James Rosebush managed the Reagan White House Office on Impact and has a personal passion for coaching executives to speak like Ronald Reagan. He has also enjoyed unique access to Queen Elizabeth II, from which he has learned much about leadership. Here, he answers questions from CEOs on how to speak with impact.
Some speeches come across as performances. Are there any lessons I can learn from watching people in the performing arts?
I’m fascinated by this phenomenon. Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who talks to you naturally, and five minutes later they’re on stage and have weirdly adopted, what I call, “stage speak?” For some reason, when you stick a microphone in someone’s face or put them on a stage, they automatically adopt a slow and pretentious way of speaking. They exchange an informal, personal approach with a pompous one. If you find yourself in this situation, say to yourself, “I want to speak conversationally as if I were looking at one or two people’s faces — drop everything else and be conversational.”
You are not out to impress but to express your ideas and share them with friends. Don’t view your audience as critics (they might be — but banish that thought for now). The more informal and natural you are, the more relatable. Remember that professional actors can move you emotionally, always come across naturally, and are not self-aware or pretentious. If they ever did this at a casting, they would never be selected for a movie. Think of yourself as an actor — your naturalness will measure your success.
With most speeches now online via streaming video, how should I adjust my speech-making techniques, if at all?
It’s tough, isn’t it? I’m on Zoom and Crowdcast all the time, and it’s a daily challenge. Here are seven tips to keep in mind. 1/ Know your audience. Even if you can’t see the audience, try to “see” them. That means learning more about them and leaning into that knowledge and being consciously aware so you can think about the type of person you’re speaking to. 2/ Choose a strategy that promotes engagement. Even though I typically ban Q&As for live speeches, I do them now because human interaction helps. 3/ Stand and deliver. Don’t sit while you perform. It gives you more power and acts as a focal point. 4/ Dress up a little. Give up those baggy sweats. Both men and women should be attentive to this. 5/ Lighting is critical. I use a LumeCube, but you could use a light ring, too. Turn off lights behind you and light your face from the front. It will make a big difference in how your audience perceives you. 6/ Select a brand-building backdrop. We’ve all seen some creative ideas out there, but pick one and make it your brand. Anything is better than pillows propped up on your bed. 7/ Tell your stories. Stories are a sure-fire way to win your audience and are more critical now than ever. Smile on camera, and use your most dynamic voice — even though you can’t judge the audience’s reaction.