Six Public Speaking Tips from Toyota’s Wil James

Some people are naturals are public speaking. Most public relations professionals probably wish that the leaders of their organizations fit into that category. But as hard as many PR pros try, sometimes it’s an uphill battle to get our bosses comfortable and natural in front of a crowd. It’s an important goal, as a confident, comfortable speaker is credible, and a credibility is priceless for any organization that is trying to deliver a message.

Wil James

I recently had the chance to hear a presentation from Wil James, president of Toyota manufacturing in Kentucky, and that man is a natural. Here are six things I picked up from his presentation that every public relations pro should share with his/her leaders.

1. Practice Just because you’re a natural, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to practice. James had his public relations guy running the slides and he never had to ask for a slide to change and he always knew what slide was showing behind him. He spoke confidently and the two of them moved through the presentation flawlessly.

2. Chill Out. Practicing also gives you the confidence to be yourself. James spoke in a very natural tone and used his natural dialect. He was funny and endearing, which no one ever is if they’re focusing too hard on the material – or just reading the slides.

Toyota's Wil James shows his public speaking skills at the Blue Grass Unite function in Central Kentucky.

Wil James speaking at the Blue Grass Army Depot

3. Easy on the Details. I’m sure there are a million things going on at Toyota that Mr. James could have spoken about for hours, but he didn’t. Knowing that his audience wasn’t going to be writing a novel about Toyota operations, he kept his presentation brief and high-level. That said, when someone did ask for details about Toyota’s new initiative to provide power to the plant by using landfill gas, he provided them.

4. Stay in Your Lane That said, sometimes a public speaker might get a question outside his or her purview. When that happens, it isn’t time to promote yourself or make something up. “I don’t know” is always a good answer if you promise to get back to someone with more info.

When James was asked about the future of the hybrid, he said, “I can’t speak for Toyota, but I think…”

5. Ixnay on the I. As far as I know, Wil James hasn’t had a single idea or initiative in his position. That’s because he never used the word, “I.” Everything was “we.” That’s good because it helps the morale of his team and kept his audience from thinking he was pompous.

6. Connect. When James realized he didn’t need his microphone to be heard, he stepped out from behind the podium, removing the obstacle between himself and his audience. He asked the audience questions, spoke directly to people and told a couple of decent jokes.

D-Day plus 24,837

Today is the 68th anniversary of D-Day. Eight years ago, I was lucky enough to participate in the ceremony recognizing the 60th anniversary of the invasion. I can’t think of another experience I had in the Army that was more special. I got to record some interviews with a few veterans of that invasion and somewhere I have two or three mini DV tapes on which I recorded some of their stories.

Storming the beachOne man had been in a wheelchair since the war. He told me about the friends he lost that day — some to gunfire, some to water, some to both. A couple of weeks later he met a French woman who eventually became his wife. The first part of that story was told distantly; the second tearfully. I always wonder how someone could manage to court a foreign woman in the middle of a war; I really hope I asked him that…

There was another guy who I spoke to under a shady tree. I remember because the light was behind him and he looks like a silhouette. His memories weren’t of storming the beach, but of advancing through France over the following months. He said that they’d walk through the most beautiful farmlands and countryside, only to have it ruined by the carcasses of livestock rotting in the fields. He told me how the French farmers would come out to offer the advancing Allied soldiers fresh milk, even though it was scarce and they often had to dodge gunfire to do it.

I remember the guy who played it off like D-Day was just another day. I asked him if he was scared when the door of his landing craft opened and he jumped into the water. He said, “It didn’t bother me at all.” I still don’t believe him, but what do I know.

I visited France for this event in the midst of a really unpopular war. The whole time I was there, I wore the uniform of the Army that was in Iraq, a war the French were against. But I remember that I was never burdened with a bill for food or drink. Strangers came up to me and shook my hand. One little girl came up and hugged me and her father asked if she could have one of my dog tags (don’t tell anyone, but I gave one to her).

I don’t really have a point to make. As we watch more and more of our WWII veterans pass away, I feel it’s increasingly important to remember on days like today, so that’s what I’m doing. I hope that as I write this, a cool breeze is coming off the English Channel and the sun is shining brightly on those headstones. Someday I’ll have to do something with those stories.