Public Relations Basics: Confidence Is the Key to Public Speaking

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Recently I attended an interesting investment conference at Columbia University. The occasion brought together some of the world’s most respected money managers and financial industry professionals. I marveled at the fact that men and women who represented over $100 billion stood on stage at one point. I was more impressed, however, by the way the speakers and panel participants conducted themselves. Confidence is the key to public speaking, a major part of any public relations strategy. And confidence in public speaking was the message that Leon Cooperman drove home at the conference.

Cooperman is a Wall Street legend, someone who has been in the game for over 40 years. During his keynote address at the Columbia U. conference, Cooperman made no bones about the fact that he is filthy rich — or the fact that he sometimes works more hours in a day than some people work in a week. He joked that he “dates his wife on weekends.”

A stout man in his early 60s, Cooperman strode to the podium, took off his suit jacket, and got down to business. He spoke clearly, and though he spoke with little inflection, he was not monotone. He came off like an economics professor who knows how to speak in plain English, which is no small feat. (Something you’ll learn if you ever take a course in microeconomics.) He maintained constant eye contact with the audience; he used a PowerPoint presentation to augment, not drive, his address; and he sprinkled in anecdotes to keep the speech light.

When it came time for a Q&A session, Cooperman listened intently to the questions, asking more than once for clarification. He typically took a few moments to compose his thoughts before speaking, making it clear that he took great care with his answers and made an honest attempt to stay on-topic. His keynote address was engaging, educational, thought-provoking, and at amusing. In other words, it was close to perfect.

After Cooperman spoke, there was a panel discussion. The subject of the discussion was so narrowly focused that I didn’t quite grasp the topic. After the panel’s participants answered the moderator’s first question, it was all downhill. The discussion jumped from one topic to the next and the audience’s interest waned. One conference attendee in my vicinity actually nodded off during the panel. Okay, that may have been me.

I’ve been a panel moderator before, and I know how important it is for the moderator to do two things: 1.) keep the panel participants on-topic and 2.) stay out of the way. In this case, I don’t blame the moderator as much as I blame whomever picked a topic so narrow that it could only be discussed in broad, boring strokes.

After lunch, we were treated to another panel discussion. The topic was very interesting and timely, and the participants were all on the ball. The panel was still boring, however, because everyone was in agreement. The topic — activist investing — was a hot topic on Wall Street. I was hoping for a clash of opinion. The audience would have been better-served if the panel had included more aggressive participants. More interesting questions from the moderator wouldn’t have gone amiss, either.

The final panel of the day was the best, and probably why most people attended the conference. Three of the best professional investors in the world talked about where the direction of oil and copper prices, and their current stock favorites. It was porn for the Wall Street set, and the audience loved every second of it.

The final panel was also the most interesting, simply because of the participants were well-informed and armed with considered questions. There was rarely a second of hesitation when it came to answering questions. The panel’s participants were true experts, people with serious convictions. There was no hemming and hawing, just engaging discussion.

When the conference was over, I realized how many mistakes I had made during recent public speaking engagements. I did not prepare well beforehand; I did a poor job of keeping the conversation flowing. I spoke too much, trying to fill in conversational gaps. I relied too much on humor and not enough on insight. I also did not speak with enough conviction, often hedging instead of leaving myself open for criticism. Again, that’s not exactly what an expert would do.

Public speaking, as many people know, can be a terrifying experience. Some people are naturals, while others should probably  avoid getting up to say “thank you” at a birthday party. Preparation, confidence, and the ability to engage an audience are the keys to a successful public speaking engagement. Without them, your audience will be counting sheep.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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