Great Leadership for Public Speakers

Shut Up and Speak

We’ve all sat through presentations where the speaker is extremely qualified to speak on their topic. You know it’s true because it says so right there in the program. Their impeccable credentials are listed after their name: Professor, Expert, PhD, MBA, ABCDEFG, Grand-poo-bah; but they might as well be speaking Wah-Wah.

You walk out of the presentation learning absolutely nothing. You are no better – in fact you’re worse than you were before you went in. Your I.Q. dropped a bit in those past 45 minutes and you walk around bumping into stuff.

Are you this speaker or this presenter? Have you ever given a talk or led a meeting and watched your group leave covered with stupid and confusion?

If you have, it’s ok. There is hope. Connecting with your group and understanding great leadership is a skill that can be learned.

Stand-up Comics Display Leadership

Years ago when I got into stand-up comedy, I went to open stage nights (where new comedians go to try out their stuff). Some comedians were very concerned about the exact wording of their material (also called “bits,” comedians don’t call them “jokes” any more). Over the course of several open stages, over several weeks, they would deliver their material every which way; sometimes just changing two words from one night to the next. Good comedians eventually learn that it isn’t their material that needs adjusting. It is their delivery.

They come to realize that, regardless of how good their material is, they are able to connect better when they listen and adjust to the feedback from their followers; the audience. They learn to lead by following.

On the other end of the spectrum, some comedians take the stage and spew out their brilliant material without paying attention to how the audience is receiving them. They get frustrated from night to night because, even though their material is solid, they don’t get laughs. They don’t lead well, because they don’t follow.

Much of leadership is about following — or at least paying attention.  An audience is a living, breathing thing and they will move and change right in front of you. You must follow their ebb and flow, and have the humility to accept the fact that the audience is being honest. They are giving you feedback in real time. In comedy, the feedback is obvious; the sound of laughter or the sound of crickets.

I have a suggestion for you. There are open stage comedy nights in just about every city in the country. In my home town of Minneapolis, we have open stages throughout the week. Go to a few and watch for what I have been describing above. Instead of sitting back and enjoying the show, watch for the adept comedians—displaying great leadership—to see how they follow the followers.

Additionally, many cities have improv classes. Improv, short for improvisation, is quite different from stand-up, but improv classes can be another great way to build communication skills. Improv is often better suited to the needs of working professionals because it is a more structured approach than the random sink-or-swim atmosphere of a stand-up comedy open stage. And an improv classroom can be a much safer place to learn because everyone starts out at roughly the same skill level.

I know this stuff works. Over fifteen years ago, stand-up comedy and improv were both my training grounds, and I’ve also seen the success of speakers and business professionals that I’ve mentored who have used the principle of follow the follower.

Leadership for Public Speakers

In the meantime, I encourage you to pay attention to your audience and accept their feedback.   But be careful, this feedback can be addicting. Before you know it you might be headlining at comedy clubs across the country or you might be the next main stage performer on Saturday Night Live.

Whether you are delivering a sober message, or lighting up the room with laughter, your leadership communication will improve if you follow the follower.


Among other things, Jerome is a national public speaker and consultant on leadership communicationprofessional development and ethics. On the side, he teaches improv classes in Minneapolis with Stevie Ray’s Improv Company.