Pay-it-forward: The best advice Whitney Johnson received on public speaking

Published · 2 min read

Editor’s Note: Whether you’re CEO of a Fortune 500 company or just starting out as a small business owner, chances are you have benefited from someone else’s sage advice to help get where you are today. This is the first post in a new series where business leaders “pay it forward” and share the best advice they’ve ever received.

Whitney Johnson is one of the world’s most influential management thinkers—she’s spoken in front of crowds around the globe, written two critically acclaimed books, and hosts a podcast, “Disrupt Yourself,” featuring guests like Susan Cain and Patrick McGinnis. But her path to recognition and success, like most of us, was far from a solo journey.

Johnson was already several years into her career when she received what she considers the advice that shaped where she is today as a public figure. She was looking for feedback from her mentor Marshall Goldsmith, an executive educator and coach, about a speech she was practicing.

“He said to me, ‘You strike me as being kind of serious.’ Which I am,” she says. “He then said, ‘You know your stuff. Now just go have fun on stage. Roll with the punches. Enjoy the people you are speaking to. Have a conversation.’ That flipped a switch for me.”

Now just go have fun on stage. Roll with the punches. Enjoy the people you are speaking to. Have a conversation.

She realized the secret to successful public speaking, whether facing a crowd of 1,000 or a meeting room of 10, was forming a relationship with your audience. It wasn’t about giving the perfect speech—it was about having a conversation.

“The next speech I gave was in front of an audience of about 400 business school alumni at University of Colorado, Boulder,” Johnson says. “It turned out to be my best speech to date.”

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