An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Self-awareness. Before my most recent speech, I realized my heart had started racing and I was nervously tapping my foot. These are the kind of physical sensations that indicate anxiety over speaking. If you’re self-aware of how your own individual mind and body react to anxiety, you’ll know when you’re being “triggered” by fear of public speaking.
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 Tom Cobin, Founder of DynamiCoach / Polishing Your Presence for IMPACT.
Tom has been a public speaker for literally a half-century. He started public speaking in 7th grade, gathering contest trophies all over the New York City metropolitan area. The following year, he was named Class Valedictorian and gave the commencement speech at his elementary school graduation. He kept up his presentation skills through high school debate, and in college studied journalism at NYU, where he was a radio reporter, DJ, and interview program host. Even before graduation as the top student in his journalism class, he was working at CBS.
After 10 years “behind the scenes” as a writer & producer, Tom left NYC for a successful on-air career as an award-winning Investigative Reporter, Weathercaster, and Anchor. After another decade in journalism, Tom transitioned into pharmaceutical sales — where his outstanding presentation skills helped him achieve top sales awards and a promotion to National Sales Trainer. In this role, he conducted workshops in Presentation Skills, to help colleagues elevate their performance and career prospects. Outside of work, Tom also has experience as a trainer & coach in windsurfing, skiing, sailing, rollerblading, and yoga.
Tom is now helping others benefit from his wide-ranging experience through DynamiCoach — holding live and virtual workshops, and providing one-on-one coaching. He is also available for corporate training, and Keynote speeches for companies or organizations. He is currently Vice President / President-Elect of the Brickell ToastMasters Chapter in Miami, Florida, and a member of the Florida Speakers Association, the state chapter of the National Speakers Association.
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?
Grew up? Past tense? I’m still growing up!
Seriously: my upbringing has everything to do with how I became a speaking coach. I was raised in the suburbs of New York City, and was incredibly fortunate to have many advanced opportunities through Parochial School — including Public Speaking, which I began in 7th grade. This means I have been speaking publicly for half a century, literally! After graduation from elementary school (I was Valedictorian), my family moved to the Catskills in upstate New York, where I continued speaking and presentation in debate. In my final year, my partner and I went all the way to State Finals! After graduating high school early in three years, I began a pre-med curriculum at Cornell University, but dropped out in my sophomore year and moved to New York City, where I later resumed my education at NYU studying journalism. My speaking continued on-air at the college radio station, WNYU: I was a DJ, news reporter, and interview host. I also got my first paid work as a reporter, working part-time for WHN-AM (at the time, the largest and most powerful country music station in the nation), and the Mutual Broadcasting Network (of which WHN was an affiliate, and where Larry King had his pre-CNN radio show). By the time I was graduated (yes, that’s the grammatically correct form) as the top student in my NYU journalism class, I was already working at CBS headquarters as a writer & producer!
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
After 20 years as a journalist — both behind the scenes as a writer / producer in NYC and later on-camera as a reporter, weathercaster, and anchor — I transitioned into pharmaceutical sales. People would often say that seemed like an unusual career transition. But I realized both careers could be summarized by the same description: researching, absorbing, and summarizing information to be verbally presented for the benefit of others. Throughout my life, I’ve enjoyed training and instructing others to share my knowledge and experience for their benefit. Professionally, I served as a Pharmaceutical Trainer at District and National level. Recreationally, I’ve been a trainer / instructor in yoga, skiing, windsurfing, rollerblading, and sailing. So my current career as a Speaking Coach / Presentation Skills Trainer is a natural, organic confluence of my entire life’s activities for both business and pleasure.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I witnessed an example of one of the most encouraging aspects of public speaking: that what we fear the most — embarrassment — can actually form an emotional bond of “connection” between speaker and audience.
I was at a ToastMasters meeting where someone got up in front of the group for the first time. She only had to speak for 1–2 minutes, about “three things in life that are important to you.” She did fine through the first and second items, but then she stopped. The Timer pointed to his wristwatch and motioned for her to keep going. She started silently rocking back and forth on her feet, and looking up into the corners of the ceilings — two classic “tells” of anxiety. Then she started crying. Several of us literally leaped out of seats to run up and reassure her: “that’s fine, it’s your first time. You did great! You’re so brave.”
This exemplifies what researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have determined: moderate embarrassment can form a “social glue” among people.
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?
I was demonstrating a form of deep breathing, and I stumbled while telling the group where to place their hand in order to perceive movement in their lower abdomen. I started by saying, “put one hand between your navel and your …” and stopped myself before getting any more specific. I quickly corrected myself: “Put your hand below your navel.” Everyone in the group laughed at this awkward moment.
I learned a few things from this experience: 1) think in advance about the details and specifics of what you’re going to say and how an audience will react, 2) be careful when human anatomy is involved, and 3) as cited in the research finding mentioned above: moderate embarrassment in front of a group is nothing to fear, and can actually enhance your “connection” with the audience.
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?
The best leader / mentor of my TV career taught me an invaluable lesson 30 years ago on the power of non-verbal communication.
As News Director at WCBS-TV in New York City, he was grooming me as a Broadcast Producer. One day in the Control Room, we had a minor crisis — which I and the crew handled fine, with nothing apparent to the audience. After the broadcast, we met in his office and he pointed out to me that anchors on-set are in an environment of almost total quiet, with very little audio input other than the voices in their earpieces, primarily mine. He had observed that, during the show’s crisis, I was speaking in a fast, clipped, loud voice that conveyed anxiety and tension. Such emotions would be transmitted to the anchors through my voice in their earpieces, which could make them anxious and agitated as well, degrading their performance.
This was such a “profound revelation” that it remained with me throughout my life, and is especially important to me now as a Speech Coach and Presentation Skills Trainer. “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.” Tone of voice can completely change how others perceive what we say.
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 is temporary, and often provides important experiences and learnings that later contribute to success.
I left pharmaceutical sales for two years and started a venture which provided the first-of-its-kind technology for medical education on mobile devices, before the iPhone. We failed for a number of reasons, but what I was forced to learn and execute for that endeavor formed the basis for the rest of my career. I mastered a suite of software: Illustrator; PhotoShop; Acrobat; PowerPoint; etc. I learned about the technology of relational databases (I do have a background in IT: my minor in college was Math / Computer Science). Combined with my background in television, all of this further technical knowledge and skill formed the basis for my gaining the opportunity to play a pivotal role in the “digital transformation” at my last pharmaceutical company, as National Sales Trainer. At my going-away party upon leaving that position, the Director of Training told the group that I had “changed the way this Company does training.” The experience of my earlier “failure” formed the foundation for everything that followed, including what I’m doing now.
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 driven by HELPING OTHERS, pure and simple!
If I hold onto everything I’ve learned, I’m only helping myself. If I share what I’ve learned, I’m helping others.
My goal in life is to “have a positive impact” wherever I am, whatever I’m doing. That can mean contributing to tactics that help my sailboat win a race. That can mean cleaning-up trash at the party of a friend who is busy socializing. That can mean elevating others’ performance as a Sales Trainer, helping them find and use their own unique traits for success. Currently, it means dispelling myths about public speaking and conducting practical, experiential workshop exercises that have immediate benefit in helping others communicate better.
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 plan to start a YouTube Channel with short, tight video clips breaking-down the key components of my workshops: “Tips & Tricks of Becoming a Better Communicator”.
- I intend to expand my client base and move into more Keynote Speaking, larger group workshops for corporations, and 1-on-1 coaching and consulting.
- I aim to gain a large following on social media and establish a reputation as a recognized expert in public speaking.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
If I may, I’d like to quote myself: “If you’re happy with where you are, embrace however you got there — and just make it a point to be happy with where you are!”
This saying / attitude has helped me live without regrets. It keeps me positive about both past and future, and avoids the risk of “getting down” about anything that has happened in the past, or what I fear may — or may not — happen in the future. Regrets lock you into negative emotions about things that are beyond your control, because they’ve already happened. It can sometimes be hard to accept perceived failures, but in my experience, lessons thus learned generally contribute to future success. In terms of other life moments you may be tempted to regret (for example, career / relationship decisions): you can’t ever know for sure how things would have turned out — so why second-guess yourself and your past?
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.
At DynamiCoach, I use an acronym for effective public speaking: I.M.P.A.C.T. Yes, that’s six letters, so your readers are getting an extra “bonus” tip! To be “five things” I’ve combined the first two — which are closely related, as exemplified in the relevant story.
I (eye) Contact
P acing & Pausing
C onfidence & Conviction
T elling stories
#1: EYE CONTACT / MOVEMENT
Being a “dynamic” speaker involves movement of many kinds: hands; eyes / face; body position; and voice (vocal variety can be considered a type of “movement”). Here’s a rhyme to review and remember:
Move your hands, move your face,
Move your body in its space.
Move your voice throughout its range.
Just don’t make it sound too strange.
Hand gestures should be purposeful and convey meaning, without becoming a distraction.
Eye contact and facial expression are innately connected, since your eyes are a major part of your face and usually the focus for others’ attention. The eyes & face provide critical ways to “connect” with your audience. They also provide immediate, real-time, in-the-moment feedback to the speaker. In human development, even before we can speak, we develop and use “mirror neurons” to recognize facial expressions and mirror them back. This is what’s happening when you look at a baby and smile: they smile back! It’s primal, and pre-dates verbal speech.
Physical movement through the presentation space is a means to convey action while also establishing eye contact in different directions with different parts of the audience.
Vocal variety is critical, to avoid being perceived as monotone / monotonous. Breathing techniques can help with projection, volume, pitch, and vocal quality. Modifying your speed and pacing can draw attention to what you’re saying. Don’t be afraid to “switch it up” while you speak!
Here’s an example of how intertwined eye contact and body movement are — and a demonstration of what NOT to do.
I was attending a meeting of a franchised public speaking system, where the moderator showed a videotape of their founder. After standing up to speak, he initially faced the camera in the middle of the audience. Then he moved to one side of the stage, and began looking at that section of the audience. “Great,” I thought, “he’s demonstrating both movement in his space, and eye contact with the audience.”
I waited for him to move from that spot, shift his gaze, and establish eye contact with the rest of the crowd.
And then waited some more.
It actually became uncomfortable to watch him speak to only one small part of the audience. All I saw was his right side. I felt neglected, ignored, and disengaged — even just watching on videotape and not being there in person. He had failed to properly engage the entire audience with his body movement and eye contact.
P is for PAUSING (which is powerfully amplified by repetition)
As a pharmaceutical rep, I attended a lecture by a cardiologist at the University of Virginia, who was an especially effective speaker. He reviewed the complex process of lipid metabolism, and wrapped up with a memorable catchphrase, a key take-home point for the audience: “sugar makes LDL small.” He paused, lowered his voice, and repeated. “Sugar makes LDL small.”
That was nearly 20 years ago, and I remember it to this day.
Neuroscience explains the importance of pausing. Interrupting the “stream” of input gives the listener’s brain the opportunity to review and reflect on what you’ve just said, increasing the probability of retention. A pause also makes the listener’s brain more sensitive and attuned to whatever comes next. In this way, pausing emphasizes what you just said, and what you’re about to say. If “the next thing” is a repetition of “the last thing” you said, it’s a double-whammy for retention! This is what the cardiologist did to make what he said so memorable: pause, then repeat.
A is for AUTHENTICITY
“Just be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
During a virtual conference of an organization to which I belong, I observed several speakers in varied situations through several days of meetings. One individual interacted with us in workshops and presented as a very calm, quiet, soft-spoken individual. When he later made a speech to campaign for a new role, he was speaking so loudly that I had to turn down the volume! The other candidate, similarly, seemed like she was yelling at us. I see this quite often: speakers confusing passion and energy with volume. This is one way in which speakers can seem unnatural, “forcing the issue” and trying to be someone they’re not. I stress the importance of “finding the voice that is uniquely your own.” Each of us has a one-of-a-kind personality and presence. I encourage clients to seek consistency between speaking and everyday life, so that you’re always just being yourself. Training as a public speaker will probably make you more expressive in normal life off-stage, and allow your expressiveness to come out organically without seeming artificial on-stage. Of course, we all can learn by imitating what we like and admire in others; it’s OK to identify specific things about individual speakers to mimic and adopt, to “find within yourself” some of those desirable attributes. Just be judicious, and remember: what works for someone else may not work for you, and can make you appear insincere or phony.
C is for CONFIDENCE
Everyone has their own “baseline” of confidence in general, and specifically in front of a group. I ‘ve identified a list of “R’s” that can boost our confidence.
- Research: be the expert.
Whatever the topic, you’re giving a presentation specifically because you have information that has value for others. You should know something they don’t. Establishing yourself as the “subject matter expert” will give you the confidence that you have a good reason for being the center of attention. A related “R” is for References: providing citations of your sources gives you confidence that your audience will see that you’ve “done your homework” and view you with credibility.
- Review: know your stuff.
Go over your materials inside and out. Thoroughly review everything you’ll use. This can help if you lose your place, or are thrown off-balance for any reason: you’ll gain confidence from knowing you could deliver the goods “off the top of your head, with your eyes closed.” Have additional supporting materials on-hand and easily accessible to address questions that go beyond your formal presentation. You’ll be more confident knowing you’re prepared to provide additional, unexpected value to your audience.
- Rehearse: practice, practice, practice!
There is no substitute for rehearsal and repetition. Use your practice time to explore your options. Try saying things different ways, in different sequences. See which feels most natural. Caveat: avoid memorizing too much material verbatim, which may seem unnatural and might even derail you if you lose your train of thought. Practice delivering smaller, manageable “chunks” of information; think in terms of “bullet points” to summarize the sections of your talk.
Before a TV live-shot, I’d typically write a bullet item or catchphrase IN BIG, BOLD, CAPITAL LETTERS for each point I’d want to make. Then a few quick glances down to my Reporter’s Pad would keep me on-track. This is still my method when presenting on-camera virtually. Practice passages individually, until each is largely committed to memory and feels natural. Then rehearse transitions from one section to another. This is also a good way to decide where to pause between bullet points — either for emphasis and retention, or simply to take a break for both you and the audience.
- Revel in the praise when you crush it.
- Recognize how much you’ve improved.
- Remember your success to build confidence for next time!
When I applied to be National Sales Trainer at my pharmaceutical company, I started my slide deck with a short video clip. I practiced at home, and rehearsed how to load the slides and insert the clip to play from within PowerPoint. On-site, the Training Team verified the system was functioning properly. The clip played as expected.
Until it didn’t.
The Trainer who helped me set up the equipment shrugged at me from the back of the room. I tried in vain to get the video to play. While the audience started to fidget, I accepted that the video wasn’t going to happen. I turned to the group, described the clip, and asked if anyone knew the “punch line” from that scene. One of the Trainers knew and said it for those who didn’t know.
I explained the connection to my material, and proceeded with the presentation and workshop. Things went smoothly, with the most senior person in the room nodding to what I was saying. Looking around, I saw that others noticed her approval and become more engaged. Afterwards, one attendee emailed me that it was the best presentation he’d ever seen. He clarified: he didn’t just mean among presentations by people applying to be National Trainer. He meant IT WAS THE BEST PRESENTATION OF ANY KIND IN ALL HIS TIME WITH THE COMPANY!
I RESEARCHED my subject and was able to provide new and valuable information to my audience. I REVIEWED my materials and REHEARSED enough that when the video clip crashed, I remained cool, calm, and collected. I REVELED at the positive feedback (from someone who within a year would become my Manager’s boss!) And I REMEMBERED that it was confidence that enabled me to turn a seeming disaster into the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the skills required in the position for which I was applying.
RESEARCH, REVIEW, REHEARSE, RECOGNIZE, REVEL, REMEMBER. That’s how you build confidence.
T is for TELLING STORIES
Before the written word, our very history as a species was kept solely by storytelling. Stories in fictional literature represent real-life ideas and values. People relate to characters they know. TV news pieces are called “stories.” The recognized international authority on public speaking, ToastMasters, calls for someone to start each meeting with a joke: the combination of story-telling and humor.
Telling stories, humorous or otherwise, engages an audience. Done properly, stories create points of reference to which listeners can relate. They’re interested and curious about how each story ends. A memorable story will help the audience “get the point” you want them to remember, in a way that conveys a self-evident truth.
As you know, many people are terrified of speaking in public. Can you give some of your advice about how to overcome this fear?
#1: Don’t “buy” it when you hear public speaking is our worst fear, even more so than death. That’s a myth, widely-circulated and often-repeated, based on misinterpretation of a marketing survey from 50 years ago! Still, fear of public speaking is very real and quite common — even among experienced speakers.
#2: Understand the nature of fear of public speaking. It’s a vestige of human evolution as a species, with our very survival dependent on protection from predators through the “safety in numbers” from the tribe. Today, anticipation of ridicule and rejection can feel being an “outcast” from the group. At its core, fear of public speaking is fear of embarrassment — which is not a literal threat to our survival, and can actually be beneficial, creating an emotional “connection” of empathy with the audience. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found embarrassment during public speaking made the speaker seem more human, relatable, and trustworthy.
#3: Confidence, as described above, is a key component of conquering this fear. The more you speak and gain confidence in your own abilities over time, the less likely you are to suffer anxiety about presenting.
#4: Self-awareness. Before my most recent speech, I realized my heart had started racing and I was nervously tapping my foot. These are the kind of physical sensations that indicate anxiety over speaking. If you’re self-aware of how your own individual mind and body react to anxiety, you’ll know when you’re being “triggered” by fear of public speaking.
#5: BREATHE. Take deep, slow, rhythmic, abdominal breaths. I have been doing yoga since I was a teenager; breath techniques are a key part of any yoga discipline. Put a hand beneath your navel and push that hand away with your abdomen as you inhale. It takes a little getting used to, but this body-awareness trick helps you identify how the lower abdominal muscles can be trained to suck air more deeply into the lower lobes of the lungs, providing more oxygen to the surrounding area, which is dominated by the vagus nerve (the word root is the same as “vagabond,” or wanderer, because the vagus “wanders” throughout the body). The vagus nerve thus gets “oxygenated” and secretes a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is known as the body’s “natural tranquilizer.” Due to its capacity for self-regulation, this nerve has come to be known as the “smart vagus” — because it can act almost like a second brain. This is the neuroscience behind the old adage to “take a deep breath,” or “just breathe.” This is what I did when I realized I was getting nervous prior to my latest speech.
#6: Distract yourself. Take a walk. Focus on nature. Pick up your phone and peruse Facebook. Phone a friend. Do anything to get your mind off your anxiety. Reviewing your material may help, by continuing to build confidence through practice, and focusing on the subject matter itself instead of your anxiety. On the other hand, it could reinforce your anxiety by reminding you of what you’re about to do and the associated apprehension. Evaluate your own individual situation and see whether pre-speech review helps.
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?
Caring about others. Call it “the Golden Rule,” love, empathy, compassion. It’s all the same to me.
Throughout history, tremendous pain and suffering has resulted from extreme imbalance between those with wealth and power — most of whom typically want more of both — and those with less. I would love to start a movement for more of the world’s wealthy and powerful individuals to recognize and achieve the priceless, beneficial feelings and sensations derived from caring about others and seeing them live better lives. There’s neuroscience behind this: we’re “wired” to care for each other. Committing, or even witnessing, an act of kindness causes the secretion of “pleasure hormones” in the brain. In this way, happiness could wind up being something money can actually “buy” after all — if only it were put to such use.
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!
He’s such a historical figure, who exemplifies so many things I admire: intelligence, kindness, humor, courage, persistence, empathy. Far from a perfect individual, he admits his own faults — one of the many things I find so admirable. It’s an overt tragedy how his words and actions have been distorted, and how he has been vilified by millions of the very people he would want to lift up.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
Caveat: since I only started my business very recently, my social media presence is still in an embryonic stage, but will be built-out in the coming weeks and months. Thank you for providing a platform to discuss what I’m doing to help others!
FB Group: Speaking for Impact
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Tom Cobin Of DynamiCoach On The 5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.