The Most Important Skill for Wine Professionals

SpeakingBar none, the most important skill to possess if you want to advance your career in the wine industry is communicating well. And within this large category called "communications", I think is fair to say that speaking well in public is the most important communication skill that you must possess in order to advance a wine industry career.

I was reminded of this and provoked to consider my own past when I saw that Lynda Spillane will be leading a Mastering Public Speaking Workshop in Napa under the auspices of the WISE (Wine Industry Sales Education) Academy on July 30 and 31.

There is no contest when a list of people's greatest fears is presented. Public Speaking is #1. Before I could advance in my academic career and my business careers, I was forced to overcome this fear. And believe me when I tell you that it was a devastating and debilitating fear of mine. Let me explain

Directly out of High School I entered Junior College. My grades in High School were not good enough to get me into a decent college, so off I went to Junior College. They were not good because I spent most of my High School years avoiding being called on in class and skipping school on numerous occasions for fear that I would be called on. I engineered a schedule in High School that allowed me to go to classes that I knew were primarily lecture classes that entailed taking notes and tests, but not presenting material to the class.

After 9 months of Junior College, I had to drop out. There simply was no way, I realized, that I could move through my college classes without being called on or having to present materials I had written.

I didn't have a choice but to drop out of Junior College. It was that or stand up in front of a group of people, sweat terribly, feel my mouth sucked of all its moisture and with it the abiltiy to make coherent noises, and start to hyperventilate. So I quite and took a sales job I knew I could do well, but while only having to deal with individuals one-on-one. The job was selling Kirby vacuums door-to-door. The mark up on those things was remarkable and it turned out that I had knack for convincing housewives to spend $1000 vacuums. The money was very good.

Two years into the job I was selling lots of vacuums. One day, I sold a $1000 vacuum to a young woman with three kids who was on welfare and living in a small apartment. I convinced her she would save money if she just financed the $1000 vacuum over two years. It took me a day or so to realize the nature of my moral failure. I repossessed the vacuum, re-assessed my life, and quit the job.

I mention all this because it was the incident that led me to realize that I had to overcome my fear of speaking in public because I had to get an education. I hatched a plan.

My plan for overcoming my fear of speaking in public was to go back to school. However, this time I would anticipate every possible question that might come my way in every single class the night before the class. I would write out my responses and memorize them in case I was called upon. Once called upon, I would look at no one and simply repeat what I'd memorized.

It worked. But it was the most inefficient method of overcoming my fear of speaking in public that I can imagine.

After doing this for months, my fear started to disappear. After a year I transferred to a State University and took a Bachelor's Degree in History, during which time I presented numerous papers and took part in class discussions. This was followed by going on to get a post graduate degree in History, during which time I lectured Freshman.

Today, I always take a great deal of pleasure when I have the opportunity to speak in front of consumers or industry gatherings. I'm comfortable.

But here's the thing. Had I not overcome this fear, I would have had very few options in my career. Very few. Much of what I enjoy and treasure about my life and career I can date to the moment I resolved to overcome this fear of speaking in public.

I can't imagine anyone advancing in most wine industry careers without the ability to comfortably and effectively speak well in public. It is crucial. If you can't do this, I promise you the effort to learn how will reward you many times over both personally and financially.

The workshop being presented by Lynda Spillane at the WISE Academy is expensive: $2000. Yet for those that can afford it, you will likely come away with the tools that will help you recoup that fee many times over. I'm not on the WISE pay roll. I don't personally know Ms. Spillane. But I do know that outside of the ToastMasters Napa organization there are few other opportunities to attain the skill of speaking well in public and learning how to give a talk comfortably and effectively.

That said, it says a great deal that the WISE Academy would institute this new workshop as part of its industry education portfolio. It demonstrates the WISE Academy has thought deeply about what it means to succeed and what tools are needed to succeed in the wine industry.

I don't know any wine industry executive, sales person, hospitality person, or marketer of any kind that is outstanding at their job, yet cannot communicate effectively in a speaking roll.



5 Responses

  1. Steve Heimoff - July 6, 2012

    To be a good public speaker, you need to have a strong personality. You can learn certain skills in a workshop, but unless you have a natural flair for showmanship, you’ll never be a compelling speaker. The best speakers are hams.

  2. Andrea - July 6, 2012

    Excellent article, Tom, though I agree with Steve as well. Public speaking requires a strong personality — something you obviously possess even if you were initially afraid of public speaking.

  3. Tom Wark - July 6, 2012

    Steve & Andrea:
    Yes, it’s true that more powerful personalities will tend to be better public speakers—so long as they understand the various rules for giving a good talk. On the other hand, a person with a less extravagant personality can give a very good talk if they appreciate the various techniques and rules for public presentations.

  4. Fredric Koeppel - July 6, 2012

    One thing they do not teach in graduate school, and that’s how to be a teacher, though most people with graduate degrees in the humanities are destined for the teaching profession (if they don’t end up at Starbucks). When I left grad school and started teaching at a university, it was like being thrown to the wolves. I quickly learned that besides really knowing what you’re teaching, it’s essential to enjoy being in front of people, to enjoy the give and take of words and ideas and the interaction with a roomful of people. I think this applies to all public speaking or performance…

  5. Pamela - July 7, 2012

    Excellent points. I am a huge believer in the value of Toastmasters. In fact, there is a Toastmasters club dedicated to oenophiles here in Southern California. From personal experience I know that the more you get out there and speak, the less intense the fear becomes. Thanks for an informative article.

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