Jonathan Kroll Of Leadership Trainer On The 5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Get To Know The Audience: Exceptional speakers, trainers, and facilitators never just show up and, poof, they are ready to go. We have work to do well before the clock strikes and it’s go time. Long before any training begins, we need to go on a reconnaissance mission. We collect data on the participants’ interests and desires so we can craft the experience to meets their needs and can be translated from the speaking and training engagement to their real-life leadership practice.

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 Jonathan Kroll.

Jonathan Kroll is a leadership educator and entrepreneur.

​Jonathan began his career as a university administrator by focusing on leadership development, community engagement, and reflection initiatives. He has co-founded two leadership training businesses in addition to Leadership Trainer, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that focuses on trainer/facilitator preparation. Over the last decade, Jonathan has facilitated hundreds of leadership workshops, retreats, trainings, conference presentations, and classes to 1,000s of participants across 4 continents. In addition to serving as the Executive Director and a Master Trainer with Leadership Trainer, Jonathan is an Assistant Teaching Professor and Program Director for the Professional Leadership Studies program at the University of Rhode Island. Jonathan has earned a PhD from Fielding Graduate University in Leadership with a focus in Group Mentoring. He coaches, consults, writes, teaches, and trains about leadership, mentoring, and training/facilitation. Contact Jonathan at: [email protected]

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?

I grew up in central New Jersey close to Princeton. I spent my entire childhood in that community before going to Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. It was through my involvement in clubs and organizations in both high school and college that I gained the confidence and cultivated the skills to serve as a public speaker and leadership trainer.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

In 2005, after earning my master’s degree, I volunteered in Nicaragua for six months. During this stint, I expected the experience to be light and breezy with plenty of time at the beach, exploring a new and different place, reading interesting nonacademic literature, and teaching a little bit of English. It ended up being heavy on the teaching and light on the ‘light and breezy’. I also started facilitating leadership trainings. I had an interest and, albeit limited skill set that matched the desire of people in that local community. Through this experience, I fell in the with the opportunity to facilitate the leadership training and development of others which led me down this career path.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The story I share is when I believe I embraced my identity as a public speaker and leadership educator.

It was a Monday. October 1st, 2012, to be exact. Not an ordinary start to the week in the slightest. On this particular Monday, I was serving as a Resident Director on an around-the-Atlantic Semester at Sea voyage. The shipboard community of students, faculty, and staff didn’t operate in the traditional five days of schooling and two days of weekend rejuvenation. Rather, courses were only held at sea on an A/B schedule. Classes were offered on either ‘A’ Days or ‘B’ Days. When we were in port, aside from some academic course-related excursions, we were invited to explore these ports and cities and countries at our leisure.

The context surrounding this Monday was far from ordinary. Per the original itinerary, on this particular Monday, we were supposed to be in Casablanca, Morocco. Weeks prior, though, two American diplomats — Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and Information Management Officer Sean Smith were killed at the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Shortly thereafter, the United States of America issued travel warnings to many Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Morocco was on the list. Semester at Sea decided to heed these US State Department warnings and, while in scramble-mode, shift our itinerary. On short notice, we extended our time in Cadiz, Spain and added Las Islas Canarias (The Canary Islands) to our voyage.

For every port-of-call, Semester at Sea offered extensive, albeit optional, in-country excursion opportunities. These were designed through Semester at Sea’s HQ and facilitated by our on-board Field Office during the voyage. These excursions were contracted well in advance through a significant vetting process of in-country vendors and tour agencies. Tenerife, the largest and most populated of the Canary Islands, served as our two-day docking station. Due to the circumstances, official Semester at Sea-sponsored excursion options were limited.

On this particular Monday, I would organize and facilitate a last-minute, half-day leadership retreat. I, and the Dean of Students of our voyage, Lisa Slavid, another incredible and wise leadership educator-mentor, collaborated to design and host a compelling and reflective morning experience. This leadership training was proposed to fill a gap. We wanted to offer something structured and leadership-developmental for the students of our voyage as an alternative to walking the city streets or visiting a nearby beach.

It was a solid program, especially under those circumstances. We prepared and arranged the four-hour experience in less than two days without having a physical location or pre-planned experiential activity training materials. We didn’t know how many students would actually be interested in participating nor did we provide any incentives like meals or course credits, but in the end it was a remarkable success. We are able to craft a meaningful, intentional opportunity to reflect on leadership and strengthen our capacities to serve as effective leaders.

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?

When I was just starting out, I was coordinating a training engagement for a team. There were four of us and it was the first time we were all together. The planning went quite smoothly. Yet, when we got together for the training experience, I recognized we weren’t clear on clothing expectations. Most of us were wearing khakis and a polo. One team member thought it was appropriate to wear one of his ‘trademark’ jumpsuits. He was totally out of context and looked out his element. In the moment, I was incredibly frustrated by how we was representing the training team and our organization. Looking back, we often laugh about it and emphasize the importance of having a great pair of khakis just in case!

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?

Peter Magolda. Peter was a faculty member and mentor who was the first person to dedicate serious energy and attention to my writing and how I might sharpen my messaging. It is because of his guidance and support that I was able to strengthen my writing and gain confidence in my abilities to share a message. His encouragement has been instrumental in getting my first book published (Preparing Leadership Educators: A Comprehensive Guide to Theories, Practices, and Facilitation Skills) as well as how I perform as a speaker and leadership trainer.

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?

We will all face obstacles and failures. It is not a question of “if”, but “when” — and “how” we can effectively navigate those challenges. Most important is for speakers, trainers, facilitators, and educators to cultivate a growth mindset and see these failures as learning opportunities. The famed US Women’s Soccer Coach, Tony DiCicco, suggested we utilize failure as fertilizer — it can be fuel for tremendous growth, development, and improvement.

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?

I’m called to do this work. The guiding question that guides my work and frames my message is this: How can the next generations of leaders (i.e., the young people of today) effectively navigate the challenges we will all inevitably face if those responsible for their leadership training and development are ill-prepared? In short, they won’t. I believe that trainer/facilitator/speaker preparation is imperative because if we do not effectively develop the leadership skills and capacities of our future leaders, we won’t be able to navigate the leadership challenges we will all inevitably face. Trainer/facilitator/speaker preparation is about both the immediate skills development and enhancement of trainers as well as long-term generational change for their participants.

If we critically review our current leadership development programs, training opportunities, and speaking opportunities we’ll notice their severe inadequacies. They are not producing the leadership learning outcomes they espouse. Collectively, we are thirsty for leadership development experiences that actualize what they claim — to prepare us to be effective, just, and resonant leaders. The type of leaders who can nurture our own and others’ brilliance, illuminate human potential, and deeply connect with others in nourishing relationships so we can collaboratively do good in our organizations, communities, and the world. We keep pursuing leadership development and enhancement opportunities because nothing seems to quench this thirst to become the leaders we dream of being.

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?

I am most excited about Leadership Trainer’s Certification Program — my nonprofit organization’s flagship experience. Leadership Trainer’s Certification Program is a one-of-a-kind, immersive, engaging, hands-on, trainer preparation experience that is guided by four objectives:

  1. Prepare participants to facilitate amazing and impactful trainings rooted in dynamic, culturally relevant, and learning-oriented facilitation techniques — specifically ​experiential activities and reflective dialogue;
  2. Engage participants in purposeful critical self-reflection and identity exploration;
  3. Utilize leadership scholarship to advance participants own understanding and practice of leadership;
  4. Cultivate a community of other trainers and facilitators.

My focus, now, is better prepare speakers, trainers, and facilitators with the knowledge base and skills to be effective in their work.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Those of us seeking to be inspirited by the call to make a difference in the world have no choice but to take the journey of self-discovery” (Dennis Roberts, Deeper Learning in Leadership, p. 129).

For those of us who are professional speakers, trainers, and facilitators, we are often moved to make a difference in the world. Yet, many us have yet to sincerely engage in the ever-important practice of purposeful self-reflection and discovery. For me, when I started to engage in this work, I was able to show up more authentically and powerfully in my speaking and training engagements.

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?”

  1. Get To Know The Audience: Exceptional speakers, trainers, and facilitators never just show up and, poof, they are ready to go. We have work to do well before the clock strikes and it’s go time. Long before any training begins, we need to go on a reconnaissance mission. We collect data on the participants’ interests and desires so we can craft the experience to meets their needs and can be translated from the speaking and training engagement to their real-life leadership practice.
  2. Engage In Personal Preparation: In addition to our content preparations, we need to focus inwardly so we can be our best selves when it comes time for the speaking engagement or training experience. We set our intention. We can ask a series of overarching questions to focus our attention: How do I want to show up to this experience? How do I want to engage and interact with the participants? How can I best serve these participants? What do I hope to accomplish through this experience? Once our intention is set, our personal preparation happens in multiple domains: emotionally, mentally, physically, and tactically. Emotionally, we ensure that we are fully present and focused on this particular experience and these particular participants. Mentally, we have a deep knowledge of the theme, learning outcomes, and material. Physically, we are well fed and hydrated and dressed appropriately for the audience and experience. Tactically, we have confidence in the flow of the speaking engagement and training opportunity.
  3. Pay Special Attention to Energy & Pace: Our energy and pace are essentially our presence. We know, from our own experiences, that our participants more easily integrate our message into their practice when they feel a healthy, positive emotional connection. Our presence is the combination of our energy and pace. When our energy is low and pace is slow, it is a clear indication of boredom and lack of interest. Rather, we can leverage our positive attitudes and an engaging pace to show excitement, care, and dedication to this experience, these participants, and the topic being addressed. Timothy Koegle (2007), a presentation consultant and author of The Exceptional Presenter, suggests we find a healthy rhythm of speaking, pausing, breathing, and speaking. Speak. Pause. Breathe. Speak. Essentially, we want to deliver a message, offer an instruction, ask a question, or provide a response statement. Then we take a moment to pause and attend to the energy in the space
  4. Be Sharp & Edgy: When delivering our message, we want it to be sharp and edgy. (As I like to quip, if we are not living on the edge, we’re taking up too much space!) Often, our speaking topics and themes can be generic. Communication, for example, is, well, highly communicated as a leadership training topic. It is so broad and popular. We want to differentiate our experience from others by providing a message that is novel and exciting for our participants. The topic isn’t going to change. Our message and delivery of it is what makes it edgy. We offer a new way to explore the topic, ask provocative questions about the theme, and share data that are sexy and intriguing. This is how we get our participants engaged — rather than participating in just another communication training. For some examples, depending on the audience and context, I might use a song for the group to listen to or a movie clip to watch as an entry point as we explore the topic, rather than the traditional approach of just me offering my reflections about healthy communication habits. Alternatively, I might share a personal story — or better yet, ask participants to think back on a time when they were poor communicators. By inviting a selection of participants to share their stories, both serious and comical ones — before asking the whole participant body to offer reflections on what they heard about poor communication behaviors — we center the training experience in the lives, wisdom, and insight of our participants while preparing them for immersive, participatory engagement with the material in the soon-to-be facilitated experiential learning activity. We can also use data to make a bland or overdone topic both sexy and intriguing. To continue with this communication example, I might use data from Project Worldwide’s 2019 study of 471 survey respondents. They found that 74% of people have stopped dealing with a company and moved to a competitor due to feeling the company was disorganized, 92% have had to repeat a piece of information to two or more people within an organization, 85% find it annoying to have to repeat information when working with other organizations, 96% think the organizations they deal with could improve when it comes to communication, and even though 89% believe that effective communication is extremely important, 80% of the respondents rate their own organizations’ communication as either average or poor (Project Worldwide, 2020). These data highlight intriguing information about communication that can be packaged and offered to our participants to spur dialogue and spice up our training experiences.
  5. End On Time: Finally, a personal plea — conclude the speaking engagement or training experience at the designated and labeled time. When serving in this capacity, we make a commitment to offer a robust, dynamic learning experience in the time allotted. We always end on time. Even if participants are late and we begin 30 minutes behind schedule, we end at the scheduled time. This is a matter of respect and respecting the commitment we’ve made to ourselves and our participants.

As you know, many people are terrified of speaking in public. Can you give some of your advice about how to overcome this fear?

We need to focus on our own breath and presence. Conquering our fear of speaking begins with focusing on deep full breaths.

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?

We need to focus much more intentionally on trainer and facilitator preparation. If we do not effectively develop the leadership skills and capacities of our future leaders, we won’t be able to navigate the leadership challenges we will all inevitably face. Trainer/facilitator/speaker preparation is about both the immediate skills development and enhancement of trainers as well as long-term generational change for their participants.

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!

Shaq! I’d love to have lunch with Shaquille O’Neal. He has earned his doctorate in leadership — I would love to explore his reflections on leadership. I also appreciate how eclectic his professional pursuits have been following his elite basketball career.

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?


Instagram: JonathanKroll_PhD

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Jonathan Kroll Of Leadership Trainer On The 5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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