Advantage Rafa: Public Speaking Lessons from The Wimbledon Tennis Championships

Public Speaking Lesson from Wimbledon

Wimbledon is upon us. And as in past years, the world is suddenly divided between two types of people: Roger fans and Rafa fans.

From a tennis perspective, I’m a Roger fan. But when it comes to public speaking, I’m a Rafa guy all the way.

Let me explain.

Roger, of course, is Roger Federer, the Swiss tennis artist. As a tennis fan and player for more than 40 years, I have never seen such a gorgeous player. And I was a ball boy for Rod Laver.

Rafa is Rafael Nadal, the Majorcan bull and the yang to Roger’s Yin. Where Roger wins with grace and amazing shots, Rafa wins with brutal consistency, never missing and wearing down his opponent. He is the ultimate grinder.

Public speaking can also be divided between a Roger and a Rafa approach.

I meet many people who aspire to a “Roger” approach to public speaking.  They want a graceful, admiration-inducing style where they move their audience with jokes and anecdotes.

I worked with a banker recently who said, “I want to learn how to be funny.”  And of course, you can learn to be funny, especially if you focus on self-deprecating anecdotes.

Similarly, I had an attorney ask me to help him learn to speak like his firm’s eloquent managing partner, a moving storyteller who spoke with incredible passion. And with work, anyone can learn to tell stories well.

But like a Roger approach to tennis, making people laugh and moving them with passionate stories is hard.  If you’re not a natural, it can take a long time to master those skills.

Most people don’t realize that there is a “Rafa” approach to public speaking, a less graceful, more prosaic way that is just as effective at connecting with audiences.  And for most people this style is more accessible.

Remember that Rafa wins with fundamentals, making first serves, keeping the ball in play, and hustling. It’s not as flashy as Federer. But it works.

The Rafa approach to public speaking also relies on fundamentals: know your audience; focus your message; and takes lots of questions.  These are simple things that anyone can do, even if you’re not a natural.

Getting to know the audience is critical.   If you’re going to speak to a group of bankers about how to avoid being sued for age discrimination, speak with key listeners in advance. Ask them about their concerns.

“But what if I don’t have time to get to know my audience in advance?”

There is no good answer to that question. You won’t connect with your audience without understanding their needs.  Getting to know the audience takes work. But it pays off.  And you don’t need “Roger-level” talent to do it.

Keeping your message simple is another “Rafa-style” fundamental that isn’t hard but pays off.  Keep your message to a few key points. That ensures that your audience doesn’t get confused.

Finally, leaving lots of time for Q&A is something we can all do to make our presentations connect better with audiences.  Last year I heard a major bank’s general counsel give a 30-minute talk. He had only five minutes of prepared “presentation.”  The rest was Q&A. His audience loved it.

So as you watch Wimbledon this fortnight, think about your approach to public speaking. Do you want to be like Roger or Rafa?