Interview with Rhett Laubach: Professional Speaking, Leadership, and Authenticity


Tell me a little bit about your background.

My experience with public speaking goes back to before high school. I grew up in a small town of 1,000 – I graduated with 36 people – in Laverne, Oklahoma. I started in the FFA (Future Farmers of America) organization, which is an organization for students involved in agriculture in some way. There are 500,000 members and the organization has been around since the 20’s; any student enrolled in agriculture education classes in high school can be involved in the FFA. It is a phenomenal place for young people to develop leadership and presentation skills. In the FFA, I focused on personal development. I would participate in public speaking contests and it is where I got my start giving speeches and being coached for public speaking.

I started my speaking company in the early 90’s when I was in college at Oklahoma State University, when it was entirely focused on motivational speaking. I began full time in 1999 and since then, I’ve been giving keynotes, workshops, breakouts – you name it – to educational & corporate clients. I usually deliver presentations at 120-150 events per year, for the last 15 years. The presentation coaching side of my company has been around since I started YourNextSpeaker, and I have increased the 1-on-1 coaching over the last 6-7 years.


Why did you decide to work in professional speaking and training?

The biggest reason is because of my mom and dad; I was raised by parents who were in the service industry – my dad was a teacher and my mom was a nurse – and gave their lives to others. I took what was my biggest skill set at the time, and since I had been giving presentations and workshops for 5-7 years, decided to coach presentations. I had a certain personality and charisma that connected with many types of people, and when you combine great content and effective engagement techniques with a presenter who is easy to connect with, then you have the basic recipe for valuable and interesting presentations.


You also specialize in leadership. What advice would you have for people to enhance their leadership skills?

Great leadership starts with a keen self-awareness. You need to understand what your strengths are, and have to be aware of areas you need to improve and adjust so you can be a better leader. Be more connectable, less bossy, more charismatic, and talk less. Leaders think their job is to share wisdom, advice, etc. but the best leaders actually do more active listening than talking.

Understand how you need to adjust day to day so you can lead best in each moment – each one takes different leadership behaviors. Take private time. In the morning, get a cup of coffee or tea, and spend time in quiet reflection to think about the day you are going to have, and how to bring the best out of others and out of your day. Turn off your email and send calls to voicemail, just make sure you have “you time” during the day to keep your engine fueled and to focus privately on how to best serve others; invest time where it matters most. Leaders who are great at what they do know they still have room to grow.


Could you talk a little bit about your “Authenticity Rules”?

This language came because I needed a name for my presentation skills blog. There are 7 rules; those words were picked because I am a huge proponent of the idea that as a presenter, you need to tell the truth and give credit where it’s due. Ask yourself, what is the best you that you can bring to that presentation? You have the ability to give presentations authentically – work through your fears and anxiety by learning skills, tips and strategies that effective presenters use. 

I need to be the best of myself up front. Decide what is most important, especially when you don’t have much experience giving presentations. For example, Authenticity Rule #4 is Know Your Tools. Everything impacts audience engagement – room temperature, lighting, seating (amazing how many people don’t think about how seating impacts how an audience will engage or think they can’t take control of this), sound system, tables, etc. Know those and know how to make them work for your benefit so the audience can engage.

Authenticity rules.comis chalk full of tangible ideas for improving presentations. There are over 200 posts, with categories you can quickly access. These posts are not conceptually based, but instead applicable ideas and strategies; they give ideas on how you can sharpen and improve.


What are the biggest problems you see with public speaking? Do you have any advice for how people can take their presentation to the next level?

Before Presentation: Understand that nerves are a good thing. Master motivator and speaker Zig Ziglar said, “You don’t have to get rid of the butterflies; you have to get them to fly in formation.” Work to adjust your perception and see adrenaline and endorphins as a positive, and respond to them in a positive way. 

During Presentation: Follow my seven minute rule: change the way the audience inputs information every seven minutes or so. Seven minutes is the average attention span, so don’t just talk for 30 minutes. For example, about 10 minutes in, ask the audience to turn to partner and ask a question that relates to what you are talking about. Now, the audience is listening, talking and engaging in your presentation in a new and fresh method. There are 11 different ways I discuss that allow the speaker to change the audiences’ input of information. People are usually only using one or two (having the audience listen to the speaker talk, staring at a slide presentation, etc.), but by incorporating more engagement techniques speakers can change instantly increase content retention, audience attention span and audience enjoyment of the presentation.

After Presentation: Sit down within 30 minutes or less of your presentation, and answer the following:

–       What should you keep from the presentation?

–       What should you adjust or throw out of the presentation?

*The key it to answer these questions quickly so the presentation is fresh in your mind.


Can you offer any advice for how a speaker can increase audience engagement?

There are four types of audience engagement.  The best presentations include at least three:

  1. Intellectual – Get them thinking; present data and facts that are startling, interesting and/or fresh.
  2. Emotional – Get them feeling, laughing, visually a story, etc.
  3. Social – Get them working/talking with others.  The base strategy here is, “Turn to a partner and…”
  4. Physical – Get them moving – you don’t have to do an “icebreaker” or an activity where everyone is moving around the room (although these do satisfy the physical engagement need). You can do simpler moves like switching seats with their partner or moving to a new table.

*Also, remember the 7 minute rule, it is vital to audience engagement.


Do you include visuals when you speak? Can visuals enhance a presentation?

Yes, they can enhance a presentation if they are used properly. Most people that put together PowerPoints do it for themselves, and not the audience; they use it as an outline on a screen. A great book is Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte, and Seth Godin has a great blog on presenting. There is also a slideshow on where you can see all my suggestions for making PowerPoint more effective. For example, speakers need to put fewer words on their slide. Ideally about 2-3 anchor words that depict your key message, that way your audience is only looking at your slides for a few seconds, and then bring their attention back to you. Also, use high-resolution, full-bleed images to ensure the highest quality, sharpest look on the big screen. I give 150 presentations a year, and have found that it makes it simpler to not use visuals, however I always use music.


When presenting, what level of audience involvement do you recommend?

It’s absolutely essential. The go-to strategy here is to partner up the audience. The go-to most people use is asking a cold question and they get crickets.  When you have the audience partner up and have them ask each other the question, you allow everyone a safe “starter” environment to begin talking.  I usually walk amongst folks and see who has shareable answers. I will talk to them about sharing their answer, and then have them stand and relay their response to the audience.  Crickets never exist when you use effective engagement techniques.


What technology channels or resources do you use to amplify your reach as a speaker?

Before my presentation, it is based off marketing my business. I use the basics – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc, before presentations. During my presentation, before every break, if I had a large audience, I ask my audience to share one lesson they picked up via social media and use a designated hashtag. With a smaller audience (60 or less), I have them email their questions to me. I answer them during the break and finish up when I get home. I make it clear that I will not (and never have) used this as a technique to put them on some list and push out my marketing.


Is there any final advice you can you offer our readers – presenters, designers, or public speakers?

Get a mentor. I did this for my leadership and speaking skills. It is twice, if not more powerful, to have someone whom you can engage in conversation regularly and ask questions, be it face to face or remotely. I wouldn’t be the father or leader I am today without the key mentors in my life, especially Bill Cordes who was my speaking mentor 20 years ago.


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