Through in-depth and dynamic presentations, strategic communication and leadership expert Heath Slawner shows audiences how to leverage proven strategies using influence and persuasion to achieve outstanding results. He also specializes in delivering powerful training workshops—on performance development and strategic-planning initiatives—for clients around the world, including the United Nations. Heath goes under the spotlight today:
What inspired you to want to be a speaker?
As a young boy at family gatherings, I would often “get on stage” (usually the top of the stairs at my cousins’ split-level bungalow) and perform movie scenes in front of my extended family. I was best known for a full staircase rendition of “Grease Lightning” from the movie Grease.
Any advice for aspiring speakers?
Yes, absolutely. There is one key thing every aspiring speaker can benefit from: whenever possible, record your talks. However uncomfortable it may seem at the time, watch and review the footage to get a sense of what you look and sound like from the audience’s perspective. Nothing is a better reality check.
What do you like to leave audiences with?
Ideally, audiences leave feeling smarter than when they walked in.
How do you prepare before a talk? Any special rituals? A good luck talisman?
A few rituals (some might call them superstitions) help ground me before I go on stage. Whenever possible, the process starts with ironing my own shirt the night before a presentation. Yes, that’s right, I iron my own shirts. During a conference, I also take advantage of any chance I can to speak with members of the audience before I deliver a speech or presentation. Often, an innocuous encounter with a participant in the hallway will find its way into my presentation. Hydrating is key, but not too much, since, well, you know….Food is also important, because no one wants to hear a rumbling stomach–those lavaliere mics clipped to the shirt are sensitive! Last, no matter what time of the year, I put on a some form of lip balm. Dry lips are the worst.
Do you have an especially memorable event you can tell us about?
Yes–the Speakers’ Spotlight Showcase in Toronto (which also happens to be a great fundraising event). It was mind-blowing to share the stage with a such an amazing group of talented speakers. Hilarious, too. I learned so much just watching how others approach their craft.
Any funny or embarrassing situations you have found yourself in as a speaker?
First paid speech. Imagine the enormous, five-story ballroom at the historic Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. At the morning sound-check, we’re testing the microphones, and as I’m walking back and forth on the stage, I can see way way up in the ceiling, there is a trap-style door that the sound technician is peeking through to measure the audio levels. As I move to one side of the stage, I start hearing some of that awful, high-pitched feedback from the speakers. Nervously, I look up to the sound tech in the trap door and loudly ask him if he can make any adjustments and eliminate the feedback. He barks right back at me and says: “Listen, kid, I’ve been doing the sound here for every president since Ronald Reagan, so I think I can handle it.” Enough said.
Is there a charitable cause that you feel passionate about? Why?
The plight of children and access to education, food, water, and healthcare. The inequities that exist on this planet are a reminder of how much work still needs to be done so that every person on this planet has at least the opportunity to lead a fulfilling life.
If you had to choose a new career, what would it be?
Stand-up comedian. The goal of stand-up may be different, but it’s so close in spirit to public speaking. I remember the very first stand-up comedy class I ever took, and the teacher, a renowned comic who had flown in from LA just to teach the class, opened the day and said: “the most important thing about stand-up comedy is your relationship with the audience.” BING-BANG-BOOM! Hit me like a ton of bricks. Such an obvious thing, but how easy to forget. What blows me away is how much overlap there is between the two fields.
Desert island album?
Are you kidding? Internet radio, please. Okay, fine, maybe something classical.
Best subject in school?
Neat handwriting. At 12 years old, I started a calligraphy business, printing event invitations and envelopes by hand in my spare time after school and on weekends. It was painstaking work and for only a quarter an envelope. A few years later, people started to download calligraphy fonts to their PCs and print electronically. Clients would say: “why would I pay you when I can print myself for free?” Artisanal work hadn’t yet emerged as a something worth paying a little extra for, and business slowed down considerably. The computer age finally killed my calligraphy business, but it couldn’t take away my handwriting.
Last book you read?
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell.
Last film you saw?
Only the tennis nuts will understand this one: Rafael Nadal. Is there a more competitive athlete, in a more grueling individual sport?