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Speak! Why every CEO should speak in public regularly

by Bas Lansdorp

I play the piano. I'm not bad at all, but I get extremely nervous when I play for anyone other than family. My hands tremble and I make mistakes that I never make when I practice. Even my foot starts to shake on the pedal.

Strange that the same person can enjoy public speaking as much as I do. I gave my first public speech when I was still in university. It was a talk about an artificial gravity space station at the International Astronautical Congress in Bremen in 2003. My talk was in the “Mars” track at the conference, and since it was just after the Spirit and Opportunity rovers were launched to Mars, there was quite an audience in the room - between 300 and 400 people. Because of my experience with nervousness when playing the piano, I was expecting to become nervous every minute I was waiting for my speaking slot. I did not. I had a great time talking about what happened if you walk around in a rotating system with a cup of coffee.

I'm glad I like public speaking, because I think it is very important for all company leaders, and it is especially so within a high profile company such as Mars One. Even if you don't like public speaking – keep reading.

Here are two obvious reasons to speak in public and one less obvious one:

1 – Practice makes perfect

I have heard an entrepreneur complain to an interviewer on live radio, “I have such a great idea, but the investors I pitch it to are not smart enough to understand”. As an entrepreneur, it is your responsibility to sell your product, idea or service to customers, stakeholders, investors, partners and others. No matter how good – or bad – your plan is, you need to be able to sell it or it will never happen. The more you tell your story, the better you get at delivering your messages. Not only because practice makes perfect, but also because you may receive useful feedback from the audience, the organization that invites you to speak, or from the moderator of the event.

2 – Networking

Conferences or corporate events for external audiences are great platforms to reach people from many different organizations. These may be suppliers or customers of the companies that invite you to speak or pitch your concept, so you will have some idea about their background and can tailor the presentation accordingly. Other events, such as corporate employee events, are the perfect unofficial pitch to initiate business opportunities with the organization in the future. Of course you should not make your presentation a sales pitch unless that is the goal, but you will still be able to get supporters inside the company. For Mars One, my presentations have led to a number of investor meetings and opportunities to discuss partnerships.

3 – Stay in shape

The part I like best about public speaking is the question and answer session at the end. I also think it is the most valuable part, both for the audience and myself. All of us can learn a good presentation by heart and deliver it well, but can you answer every single question to the satisfaction of the audience?

The Q&A with the audience will keep you in shape for when it really matters. For example, you may have a really important press conference with a room full of journalists once or twice per year. If you have not practised answering questions on the subject matter for half a year, you will be rusty. Your communications department can send you a list of expected tough questions, they may even put you through a trial Q&A session, but nothing beats the real deal. Your audience will ask all of the ‘tough questions’ at the end of your presentation, and maybe more original and harder ones. After all, your audience has the outsider perspective just like a journalist. With two or three presentations per month, you will stay in excellent shape to answer the questions of journalists, and any audience, when it really matters.

Last year, I had no talks in July and August – I can really tell the difference between how I answered questions during the last presentation before that break and the first presentation after. I don't think the audience noticed the difference; but the drop in my response performance occurred after only 8 weeks’ break. It took me two or three presentations to get in tip-top shape again. Make sure you are in shape for when it matters.

My presentation skills and my ability to answer questions about Mars One continue to improve. As the CEO of Mars One, I have a challenging 'product' to sell: a human mission to Mars. Today I enjoy speaking publicly about Mars One even more than I did two years ago when I first started, because I can see the effect my improved presentation has on the audience. It has become more convincing, a lot more personal and I have good answers to any question. During my talk I can see my audience change. When I start explaining what Mars One does, I hear sounds that indicate “This guy is doing what!?” During my talk, I can see them become more engaged until at the end of my talk the average opinion in the audience is “Wow, this might just happen!” They leave feeling inspired and with a can-do mentality. I really enjoy that my talk can have such an effect on people.

What if you don't like speaking in public? Well, you should do it even more often to make sure you are ready for when it is needed most. Do as I did with my fear of playing the piano in public: start small. Join a speaking club such as Toastmasters to get good advice and to practice. Speak at the local Rotary Club or at small events. Build your confidence and you will start enjoying it more.

Public speaking has made me a better CEO of my company, in telling our story, and in answering questions. It contributes significantly to the chance of achieving Mars One’s ultimate goal: landing humans on Mars.