The thought expressed above is an all too common phenomenon for many who find themselves standing before an audience of strangers, all of whom seem to be looking straight into your mind and waiting in hopes that you will humiliate yourself. Known as the “Audience Stare,” it can make your throat constrict, freeze your brain and cause your mouth to emit strange, unrecognizable sounds.
If you were to survey 100 average men and women and ask them to list things which they find unpleasant or difficult to do, public speaking would almost certainly be one of the most frequently mentioned. It stands to reason, therefore, that those few of us who actually enjoy public speaking and have a natural or acquired talent to do so will not only be called upon to speak often, but will be acknowledged as having a unique ability. There is a school of thought which holds that good speaking ability is a talent with which people are born. While that may be true for some, it is nonsense to suggest that competent, even exceptional, speaking skills cannot be learned. I know many excellent speakers who have learned how to present their thoughts well enough to be sought after as speakers at a variety of events and occasions. Some have even created a lucrative career making speeches.
In my case it was probably a combination of some natural ability, desire, plus many years of speaking before audiences of all sizes and about more subjects than I can remember. My first-grade teacher reported to my parents that I liked to entertain the class and that I talked too much! Majoring in speech and English in college no doubt helped me progress as a speaker as well.
I am frequently called upon today to speak to a variety of groups including college classes, service clubs, chambers of commerce and political organizations and to serve as a master of ceremonies and/or auctioneer for a host of dinners and benefits. A typical year during my term as county chief executive included as many as 400 speeches. Despite enjoying speaking, I must admit that a schedule of that intensity was very difficult to maintain — not to mention the challenge of digesting so many rubber chicken dinners. Fortunately, my career has included assignments that allowed me to become familiar with a lot of different subjects; (chairman of the Port Authority — transportation, chairman of Alcosan and chairman of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority — water and sewer issues, chief executive of Allegheny County — politics, government, economic development, president of Turner Communications — media, chairman of the United Way — human services, president of Wexford Health Services — health care, etc.). A lot of reading keeps me abreast of changes and new information.
All of which brings me to Rule One: Know your subject. If you stand before an audience knowing that the opinions, ideas and information you are presenting will most likely be acknowledged as worthy of consideration, then your confidence level will soar. And self-confidence is the single most important ingredient of skills needed to be a successful speaker.
Rule Two: Organize your speech. Organize in a manner that will allow your audience to recognize the theme or thrust of your speech, understand what points you intend to make, identify those points and join you, mentally, in coming to a logical conclusion driven by the points and encompassed by the theme. It’s really not as complicated as it sounds.
Rule Three: Never read a speech. (Unless, of course, you become so famous that a hidden speech-prompter is always provided). It is fine to write a speech and even to commit it to memory, but don’t read word by word, page by page! Write down a few key words or phrases that will help you remember the sequence and text. This will allow you to make eye contact with the audience, which is Rule Four: Look at the audience. Look from side to side, front to back and in the middle. Some speakers combat nervousness by selecting three or four friendly faces seated in different areas of the audience and simply imagining that they are the only people to whom they are speaking.
Rule Five: Keep it short. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was delivered in approximately four minutes, yet is considered a classic. Twenty minutes is the absolute limit. Going beyond that period is risking losing the attention of the audience which, despite your belief they are mesmerized by your brilliance, want to either get another drink, go to the bathroom or go home. While a speech should be long enough to present the theme, salient points and logical conclusion, as short as eight minutes to as long as 18 minutes should be your guide.
Rule Six: Speak slowly and clearly. When you are certain that you are speaking too slowly, the speed will be just about right for your audience. Remember, this is not a casual conversation, but rather a presentation that requires careful delivery and just as careful reception in order to be successful.
Rule Seven: Use humor. If you subscribe, as do I, to the idea that a speech is a form of entertainment, then a quick way to win over and engage the attention of an audience is to get them laughing (unless the occasion is one of solemnity, such as a funeral or memorial service). Never use humor relative to race or religion, or which denigrates anyone or any one group (unless, of course, you are talking about Cleveland to a group of Steeler fans). Self-deprecating humor is usually the safest course.
Rule Eight: Say something positive about the group or oganization that has asked you to speak. Make it seem that you are pleased to be in their company rather than that they should be pleased you have agreed to speak.
Rule Nine: Ask that your introduction be brief. Nothing bores an audience more than a long introduction listing your every accomplishment since age six. Your biography most likely appears in the event program and can be referred to by your introducer after a sentence or two of highlights.
Rule 10: Relax. While there is nothing wrong with a rush of adrenaline to give you an added dose of energy, don’t allow the opportunity to be so momentous that you imagine the fate of the world depends on how well you fare over the next few minutes. If you apply my rules, one through 10, you will most likely be successful and deliver a speech that will inform, entertain and please your audience.
Note: My 10 rules will probably differ somewhat from those of other successful speakers. I suspect, however, that more than half of my rules will appear on everyone’s list.
Speaking well and knowing that you have connected with your audience is very fulfilling. In the course of the past 40 years I have experienced speaking highs and lows, many humorous occasions and a few bizarre incidents. On several occasions the sound system has failed, causing me to significantly shorten my remarks lest I lose my voice from shouting. Once in a windowless basement hall, before an audience of over 600 slightly inebriated conventioneers, the lights failed, plunging us into absolute blackness. I continued to speak and added that I had removed my clothes and urged the audience do likewise. I finished and left before the lights came back on — and before I learned if they had reacted to my suggestion.
The audiences I like best are college students, particularly graduate students, and graduating classes. Graduate students are intelligent, alert, engaged and curious. These attributes challenge me to produce my best effort. I have delivered a dozen or so commencement addresses. What makes these occasions so enjoyable is that everyone is in a good mood. The students are obviously happy, as are friends, family and faculty. An added advantage is that, because every group is different, I can use essentially the same message modified just enough to give it a topical flavor.
My audience sizes have varied from 10 to 10,000. The larger the audience the more important it is to be faithful to my rules. Regardless of the size of the audience, speaking, or more importantly communicating, is a critical skill for success in any field and an absolute necessity for leadership. A leader does not need to have the highest I.Q. in an organization but must be an effective communicator. Too often communication, both oral and written, is a discipline not emphasized enough in our schools and company training.
For me public speaking is an exhilarating endeavor that has given me many years of pleasure. While not everyone will select public speaking as a hobby, you can, at the least, rid yourself of the fear that speaking unnecessarily invokes. Tell yourself that this is something that you can and will do well.
Pay close attention to speakers you enjoy. Make notes about what you hear and observe from good speakers. Embrace my 10 Rules and announce: “Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be with you”… and mean it!