated both of the, both of the occasions in the exact same way in my head, in my head, in my head, out of my mouth, out of my mouth. I did not put a word on a piece of paper until the day before. Now, I’ve been doing this all my life, so I don’t necessarily expect people to do that for themselves. But about creating an outline. If you start there, then you have this template in your brain. And if you have a template in your brain with your talking points, you do treat it like an English assignment. Whereas you have your opening, you have to get people’s attention somehow, and then you have to overview somehow. You need to let people know why they are going to be engaged with this information, what it means to them, why they are there, what the information is going to do for them. And then you break out your talking points.  

And if you can actually see that architecture in your brain, you can almost walk down it. And the way that you walk down at the stairs that create those connections to those different talking points are called transitions. So you help people by saying, now that we’ve examined the situation that we’re in, in the climate, let’s look to the next thing. In that way, you are giving these signposts to your listener that you finished one point and now you’re moving onto the next. Because listening is much different than hearing. Hearing is automatic, whereas listening as an active skill, and people are not very good at it.  

So it is incumbent upon the speaker to craft his/her/their message so that it has that structure so that people can have a place to put that information, hold it, and then move on to the next piece of information.  

Rich: All right. So it’s important definitely to create that structure. So if I’m hearing you correctly, though, if I’m sitting down, I’m not necessarily writing out every single word I’m going to say. I’m more about the ideas and the transitions as I start to block out my presentation or my talk. 

Elizabeth: That is the way that I work. That is the way I try to get people that I work with to work. This is not math, and everybody finds their rhythm. I mean, some people have to write out their ideas so that they can see them. And that’s very helpful for a lot of people. A lot of those words, however, are not important to what the message is. So if you are writing out your ideas, you have to be ready to let go a lot of those sentences that you’ve put on the page. You may have had to have cast that sentence to get to the next thing that you’re going to say. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to stay.  

So this is not prescriptive. It’s not like there’s a way to do this. A million people out there that will give you a million different answers. But I can tell the difference between something that has been boxed up and sealed and is coming out as one big message, as opposed to someone who is a little light and loose around their feet and sounds like they’re not speaking extemporaneously. I mean, that’s not what I am. You have to be rehearsed, but you’re sounding more genuine and present.  

Rich: You mentioned earlier the opening. The opening is obviously key. We’re trying to get people to pay attention to us from the minute we step up on stage. Do you have any tips or advice for best ways or best practices to start a presentation to keep those people listening and not just hearing?  

Elizabeth: Yes, I do. First thing I always suggest is, go in with 3 openings. Because you do not know what the audience is going to be doing with the environment, what the person who just spoke in front of you or the MC just said about you. So if you go in with one Turgeon opening and you’re stuck with it, or you feel like you have to improvise on your feet, I always am ready to be able to respond and react. 

So go in with something and then, you know, the, the, the deadliest thing that you can do when you get up in front of an audience is open your mouth and say, “Good afternoon, everybody. I’m here to talk to you today about the…” and just sort of just start talking. I love to throw something out that is going to grab people’s attention. And not as a gimmick, it’s not like, “Oh, there’s a guy and his hair’s on fire in the back of the auditorium”, you know, not to get people’s attention in a manipulative way. But to throw out a sexy statistic or to tell a story.  

I very often will open by telling a story. And then once you’ve grabbed your audience’s attention and  engage them in some way, then you can overview and say what the talk is going to be about and what you’re going to get from it. But I always say, when you go into that situation, go in flexible. Because there may be a riot in the back of the auditorium, there may be free drinks, which are the same. So just being ready to be flexible. But also,  not again, going in like an English assignment and feeling like you have to overview. Especially if you’ve just been introduced and they’ve already said what the topic’s going to be about. It’s just great to go in with some great energy and something that is attention getting. 

Rich: Energy is something that I see many speakers, or people who are being forced to speak, struggle with. So what can we do to have more stage presence. What can we do to command the room when we’re up there on stage?  

Elizabeth: And this is where this all comes back to how physical public speaking is. And people spend all their time generally, the people at least that I’ve worked with and worked with on a university level, all their energy on their message. And when I say, “Congratulations, now you’re halfway done”, get up on your feet. And especially with the zoom. I mean, this is a brand new environment for so many people.  

I’ve been working on zoom for five years and I’ve done online stuff. I don’t mind it. But it takes more energy to exchange over zoom than it does in person. Because when you’re in a live environment, there is literally physical energy in the room that you are drawing and processing. When you are in front of a camera and by yourself in a room, you have to generate that own energy yourself. So you have to get your body into the game. All of this, like warm up, you could go for a walk. You have to practice your breathing, you have to stretch. You’d have to get all of that energy moving in your body. It will not organically just erupt up. 

So the core message in everything that I can say about the physicality of speeches, it is about breath. And people do not breathe properly. Breathing for life is not the same as breathing for speech. Diaphragmatic breathing powers the voice. This is the diaphragm piece of membrane down to the bottom of your lungs. – Your sternum, not your lungs, your rib cage. Learning your physiology – Anyway, you have to fill your entire rib cage with air because the breath moves over the vocal chords, powers the voice. It gives your voice power and not necessarily volume. Difference between power and volume. And then gets all of that beautiful oxygen to your brain.  

And if people are not breathing properly, that’s probably where you are seeing enervated deliveries, because people’s bodies are going into a little bit of a shock. It’s like they’re not breathing properly so they’re not getting sufficient oxygen, and they’re not getting enough power behind their voices, and not enough breath moving through their bodies. So breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe. That’s the best advice I can give everyone.  

Rich: All right. So I want to break this down a little bit, because it’s easy to say ‘breathe’, but like you said, breathing for life is not breathing for presenting. So when we’re practicing our speech, even if we’re not trying to memorize it, but obviously we’re not going to walk up there after we’ve written our script and then just walk up there and read it out loud. How do we practice our breathing? Do we literally think about what the point is and make sure we’re breathing before and after it, or is it something more specific or something more vague?  

Elizabeth: So breathing is an exercise. And like any exercise you have to practice it, doing diaphragmatic breathing, doing deep breathing, using your entire rib cage is not something that you can just hope happens. I mean, because I have been doing this for so long my body is trained. But if you put earbuds in and you’re listening to a singer, I mean, sometimes they master the breathing out. But listen to how a singer will take a great gulp of air before he or she starts making the music come out of their mouth.  

Our voices are instruments. So we have to practice them just like instruments and get in the habit of learning when and how to breathe in between. I mean, like when I just said in between, I was just watching my face. Hello, this was again, one of the problems with them, but, you know, it’s like, I saw myself when I said “in between”, I was taking a giant intake of air. 

So it’s something, it’s a muscle. It’s a muscle that has to be practiced. And so the reason that I sort of rushed over to talking about breathwork is breathwork is life work. And yoga is based on it, and meditation, and many religions are based on it. It is something that you actually, I mean, there’s a million sites. You can Google it. You will find all of these places, but it’s something that you have to work for and make a conscious effort to move forward with and build it in.  

But the best breathe that you can take, and this is a thing that has saved a million people at wedding receptions before they have to give the best man toast or any kind of presentation is, do not open your mouth when you get in front of a microphone or in front of an audience. Stop, look, breathe, and then begin. That will tamp everything down and it will set in motion at least the start of the breathing.  

Rich: All right. That’s some good advice right there. So when it comes to being on stage, especially for business leaders, business owners, what role does storytelling enter into this? You mentioned storytelling earlier. How do we best use storytelling? Do you think that’s almost a requirement these days of doing presentations? I’d love to hear from you on that. 

Elizabeth: I do. Well, actually, that’s very funny because that is the whole trajectory my coaching and training has taken in these past couple of years, because it is everything. And I have always taught story, and I have always told people. I use the word ‘anecdote’, you know, start with an anecdote. The story has become the zeitgeist now. So everybody’s talking about controlling the narrative and telling story and story, and story, and story. Story is at the basis of everything. 

When I taught public speaking, when I taught the art of persuasion, I always use the formula, equal parts head and heart. And the head is all of the rational and all the numbers and all the graphs and all of the metrics and all of the provable things. And the story gives it a face. People need to be able to make an emotional connection to the hard information that you are giving them. 

And the way that you do that is through story, because story and genders empathy. Empathy opens up that emotional connection. And even if they don’t have a direct connection with the story that you’re telling, they can prove that emotional connection, at least transfer it to something that is similar in their lives. 

So trying to push a lot of hard information at an audience. There’s no place for them to quit. It’s very difficult for people to take in a lot of hard information without context, and context is best built by story.  

Rich: Okay. We’ve talked about the beginning. We’ve talked a little bit about some of the things that go into the middle of it. How do you close a presentation? How do you make sure that what you just said sticks with the people, that it’s memorable? And is there a call to action that should come? Should we be getting people to do something, or is it just enough to have been up on stage?  

Elizabeth: Well, again, it comes back to when you are taking on a project like this, planting that point on the horizon. Who’s my audience? What do I want them to think, know, or do? And you have to ask yourself that as you are winding your construction down, where am I going?  

I feel like every presentation, everything every time you even a beginning, middle, and end to a question has to have forward locomotion. So where you are going should end up at an ultimate conclusion, an inevitable conclusion, that people at least land someplace. And the thing about those endings of stories and presentations and all these things, people feel like, well I’ve just told them everything, and then they get to the end and it’s not really well. Yeah. Okay. So good. Any questions?  

And everything, and I say this not just about formal presentations in an auditorium, I’m talking about – as I said – answers to questions to sitting in a board room. Anything that you’re doing has got to have that from beginning, middle, and end, and you have to end with authority. You have to have a landing pad. So say yes. I mean, I believe every close up everything should have at least some form of a call to action. Because it’s not just enough to say. “Donating blood is a wonderful thing.” No one is going to disagree with you. Of course it’s a wonderful thing, but if you don’t give your audience an opportunity to do something with that information, that’s where you run the risk of it not being memorable. 

Rich: All right. You mentioned an interesting word there, ‘questions’. So some people love taking questions at the end of the presentation. Some people hate it. What are your recommendations when it comes to Q&A, do we allow it, do we end with it? Do we put, I’ve heard some people say you never end with questions and answers, you always come back and finish your presentation. Do you have any sort of strong stance on that?  

Elizabeth: Again, I work so organically. Anytime there’s a strong stance, then there’s the occasion that it doesn’t fit. I love to end with Q&A. I encourage it. I treat it more as a dialogue than I do an interrogation, which I think probably the people who are resistant to Q&A feel. You know, they’re trying to catch me off guard. And quite frankly, if somebody asks me a question that I don’t know, it’s like, I don’t know. I mean, I will always defer, I’ll say, “I’m sure I can either point you to a resource where you can find that information”. And again, it’s down to a matter of your audience perception, your relationship with them. I view myself as a resource. And if I have an answer to a question that needs augmentation, then I will admit that as to answering those questions.  

The first thing is you have to go in prepared. And again, that may be the reason that people don’t feel comfortable. It’s like something’s going to come out of the blue. If you’re on a general topic, you should have a pretty good idea. You know, I work with a lot of financial clients and there’s a myriad of topics that they go in with. And they’re so terrified that there’s going to be that one element. And I say, go in and know your information and have an answer. I mean, not prepared, not with something recitable.  

But think about when women go into a women’s conference, and they want to get more women investing. Well, you know, I say anticipate objections; I don’t have the time to research financial markets, I don’t have discretionary income, I don’t have… you know, so anticipate objections. I say that in terms of persuasive speaking, but also think it’s about again, empathizing. Put yourself in your audience to see what questions they might have. You’re the expert. What did you not know at one point and go in armed with some good answers. And if you’re spin doctory, then don’t answer the question and say something else smart. 

Rich: Yeah. Well, and I also like, and I’ve done this before, too, I like your answer about sometimes. It’s okay to say, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve definitely been asked those really, really obscure digital marketing questions at the end of a presentation where I’m just like, “Yeah, I’ll have to look into that for you.” And then I do my best to look into it. You can’t know the answer to everything.  

Elizabeth: Right. And not to be well, sometimes people just want to ask questions just to sound smart. And then just, you know, let them sound smart. And it’s like, wow, you’re really smart. Could we have another question? Right. And of course, you know, I work mostly with humor so I can get away with a lot, better than a lot of CEOs can.  

Rich: So you mentioned briefly zoom and the fact that these days, a lot of presentations are done virtually. You gave some good advice about standing up, which I’m not doing right now. But what other techniques can speakers, presenters do on a digital stage to make their message more compelling and more engaging? Because it’s so easy for the listener to be multitasking when they’re not being seen. So what are some things that you’ve seen work or that you’ve tried and have worked for you or some of your clients?  

Elizabeth: And you have to remember that this is a flat medium, and you don’t have the dimensionality that you have as a live person. So I use the camera. I pay attention to where I’m sitting, standing, moving. I’ll use my hands every once in a while. Your face. I mean, it’s really that that’s the only other instrument that you have. And I will just show you right now. 

I call it giving texture. If you use facial expressions, it’s so helpful. Even if you move just a little bit. As you see I’m bouncing, I’m like a pong ball, I’m bouncing around because I have already got my energy ready for this. And I am moving, and I am talking with my entire being. I’m not talking with my neck. And that’s where we get into trouble is because if we’re not doing proper breathing, all we’re doing is talking out of our necks and our voices get strained and flat. So just making sure that you prepare your body. It takes more energy to do this. 

You know, people will say, “Oh, it’s so easy for you. You don’t even have to…” You know, I’m dressed. I have a dress on. I just put it on 15 minutes ago and I’m going to take it off when I’m done. But, you know, I dress for the occasion. And I’m hydrating all day. I know that this is a lot of work. And if you don’t treat it like a lot of work, you’re going to run out of gas in the middle of it. So you have to prepare your body and do all that breathing and use your playing space, your little box. And you know, do simple things, like make sure that your clothes.  

I mean, for me, I generally dress monochromatically in black, and I would be disappeared here if I didn’t. So I wear something that has some texture and color. And check your background. Do a trial run before the meeting so you make sure that your sports bra isn’t hanging on your drying rack in back of you in the background, and wherever you are ask people not to walk in back of them. Just simple etiquette. 

Rich: Awesome. Awesome. And I’ll just say, presenting has been one of the biggest game-changers for me in my business over the last 24 years. And putting in that extra time and treating it as serious as you’re explaining, Elizabeth. I mean, it’s only going to bring you more business, more opportunities, more leads, more opportunities to get up on stage to get even more leads and more business. It has probably been the number one driver of business for me over 24 years. And that’s why I think it’s so important to put the time and energy in to really make sure you’re doing it right. It’s just a critical moment for you to be up on stage and have that opportunity. So it’s not something to be taken lightly, nor is it something to fear, because it is such a great opportunity. 

Elizabeth: Right. And just, I mean, the fear factor is the why wouldn’t you be fearful of it if you haven’t been trained. I mean, this is a skill like anything else. Some people will say, “Oh, you’re so naturally gifted at that.” And I say, “Oh, I’ve only been doing this for…” we won’t have to say how many years. But no, I mean, it’s like I work and I work at it every day and I take no opportunity. I mean, this morning I was on a two-hour call with people from senior college that I had been working with for five years. I had to get ready in the morning. I checked my outfits. I didn’t want to, you know, I mean, I do all of these things. I take every opportunity, anytime I am opening my mouth in front of other people, I go and prepared, energized, ready, and present. 

And presence is the most important thing because people can read that. It doesn’t matter if you’re, as I said, live in front of a podium in a, in a conference room on a zoom call, people can tell whether you are engaged or not, and being genuine and really honestly, being present with your audience. It’s the most important thing you can do above all else. 

Rich: Awesome. So we always ask this question of the experts that we bring onto the podcast. And the question is, what one thing would you change if you could to improve the business ecosystem here?  

Elizabeth: So I am not an economist. I’m barely a businessperson. They don’t teach that in English and theater major school. But I have been working in the business community and the education community, and my answer always would deflect back to education, education, education. And I have had the great honor of working with a wonderful organization over the past two and a half years called JMG, which is Jobs For Maine Graduates. And the innovation, they’ve been around for better than 30 years or so, and there’s actually a national affiliate jobs for America’s graduates. What they do is they go into the schools, and they work with at risk, some of the most vulnerable youth in our state. And they’re in every county. They work with 150 schools and what they are doing is helping these students who might otherwise not have, and this is not just academic mentoring, but it is also social and familial mentoring so that these students are better equipped to have a connection with finding their passion and finding an occupational opportunity. and JMG is affiliated with so many organizations and so many businesses across the state.  

And what they are doing is instigating programs where they are leading these students, starting from middle school, all the way through high school, post-secondary, and into their jobs. They actually mentor them into the workforce so that we can match people with jobs and then help the businesses in Maine actually find the workforce. Because that’s one of the biggest issues right now is finding a skilled workforce.  

And one of their biggest initiatives right now that I I’m excited about is a program called ELO -Extended Learning Opportunities – where they’re trying to work with different organizations. Thomas college for one, and the Chamber of Commerce, to help students who are out in the workforce gain a high school credit, and sometimes even post-secondary credit, for lifetime and apprenticeship experiences that they’re getting out in the field. So it’s not just traditional classroom learning, but also getting high school credits for lifetime experience. And I think if we keep finding innovative programs like that, keeping kids in school or finding them pathways to find careers as they’re exiting education, that’s going to be the key.  

Rich: Awesome. All right. Thank you very much. Elizabeth, if people want to maybe learn more about you or they’re interested in getting some help with their own presentations working with. 

Elizabeth: You can go to my website, 

Rich: Awesome. And we’ll have those links in the show notes. Elizabeth, thank you so much for coming today, for showing up, for being present, and for sharing your expertise.  

Elizabeth: It’s been a lot of fun, Rich. Thank you for inviting me.