Article Category: Speaker Habits

7 Habits for Highly Effective Speakers


I first read Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People seven years ago, at a time when I was in a low-confidence slump. I’m so glad that I read it! The book is filled with insights which resonated (and continue to resonate) with me.

While 7 Habits is not specific to speaking, the lessons contained within that book have had a profoundly positive effect on my speaking pursuits. It influenced my decision to start Six Minutes, and I have long planned to devote an article to this book. When I heard about the passing of the author at age 79, I knew the time for this article was now.

Instead of selecting seven (speaking) habits of highly effective speakers, I thought it would be more interesting to discuss what Covey’s seven habits contain for highly effective speakers. In this article, I will briefly introduce each of Covey’s habits, and then discuss how speakers can adopt the lessons to improve their effectiveness as a speaker.

Habit 1 — Be Proactive

The first habit (the first of three focused on independence or self-mastery) is about accepting responsibility for one’s life. The proactive person takes initiative, and understands that success flows from making positive decisions.

How can you apply this to speaking?

Don’t believe the myth that people who speak well are “born with it.” Instead, understand that your effectiveness as a speaker is a product of your decisions and actions.

To be a proactive speaker:

  • Take control of your speaking career.
  • Seek opportunities to practice and improve.
  • Study great speakers, and model what they do best.
  • When things go wrong, accept responsibility. Don’t blame a bad presentation on lack of time, an inattentive audience, noise outside, or anything else.
  • Resolve, every day, to be better.

Habit 2 — Begin with the End in Mind

Beginning with the end in mind requires that you determine your core values (i.e. what matters most to you). From them, you should develop a principle-centered personal mission statement and craft goals which support that mission.

How can you apply this to speaking?

What is your desired end from speaking? (Think about your life’s mission, and how speaking can support it.)

  • Become a better leader in your workplace?
  • Motivate your religious congregation?
  • Fight for your civic priorities as a political speaker?
  • Augment your income with speaking fees?
  • Become a world-famous motivational speaker?
  • Be an advocate for your chosen charity?
  • Win the World Championship of Public Speaking?

Keeping your eye on your long-term speaking end will help you take the hard, but necessary, steps to achieve it. Use your long-term speaking goal to guide short-term actions.

Habit 3 — Put First Things First

The “first things” are high importance tasks which lead you toward future goals, not necessarily those things which are urgent at the moment. It is critical to avoid the temptation to always focus on urgent tasks, and instead make time to devote to higher importance, longer-lasting activities.

How can you apply this to speaking?

When speaking regularly, it’s tempting to get bogged down in the small details. Does this sound familiar?

  • Do you obsess about what an audience will think of your clothing?
  • Do you curse yourself for forgetting some material in your last presentation?
  • Do you cringe every time you utter an ‘um’ or some other filler word?

No, that’s not where you should be spending your thoughts. Instead, keep your speaking compass pointed at the really important things:

  • Are you providing value and communicating your message to your audience?
  • Are you preparing adequately?
  • Are you moving forward toward your long-term speaking goals?
  • Are you devoting time to improve your content (and visuals) and hone your stories, in between speaking opportunities?
  • Are you staying current?

Habit 4 — Think Win/Win

The fourth habit (the first of three focussed on interdependence) advocates striving for mutually beneficial solutions. Situations where both parties “win” tend to nurture relationships, while win/lose scenarios damage relationships.

How can you apply this to speaking?

Remember that your success as a speaker is tied directly to whether your audience “wins” by attending your presentation. It isn’t enough to ace your marketing efforts, sign a contract for a big speaking fee, walk off the stage to thundering applause, or reap profits by selling your wares at the back of the room. If all of those things happen, but you haven’t improved your audience’s bottom line (financial or otherwise), you’ve failed.

Focus relentlessly on providing maximum value for your audience. If you do that, then the rest will come (fees, applause, profits, …).

Habit 5 — Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

Just as it sounds, the fifth habit encourages you to first listen with empathy and understand others, and then speak to have yourself understood.

How can you apply this to speaking?

Audience analysis. Audience analysis. Audience analysis.

Want to learn more?

Instead of focussing on what you want to say (speaker-centric communication), focus on what the audience needs to hear (audience-centric communication). Audience analysis (or just plain asking them) reveals the mindset of your audience. What is keeping them up at night? What problems do they have? What’s the source of their problem? What beliefs so they have? What are their values? What information do they need?

Once you truly understand your audience’s perspective, you will find it much more straightforward to craft your message to reach them.

Habit 6 — Synergize

The sixth habit is about achieving synergy in your relationships, and in all interpersonal interactions. When both parties commit to work together, the results can be greater than either party could achieve independently.

How can you apply this to speaking?

Most speaking situations set up a clear hierarchical relationship, reflected in the fact that the speaker is physically and metaphorically separate from the audience. As the speaker, you are in control. You are in the power position. You have the answers. The audience is secondary. They are passive. They have problems. They need you…

Wait a minute! Do you see a problem with this line of thinking? When viewed through this hierarchical lens, your presentation may seem like a conflict: you versus them. You are trying to persuade, and they are trying to resist. But conflict is not what you should be striving to achieve.

Instead, approach each presentation as an opportunity to work together with the audience to tackle a common problem. By embracing this mindset, you’ll be more likely to bridge the gap between you and the audience. You’ll be more likely to interact comfortably with them. Since you are on the same side, you’ll also feel less stress and thus be able to concentrate on providing full value.

Habit 7 — Sharpen the Saw

“Sharpen the saw” is one of my favorite mantras. This seventh habit advocates balance in life, and spending time to rejuvenate yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. For example, regular exercise is a classic “sharpen the saw” activity; with a healthy body, you’ll be more effective in the other six habits!

How can you apply this to speaking?

I could fill a whole article with “sharpen the saw” activities for speakers, but here’s just a small sample of rejuvenation activities:

  • Read speaking books and blogs to hone your knowledge.
  • Watch speakers who inspire you (like those at TED).
  • Reflect on past presentations, review feedback, and take steps to improve.

That’s not all. General “sharpen the saw” activities can help your speaking effectiveness too. For example:

  • Better physical fitness will give you more energy on stage, and more stamina when delivering lengthy sessions such as an all-day course.
  • A healthier diet consisting of more water, and less sugar and caffeine drinks will improve the quality of your voice.

Get a Copy of Seven Habits

To keep this article manageable, I chose to offer only brief coverage of Covey’s classic book. However, there’s many more nuggets of wisdom contained in those pages. I reap more rewards each time I read this book.

I highly recommend reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. (It has been in the amazon.com top 100 for the past 1634 days — 4.5 years!)

Embracing the habits will have a lasting, positive effect on your speaking and on your entire life.

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
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