Congratulations if you are already an accomplished presenter; you are in an elite minority. For the rest of us, the prospect of having to give a speech can feel like the terminal stages of some kind of tropical fever. Fortunately, there are secrets that anyone can leverage to make a great speech. You may even learn to enjoy it!
There are two kinds of public speakers: There are those who are asked to talk to a group and those who, because of their position, are forced to talk before groups — people such as ministers, teachers, executives, and sales managers.
In the first instance — that is, if you’re asked to make a speech — it means you know something others want to hear. It usually means you’re an expert on some subject, and so people come to hear you because they want to. If your job demands that you talk before groups, you have an even greater responsibility because your audience must listen to you whether they like it or not.
But in either case, you can make a good speech with a little preparation. Here are some guidelines.
A good speech is like good conversation
A good conversationalist will make a good speaker. He’s sensitive to the presence of others. His antennae are forever alert, picking up signals from his audience and involving them in his talk.
Good conversation is one of the great joys of human commerce. Good conversation should be like the game of tennis, in which the ball is struck back and forth, with each player participating equally. Bores are like golfers who just keep hitting their own ball, over and over and over again.
A good speaker is able to achieve a marvelous give-and-take with her audience, just as a good conversationalist does with the person she’s with. She recognizes that people in our society desire recognition more than any other factor.
She will ask her audience questions such as, “Do you agree with that?” Then she’ll pause and read their response — by their silence, their attention, their nods, their poking of the person sitting next to them, by their laughter, or by their seriousness at the right places.
If they’re bored, they’ll find ways of showing it, despite their best efforts. If they’re interested, they’ll show that too. And we have a duty to be interesting or we shouldn’t get up there in the first place. That is the task of the speaker, whether we’re the manager of the sales force, in a car dealership, an insurance agency, real estate office, or a large international organization. When interest leaves, the sell goes out of our message.
Our responsibility is not only to create a speech that will lead an audience to a believable conclusion; we must also make the very building blocks of that conclusion as fascinating as we can. It is in this way that we can hold the attention of our audience until we get to that all-important final point. In addition, if we can develop techniques that make our audience feel that we are conversing with them, we will convey that we care what they are thinking — and that will create the emotional climate for them to accept us as favorably as possible.
The single-theme formula
Professional salespeople, marketing experts, and leaders in the advertising profession know the importance of selling one thing at a time. Only catalogs can successfully handle a multitude of items. In a five-minute speech or even a long speech, it’s important to have a single theme, and, like a good salesperson, you pose the problem and then give your solution. At the end, the problem is restated and the solution quickly summarized.
Your opening statement should be an attention getter. For example, you might say, “Scientists all over the world are agreed that the world’s oceans are dying.” A sobering thought indeed. It captures immediate interest, and everyone is thinking, “Why, that would presage the end of the world. What are we doing about it?”
Using an internationally recognized authority as your reference, someone such as Jacques Cousteau, you provide the supporting evidence that your opening remark is indeed true, and then you proceed to outline the possible ways that the disaster might be averted. At the end, you might say, “Yes, the oceans of the world are dying today, but if we can marshal the combined efforts of the world’s peoples, if we can influence every maritime country to pass laws governing the pollution of the seas by oil tankers …” So you end on a note of hope and at the same time enlist the sympathy of every one of your listeners in your cause.
Not all talks are about social problems, of course. You might be talking about a recent fishing trip, in which case, you find something of special interest in the story and open with that. You might say “Ounce for ounce, the rainbow trout is one of the gamest fish on earth.” It’s a much better attention getter and interest stimulator than saying, “I want to tell you about my recent fishing trip.” A few words about the fish you were after, and then you can work in the rest. “Two weeks ago, John Cooper and I decided to try our luck on the White River near Carter, Arkansas. It’s one of the most naturally beautiful spots in the country” and so on. Stay with the trip and that rainbow trout, the hero of your story, and how good it tasted cooked over an open fire on the bank of the river. Then at the close, to more closely link your listeners to the subject, you might say, “If you’ve never been trout fishing, let me recommend it as one of the world’s best ways to forget your problems, clear your brain, and gain a new perspective. And when you hook a rainbow trout, you’re in for one of the greatest thrills of a lifetime.”
Watch your personal pronouns. Keep yourself out of your conversation as much as possible. As with the case of the fishing story, talk about the fish, the beautiful scenery, and your companions, other people you met, a humorous incident or two perhaps, but don’t keep saying, ” I did this” and “I did that.” The purpose of the speech is not to talk about you but rather the subject matter. There’s an old saying that small minds talk about things, average minds talk about people, and great minds talk about ideas. What you’re selling is almost always an idea, even if it’s painting the house. The idea is the good appearance or the protection of the house. The fishing trip story is about the idea of getting away and going after exciting game fish. One idea, well developed, is the key.
Just as a beautiful painting is put together by a thousand brush strokes, each stroke makes a contribution to the main theme, the overall picture. And it’s the same with a good speech.
Don’t be a comedian
Humor isn’t something that can be forced, nor should it be reached for. It’s something that comes naturally to those with the ability, or at least it seems to. If you have it, congratulations. Use it wisely. If you don’t have it, use it sparingly and make certain it’s really funny before you use it at all. Don’t try to dabble in one of the most difficult professions in the world — that of a stand-up comedian.
Before you include a joke in your speech, ask yourself this: Why am I telling it? Jokes aren’t necessary to the opening of a speech. Neither are funny comments, unless they have a clever tie-in of some sort that the audience will genuinely appreciate and enjoy.
I’ve heard so many tedious speakers say, following the introduction, “That reminds me of a story …” and then proceed to tell a story that hasn’t the faintest resemblance to anything said in the introduction at all. It didn’t remind him. He just wanted to tell a joke, and everybody in the audience knows it and begins to move their feet and cough and look around for the exit.
Here’s a good rule to follow that I’ve found works. If there is any doubt in your mind whatever, if there is the faintest feeling of uneasiness about a story, never tell it. That feeling of uneasiness is your more intelligent subconscious trying to tell you to forget it. Save if for the locker room at the club if you must tell it.
If you want a foolproof system, use the enormously successful Jack Benny system: Make yourself the joke. Benny has produced the most prolonged, helpless laughter in the history of show business. It happened on his old radio program when he was approached by a robber who said, “Your money or your life.” What followed was simply silence, the deadly, convulsively funny silence that only Jack Benny could manage. The silence lasted only a few seconds when the laughter began, then mounted and mounted and continued for a record-breaking period of time, I think something like 15 minutes. Finally, when it did subside, the robber repeated, “I said your money or your life.” And Jack Benny replied, “I’m thinking. I’m thinking.”
Again the laughter took hold and the program nearly ran out of time before it could even attempt to finish. A simple silence did it as Jack tried desperately to decide which was more important to him, his money or his life. He was always the loser in his elaborate plans, as is the coyote in his attempts to trap the road runner. People love us when we’re foiled by our own weaknesses.
If humor is your forte, then you don’t need any advice or help from me. If it isn’t, use it sparingly and in good taste. It’s wonderful when it’s right. It’s so awful when it isn’t.
Speak with style
I was a speaker at a hospital benefit, and as I waited in the wings of a large theater where the benefit was being staged, I noticed that one of the officials for the evening was on stage in front of the lectern reading the names of the various high school graduates from the community who had won scholarships in nursing. He never looked up at the audience. He spoke in such low monotones that he was difficult to hear, even with an excellent audio system, and his performance was as lackluster as any I’ve ever seen. When he was through, he walked back to where I was standing in the wings. As he disappeared from view to the audience, his face broke with a beautiful broad smile, and he said in a strong voice, “Man, am I glad that’s over.” I stopped him and I said, “You should have flashed that wonderful smile to the audience and used your normal voice. It’s excellent.” “Oh, that,” he shuddered. “I’m scared to death out there.”
Now, the audience got a picture of a very lackluster man with no personality and no style whatsoever, a total cipher. Yet, here was a good-looking man with a beautiful smile, an excellent style of his own that his friends and acquaintances no doubt greatly admired. I wanted to go on stage and say to that great audience. “I wish you could see so-andso as he really is. He’s quite a guy.”
Everyone has his or her own special style. It seems to come with the genes and the upbringing and the education, all of thousands of experiences that coalesce to form a person’s own unique style.
You have only to study prominent people on television to quickly see that each of them has a style all his or her own that he or she is completely unconscious of. Just as we should never doubt our hunches or our own unique powers, we should never doubt that we have a natural style. If, and it’s a big if — if we can be natural.
The key is to lose ourselves in our material. In an ideal speech, we are conscious of putting on a performance, but at the same time we’re so interested in what we’re talking about and we know our subject so thoroughly, we can immerse ourselves in it.
I was chatting with a salesman on an airplane one time. It turned out we were both going to the same convention. I had to speak. He had to receive his company’s highest honor as national sales leader. As our conversation grew more animated, I asked him the secret of being number one in sales with his company. And he gave me the most interesting answer. He said, “I was in this business for several years, and I tried hard and I worked hard, but I was a long way from the top. Then one day, a wonderful thing happened. All of a sudden, things were turned around. Instead of my being in this business, the business got into me.”
He looked at me and his eyes were shining, and he asked, “Do you know what I mean?” I told him I knew exactly what he meant and he could number himself among the most fortunate human beings on earth, the people who actually enjoy what they’re doing, the real stars. It reminded me of John Stuart Mill’s theory of happiness in his book Utilitarianism. He said that only those people who do not seek happiness directly are happy. People who spend their time helping others and are engaged in some art or pursuit — followed not by a means, but as itself an ideal end — find happiness along the way. The important part is that those who are the happiest are engaged in a daily pursuit, followed not just as a means, but as itself an ideal end. And it’s the same in making a fine speech.
Unless the speech is in us to the extent that we can forget ourselves to a degree, it will never carry the impelling, moving effect of a great speech, the kind that brings the audience to its feet at the end of it.
I’ll never forget as a youngster hearing Franklin D. Roosevelt say in a campaign speech in that high, stentorian, and effective voice, “We must prevent the princes of privilege from dominating this great country.” I remember so vividly the beautiful alliteration “prevent the princes of privilege.” Alliteration sticks in the mind, as does short poetry. At one time earlier in our culture, virtually all oral traditions, passed from one generation to another, were in a kind of poetry because it was easier to remember. How can we ever forget “Mary had a little lamb” or “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November”? Or how about powerful onomatopoeia such as “The stock market hit bottom with an ominous thud”?
Well, perhaps I could have thought of a more cheerful example, but there is poetry in the proper use of words. We hear so many bad speeches, a good one is like a cool green oasis in a burning desert. A good, but unaffected style helps.
They laughed when I stood up to talk
My friend Norm Guess, formerly of the Dartnell Company in Chicago, sent me a little piece on some of the causes of our fears of groups … and how to overcome them.
- The fear of self. Just plain self-consciousness, a feeling that expresses itself in the mental question, “What in blazes am I doing this for? How in the world did I get myself into this situation?”
- Reflections from the past. The remembrance, even subliminally, of old classroom failures; being laughed at or ridiculed.
- Overconcern about what others think. The questioning of our authority to be talking before such a group.
- Poor preparation. The panicky feeling that the speech needs work or complete overhauling or throwing away.
- Lack of courage to try new things. The fear of doing the unusual.
- Lack of encouragement from others. I know it always helps me tremendously to hear a comment such as, “The group is looking forward to hearing what you have to say.”
Well, what do you do about these problems?
- Recognize that others have the same fear.
- Try to analyze what and why you fear.
- Find a compulsion to speak; realize that you have important things to say and that you want to say them.
- Be prepared.
- Take a course; join Toastmasters.
- There’s nothing like actually doing it.
- Talk only on subjects you know very well, subjects you’re an expert on and feel comfortable with.Someone has said, “The human mind is a wonderful thing. It begins at birth and never stops until you get the chance to say something before a group of people.”
- Turn the situation around; realize that if you were in the audience, you’d be interested in what you have to say.