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.

When Measurement isn’t Measurement

So today was the big physical fitness test for my Army Reserve unit. We all gathered for the semi-annual assessment of our fitness by doing push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run. It’s always a nerve-racking event full of troops either trying to push for a good score so they can get promoted or just trying to pass so they can retire. Splendid fun.

We used a new course for our two-mile run this time, which is fine, but at this random point along the course one of the graders started calling out the time that had elapsed. “4:26, 4:27, 4:28…” he yelled out (yes, it’s common for graders to call out every passing second). So I asked him how far along on the course we were. He said he didn’t know.

Awesome.

And since I find myself so often trying to compare life experiences to my career, I started thinking about measurement in public relations and social media. I try to read up on what people are talking about as far as new methods to measure communication efforts (and there’s a lot to read) and one thing I haven’t seen much of is the importance of having something to measure against. It’s great to have a lot of followers or to have a lot of people visiting your site or to see a lot of comments on your blog. But if you haven’t set a goal for yourself or your organization, or if you aren’t benchmarking against competitors in your industry, what exactly are you measuring?

I did just fine on my PT test, but that dude calling out a random time at a random point along the run didn’t help. Had I known I was about a third of the way through the course, I could have stepped it up and really beaten my goal — just like how you can use your communication metrics at a given time to compare against your goals. That way, you can change course or step up your effort if you find yourself lagging. Without goals, you don’t know if what you’re doing is working or not.

The bottom line is that without having some sort of definition of success, measurement is just a waste of time.

Advice to PR Newbies: Where You Sit is Where You Stand

I’ve seen a lot of folks blogging with lists of the most important things for you public relations professionals to do while looking for or starting their careers. I agree that it’s very important to blog, brand yourself, stay current with the news, etc., but I feel it’s necessary to bring in one reminder about PR and personal beliefs.

I had a professor in grad school who had one oft-repeated saying: Where you sit is where you stand.

As young public relations pros enter a tough economy, we might see them becoming less choosy about where and with whom they accept positions. Yes, it is understandable for someone to make sacrifices in salary expectations or location desires at this point. But it’s important for all of us to remember who we are as we consider what organizations we want to be a part of.

That’s where my professor’s motto comes in, because where you sit truly is where you stand. Think about it — it’s important for you as a communicator to work for an organization with a message you’re comfortable with communicating. Imagine if you were an environmentalist in the PR department at BP in 2010. If you’re a republican, MoveOn.org probably isn’t a good career move. Remember that you’re going to be a spokesperson for every business decision and every campaign your organization takes on. It’s important that you be comfortable with the messages you will deliver. Also remember that this position will be on your resume when you choose to leave.

Where you sit is where you stand. Make sure the chair is comfortable for you.