Emma Sprague is co-founder and director of Upswing Strategies, a media and communications firm focused on coaching good people with good ideas to deliver their message with impact. Emma specializes in coaching entrepreneurs and policy experts on how to craft a compelling message, deliver it effectively, and feel confident in front of any audience. In the 2016 US Presidential cycle, Emma directed training for spokespeople in 20 states and all 200+ speakers at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. She is a member of the Bates College Board of Trustees where she co-chairs the Communications and Marketing Committee and serves as a mentor and coach for Bates’ Bobcat Ventures entrepreneurship competition.
Why are you passionate about helping entrepreneurs?
It takes guts (and time, and heart, and so much resilience) to launch an idea out into the world and fight for it to thrive. A lot of that has to come from the entrepreneur, but there are places where guidance and investment from others are essential. I’m grateful to be in a position to help entrepreneurs, both with my first-hand experience launching a business and because that business is focused on helping good people with good ideas deliver their message, tell their story, and make their pitch with the impact they desire. I am animated by the process of helping people shape their most authentic and compelling way to communicate and to lead, and to feel confident in both.
You’ve done a lot of social science research into why people listen to and follow some leaders more than others. How can founders hone their speaking and presentation skills to be a more inspirational leader?
Leading is a lot easier and more effective when people want to follow, when they are inspired, when they admire you and feel you’re headed somewhere together. That feeling is informed by the emotional character judgements we innately make about one another. Is she my kind of person? Does she have the ability to influence my world? One of the best ways to inform that judgement and inspire is by communicating your vision, your values and your story well and authentically. Becoming a magnetic speaker demands deliberate attention to how you prepare, how you show up, and how you deliver. That approach requires harnessing your individual strengths and personality, honing strategies that align your words, body language and voice with your message, and building a routine that ensures you approach each engagement with energy and poise.
During the pandemic companies had to shift quickly from in-person to virtual events. What can we learn from the companies who’ve been successful in this new format? How do they keep engagement high?
The first thing to do is acknowledge that virtual engagements – while powerful in a lot of important ways – are a really difficult mechanism for holding people’s attention and making true connections. That means the bar is much higher and you have to be all the more intentional in building a plan that meets your goals and captivates your participants. And that’s exactly where you start – what is your team hoping to get out of this and what do you want others to get out of this? If those answers aren’t crystal clear, you will flop and be lost in the sea of virtual panels rattling on behind someone’s email screen. Once your goals are set, some good things to consider: shorter presentations and shorter events; super engaging speakers only; incorporate multiple formats; get people on their feet; find ways to break through the screen; and build individual follow up into the plan.
You are a mentor and coach for Bates’ Bobcat Ventures entrepreneurship competition, and are deliberate about reaching leaders early in their careers. What advice would you give to founders on how to help and source future leaders?
I love working with students and young people. Confidence in public speaking, and so many other skills that make better leaders, better entrepreneurs, are ultimately a matter of routine and practice. The sooner you introduce and build those habits, the more they become second nature, muscle memory and mindset. I like to introduce students to a more holistic way of communicating – not just the words, but your energy, your movement, how you feel about what you’re saying – tactics for welcoming and handling nerves, and telling stories as a tool for persuasion. My advice to founders: think about what skill you wish you’d mastered earlier in your career and pass it on. Where to start: connect with schools you attended, incubators in your region, and by word of mouth. Coach one person and more will come. The long view goal is to create better prepared leaders for our teams and our world.