Changing the World with Leadership and Bellydancers: Tips for a Better Public Speech

by Jill Foster on June 22, 2009

When I was in my 20s I led a double life.
By day, I was a PR manager at a non-profit — writing speeches, pitching the media and organizing events. By night, I was a professional bellydancer shuffling between gigs at embassies, parties and restaurants. Of the two, guess where I learned more about the art of giving speeches?

Hint: it wasn’t in my cubicle.

As a PR manager, I wrote speeches about 4 times a year. But as a bellydancer, I was performing at least 4 times a week. As such, my presentation skills improved faster as a dancer, and I began to discover why certain things work and other don’t. I had my bellydance successes — nights when the crowds were up on their feet dancing, cheering and throwing bills in the air. But, I also had my failures. The shows where my audience barely lifted a head from the dinner table to acknowledge my presence.

Eventually, my career took a new direction. I started a master’s degree in leadership at Georgetown. And, I became pregnant with my first child. Soon, I was preparing more speeches for class than dances for gigs.

My communications professor challenged our class to “change the world” with our speeches. A lofty goal, but one you must acheive as a leader.

Of course, it helps to know the dynamics of performance and for that I often refer to the 8 rules of presentation I learned as a bellydancer.

Don’t rely on props:
One of the worst things a bellydancer can do is bring out a prop, such as a sword or veil, and not use it properly. The audience will stare at the prop, just waiting for the dancer to do something interesting. Similarly, speakers use crutches like Power Point or hand-outs that distract if not used strategically. The audience stares at the prop and misses the speech. Don’t use a prop unless you’re going to amaze people with it.

Watching a bellydancer perform choreography is boring. It’s far more exciting to see a performer take in the mood, tone and audience of a place and translate that into dance. Choreography is the equivalent to reading a speech. It blocks you from connecting with the audience. It takes practice to talk from bullet points rather than reading lines off a script, but once you master it, there are no limits to your potential. Your audience will feel the difference.

Your audience has the power:
Audiences have more power than they realize [image Power-People by Guenno, Creative Commons]. It’s impossible for a dancer to do well if the audience isn’t in the mood to see a show. I’ve balanced swords on my head and spun with them there and still had tables completely ignore me. The same holds true for giving a speech. If people aren’t in the mood, they’re not going to be a good audience. Be mindful of your audience, but also know that sometimes even great speeches fall flat because the audience doesn’t want to hear a speech. Don’t take it personally.

Leave ‘em wanting more:
A common mistake for dancers is choosing a set that’s too long. Shorter is almost always better. Far wiser to leave people wanting more than to leave the impression that you’re boring. It seems simple, and yet, I see this problem too often at events. I attended a benefit several years ago where the founder of a company rambled on so long that people actually started to leave during her speech. Don’t let that be you!

And on that note, let me extend thanks to you for being a great audience for this post. My experience as a performer significantly impacted my approach to public speech; and I want to share more with you soon. In the interim, what tips have you derived from your own experience for giving a ‘change the world’ presentation?


Guest post by Katie Kemple, producer of the Women Grow Business leadership series. With an extensive background in radio, television, and communications, she holds an Executive Master’s in Leadership from Georgetown University. Katie believes in the power of positive thinking (plus embracing failure as a path to success). She’s writing a memoir about being unemployed and a book on finding joy in leadership (with her blog at Love Your Layoff, where she can be reached).

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