Beth Noymer Levine Of SmartMouth Communications On The 5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Keep it moving. All of it. You included. A speech or presentation is effectively a show. And let’s face it, people love to watch a show. When you think about it, though, shows are not static; they move. So, unless you are tethered to a fixed microphone at a podium, you should move — forward, toward the audience; side to side in the front of the room or on the stage; or around the room if there’s space.
At some point in our lives, many of us will have to give a talk to a large group of people. What does it take to be a highly effective public speaker? How can you improve your public speaking skills? How can you overcome a fear of speaking in public? What does it take to give a very interesting and engaging public talk? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker” we are talking to successful and effective public speakers to share insights and stories from their experience. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Beth Noymer Levine.
Coaching people to use their brains before their mouths is the sole focus of Beth Noymer Levine’s work at SmartMouth Communications. After more than a decade in Public Relations, Investor Relations and Corporate Communications in New York and Atlanta, Beth established SmartMouth in Salt Lake City in 2005 to offer Speaker Coaching, Presentation Skills Training, Media Readiness™ Training, and related services. Beth is the author of the award-winning book “Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World” (Greenleaf Book Group, 2015). She is also the creator of the mobile app, “SmartMouth Public Speaking Toolkit,” and a suite of Communication and Presentation Skills courses offered online through Udemy, OpenSesame, and GO1.com. Beth has lectured and taught at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, the University of Utah, and New York University. In 2015, Beth was one of Utah Business Magazine’s “30 Women to Watch.” She has been featured in Forbes, Harvard Business Review, the BBC, The Wall Street Journal and is a regular contributor to Forbes.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Probably the most relevant aspect of my childhood is that I grew up with three brothers and no sisters. Two were older, one was younger. As the only girl, I learned to “take it,” so to speak, and also to “dish it out” to people who were bigger than I was. The net result was that, by the time I reached adulthood, I was not intimidated by much of anything or anyone. Over my career years, this translated into me being far less scared of an angry fist-pounding boss or client than my peers were.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Yes, I vividly remember in the mid- to late 1980s, when I was working as a communications consultant on Wall Street, I would be tasked with preparing an investment banker and/or their corporate client for an interview with the media or a presentation to investors. I was usually a lot younger and less experienced — in business and in life — than my clients, but I was able to be insightful and helpful about how they should present their story and what their key messages were. And, to my shock, they were accepting and very appreciative. I recall making a mental note to myself at the time that this niche of preparing people to be effective speakers and presenters could be a really interesting business one day.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I have been extremely fortunate to have the privilege of working with some outstanding people and organizations. One of my favorite stories to share is from the very early days of SmartMouth Communications. I think my business was about a year old when I was alerted to an RFP for Media Training from the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Teams. No matter what, they would be an A-List client, but I was especially excited because they were Utah-based and so was I. I responded to the RFP and made the final cut. Three firms, including mine, were invited to present to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Teams’ executive leadership. I found out I was up against a global PR firm and a firm that had been exclusively media training high-profile professional athletes for two decades. Yikes! I knew that my competitors would have eye-popping PowerPoint presentations to share …. and then there would be me. I needed to figure out how to differentiate myself and my capabilities, even though SmartMouth was in its infancy. I decided to use my 45 minutes to deliver some of the same media training to the executive leadership team that I would to the athletes. In other words, I made it experiential and tangible for them so they would know 100% what they would be getting. By some miracle, I won the business and have worked with Olympic athletes at various points throughout the 18 years since SmartMouth was established.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh boy, I have some whoppers! I think the funniest mistake I made in the early days of SmartMouth is something I repurposed as a word-to-the-wise piece of advice to clients after the fact. I had been invited to speak at a very large conference and was absolutely thrilled. I was prepared in every way, including my outfit. I remember that I wore a black skirt and black sleeveless turtleneck sweater under a very smart-looking self-belting light tan jacket. I was nervous, though, as it was going to be my largest and most consequential audience to date. I probably don’t need to tell those who have had this same experience, but my nerves turned to sweat, and sweat shows on light colors. Only after I was done with my presentation did I notice that my wet armpits were noticeable on my light tan jacket. So embarrassing! All I could hope was that I had not actually raised one of my arms while speaking. This little “mistake” morphed into “whatever you do, wear a dark jacket!” advice for clients who tell me they get nervous.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My Mom, for sure. I haven’t talked about this often enough, but starting SmartMouth was my re-entry strategy after a career break for motherhood. Long before it was chic, or even commonplace, my Mom went back to school for her master’s degree and then started working part time. It was the early 1970s; she had one child in college, one in high school, one in middle school and one in Kindergarten. I learned from her that my path did not necessarily need to be linear; it could be crooked, broken, or of my own design. She taught me, by example, that life unfolds in chapters, and we get to be the author of our own chapters and choose what’s best for us at any given point. In fact, I think what’s being referred to as “the great resignation” right now is just that — people choosing what’s best for them during an unprecedented time.
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging and intimidating. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
Failure doesn’t label a person, it labels an event or project or initiative. You can have (multiple!) failures and still be a success. In fact, you should have some failures. Failure is like rain; it happens when we prefer sunny days, but it comes with the benefit of watering our trees and flowers. Just like you shouldn’t be daunted by rain, you shouldn’t be daunted by failure. It happens when you’re aiming for success, but you learn from it, you become smarter, and then you’re better prepared for success going forward.
What drives you to get up everyday and give your talks? What is the main empowering message that you aim to share with the world?
Communication is the currency of success! That is SmartMouth Communications’ motto. I know I can help change the trajectory of a person’s or an organization’s effectiveness or reputation with a few simple tips on how they present themselves and how they communicate in general. TMI, or too much information, is universal buzzkill for so many reasons. People know this and yet they still typically deliver too much information. My mission, if I had just one, would be to help more people understand why and how to prioritize and package their heaps of information.
You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
One really exciting thing on the horizon is something that’s new for me. While I have been a member of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) for many years, it was somewhat loosely and also off and on. During the pandemic, I had the time and capacity to get more involved. Now, two years later, I am honored to be the incoming Chair for IABC’s World Conference in 2023, to be held next June in Toronto. Bringing people from every continent together, all of whom share an interest and a career in various aspects of communications, is a huge undertaking and very exciting. My goal for next year’s World Conference will be to deliver an amazing experience and also tremendous value in the learning, professional development and the relationship-building.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You don’t know what you don’t know.” Such wise words! So true about life, as well as about people and general knowledge. I try to remind myself often that I don’t know what I don’t know. It keeps my humility intact, it keeps my mind open to the viewpoints and knowledge of others, and it keeps me open to learning new things. I always say that I learn more from my clients than they learn from me, and that’s true. Not only do I learn about their businesses or professions, but I learn about people and their challenges and successes. I learn what makes them tick, and, most valuable of all, I often devise public speaking hacks that will work for them or I am privy to the ones they’ve devised for themselves … all of which are “homegrown” and inform my practice as a coach/trainer.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker?” Please share a story or example for each.
- Assume nothing. Don’t assume your audience will pay attention 100% of the time when you’re speaking. Don’t assume they’ll be able to follow or understand what you’re talking about. Don’t assume they care. Your job is to make them care, help them follow along, and to grab and hold their attention. All of which starts with them — and not with you and your subject matter expertise. You live in your material, but your audience is likely to be hearing it for the very first time. In other words, what’s commonplace to you may be brand new for your audience. I often pull out a toothbrush when I’m working with a client. They look at me quizzically, as in “why on earth did you bring a toothbrush?” Then I ask for a robust explanation of what a toothbrush is, and why and how we use it. Clients answer, but haltingly because they have to give it some thought. Even though it seems like the most mundane, self-explanatory thing in the world, you can’t assume that everyone knows what a toothbrush is … or what you’re talking about.
- Audiences need handholding. They need you to guide them. Audiences won’t work hard to figure out what you’re trying to tell them or what you’re asking of them. Being in the audience, being a listener, is a passive role; the speaker has the active role. So, in your opening, when you’ve got their attention, tell them what your goal is for them (something you’ll want them to think, know, do or feel by the end of your talk). They need that for context and tracking. Similarly, your audience needs to know when you’re done with one point and moving on to the next, or when you’re digressing to tell a story and when the story is done. Guide them, bring them along. I have a client who recently gave a talk that was succinct, clear and easy to follow. But even with that, I insisted that he enumerate his points so the audience would be crystal clear on where he was at each step of the way. I took it a step further and asked him to gesture by raising his thumb, then forefinger, then middle finger for points 1, 2 and 3.
- A presentation is not a master class. You can make your point without your audience fully understanding your subject matter in the same way that you do. TMI (too much information) is a killer, it floods your audiences’ brains. Similarly, you should be careful to leave out jargon and acronyms, which are “exclusive” language. Rather than be impressed by your use of technical terms, your audience will just check out. I recently worked with a client company whose top leaders explained their jargon by using even more jargon, presuming everyone knew what they meant. I had to call a timeout and ask them to break it down into the most accessible explanation possible. A lot of speakers are driven to be thorough and comprehensive in explaining their content to their audiences — almost as if they want their audiences to have PhD-level understanding of the topic. For most presentations, though, speakers can simplify both the language and the amount of information, and their audiences will have an easier time following along and getting the point.
- Get naked. Be real and be open. If you haven’t noticed, being vulnerable is a thing these days. It’s held in respect and esteem, and so people share the most deeply personal things about themselves on social media, even on LinkedIn. Nevertheless, it can be hard to convince some speakers, especially in leadership roles, to open up and share things that are personal, deeply or not, when they address either internal or external audiences. Yet it’s a good thing, it always draws in the audience and gives them a new point of view, usually very favorable, on the speaker. It’s humanizing. Recently, I had an interesting experience with a CEO client. We were about to rehearse a speech he needed to deliver, it was in an easy to follow bullet-pointed format in front of him, and yet he spoke so haltingly and went off on tangents while rehearsing that I couldn’t figure out what he was doing or why. As I carefully offered my observations, he revealed that he had struggled with Dyslexia his whole life and that, while he wanted to have the bullet points in front of him, he also couldn’t sort through them fast enough for a smooth delivery and also didn’t want his audience to think he was fumbling because he was unprepared. The resolution? He decided to open his talk by telling the audience about his Dyslexia as part of his declaration to them that he cares deeply about his topic, is very prepared, but that if it doesn’t sound like it, there’s a reason. It was quite moving, and he was applauded for his openness. I applauded him as well.
- Keep it moving. All of it. You included. A speech or presentation is effectively a show. And let’s face it, people love to watch a show. When you think about it, though, shows are not static; they move. So, unless you are tethered to a fixed microphone at a podium, you should move — forward, toward the audience; side to side in the front of the room or on the stage; or around the room if there’s space. Not distractingly fast, but methodically and slowly. And you should gesture, you should animate your words with physical, almost theatrical, actions (think: Charades!). I had a tech client a few years back who I was coaching prior to a big keynote address; the kind where there were going to be more than a thousand people in the room and he was going to be projected onto two giant screens. He had an amazing family story, which included his parents emigrating from Taiwan to the United States. To give you an example of what I mean by “animating,” I encouraged him to turn on his heels and move from one side of the stage to the other when he said, “and my parents moved from Taiwan to the United States” so there would be more of a show, and so the show would match the content.
As you know, many people are terrified of speaking in public. Can you give some of your advice about how to overcome this fear?
Absolutely! First, it’s important to acknowledge that nervousness is just your body’s adrenaline getting you geared up for something important. Even if you were a frequent public speaker, you would get a little bit nervous every time. The important thing to remember is that the first two minutes — or 120 seconds — are when this is the worst. After that, your nerves begin to settle down and you hit your stride. This calls for you to not only know your opening but to choreograph it so that you create a pause in which you can take a sincere inhale and exhale.
You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
There are so many important issues facing people right now — human rights, food insecurity, affordable housing, gun safety, access to healthcare, you name it. Having listed all of those, however, I think the movement I would inspire would be environmental. Climate change is affecting literally everyone, worldwide. My movement probably would be focused on making sure there is clean, renewable, safe sources of energy everywhere in the world. Not only would that bring a lot of good to a lot of people, but it would also help stop the erosion of our air quality, water supplies, forests and other habitats, all of which humans and various other species need.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
There are lots of people I’d love to have lunch with, but not all of them would open up and go deep with me. I would want to go deep. I don’t know if he’d be up for it, but I would love to have lunch with LeBron James. I’m a huge fan, and I’m in awe of how he has built his life, his brand, and how he maintains his focus and intensity on the court. He’s still a phenom to me, even at age 37.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Beth Noymer Levine Of SmartMouth Communications On The 5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.