Work Hard, Speak Better: An Introduction to Good Public Speaking

At your age the best way you can improve yourself is to learn to communicate better. Your results in life will be magnified if you can communicate them better. The only diploma I hang in my office is the communications diploma I got from Dale Carnegie in 1952… Without good communication skills you won’t be able to convince people to follow you even though you see over the mountain and they don’t.

– Warren Buffett (from The Investor’s Field Guide)

When Warren Buffett says that communication is important, it’s good to listen. But when many visionaries and business magnates and leaders say the same thing, then there’s a kernel of truth there that’s just hard to ignore.

To add to the chorus: “You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere,” says Lee Iacocca, the legendary American automaker. Likewise, “Communication is the most important skill any leader can possess,” shares Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group fame.

Communication covers a myriad of skills: writing, speaking in public, speaking one-on-one and – most importantly (though this is often not developed enough) – listening. In this day and age, personal communication now also touches upon social media and other digital communication platforms we have at our disposal.

But, for now, I’d like to focus on a particular skill that has been an extremely important tool for me: public speaking.

Public Speaking 101

To raise funds for a non-profit organization in 2017, I organized several rounds of small speech classes from scratch. Most of those who attended these classes were high school and college students who had very little public speaking experience.

Surprisingly, the program received very positive reviews, with one participant even sending me an e-mail several months after that she had won an inter-college speech competition.

“When I was making my speech, I remembered your lessons… It was my first big win. So, I just want to say thank you for the class,” she wrote in an e-mail that got me smiling from ear to ear.

I am in no way an expert in training for public speaking, but I’ll be sharing the flow of the program below to hopefully help you understand how to get started on building a solid public speaking foundation or even to help give insight on how you yourself can organize a speech class.

The Program

I created a simple one-day program that focused on enhancing the foundations of good public speaking.

Designed for a small group, the program started by helping students shed their inhibitions and build confidence even in unfamiliar situations. To do this, I asked the students – who were strangers to one another – to do a few fun but unexpected getting-to-know-you exercises which required speaking, guessing, asking questions, acting, and even some dancing and running.

My key instruction for them was: It’s okay to make a complete and utter fool of yourself today. And to truly practice and get better at public speaking, one needs to remember this as well.

With that done, we proceeded to first understanding and observing what made a great speech. I made the students watch several video clips of some of the most remarkable speeches made and delivered – from Martin Luther to Steve Jobs to Barack Obama and more – and asked them what they think made these speeches great.

These were our insights:

  • They often start with something that grabs your attention. The first line – or the first few lines – gets you hooked.
  • They told a personal story. Good speakers are good storytellers, but great speakers somehow have more skin in the game by weaving the subject of their speech into personal experiences that translate into real emotions being conveyed.
  • They only conveyed a few key points. For the point that they really wanted to focus on, they usually repeated or illustrated this in different ways. The best speeches, in fact, have that one line that instantly becomes the line – “I have a dream”.
  • They use simple terms. The point wasn’t to impress a crowd with a thesaurus’ or scientific paper’s worth of terminology; the point was to communicate. They’re able to craft speeches that would be understood by most everyone.
  • They actively engage the audience. They ask questions. They establish eye contact. They use words like “we” and “us”. They make the audience feel like they’re part of something at that moment.
  • They end with a tidy conclusion that summarizes the point of the speech. It’s a take-home statement that the audience can bring home on ponder on.
  • They really know their material. They didn’t just memorize a few unfamiliar paragraphs; they consolidated years of learning and expertise into material that they are in the best position to deliver. They have a deep understanding of their topic and message and what surrounds it.
  • What they were not saying was just as important as what they were saying. The way they acted so confidently, the way they spoke with passion and conviction, and the way their bodies and hands coordinated with their speech gave support to their voice.

All speakers have a variety of ways to communicate effectively, so here are some more examples to explore:

After understanding some common characteristics of a great speech, I then gave my students quick exercises to practice some of these characteristics. I asked them to try to write grab-you-by-the-collar introductions and tidy conclusions. I asked them to think about real experiences they’ve gone through in life, what they learned from these, and how these could be turned into stories to share in their speeches. I made the students review their areas of expertise, their passions, and the topics they know by heart – and to take note that it’s best to speak with what you already know than what you don’t. And I asked them to write short speeches that were simple, direct, and engaging – and to deliver these with limited practice.

For the finale, the participants then had an hour to write and prepare for a final speech using all they’ve learned. They delivered their speeches, one by one, and were given detailed feedback by fellow participants. The day ended with all of us gathering to discuss what our most important take-aways from the program were.

It was a long and intensive day.

Practice, Practice, Practice

In a follow-up e-mail which I sent to all the participants, I had one piece of advice.

I wrote, “…great public speaking takes lots of grit and practice, so don’t stop learning and trying. As Dan Shipper says, “…my final advice is that mental tricks to make yourself feel more comfortable only go so far when it comes to public speaking. Ultimately, the only cure for insecurity is experience. You just have to get out there and make a fool of yourself a few times before you get really comfortable.

I continued, “…take as many opportunities as possible to practice. With every opportunity, prepare thoroughly and aim for your best performance yet. It will be challenging and nerve-wracking (and sometimes disappointing), but you need the experience. Be mindful of the need not just for normal practice, but for deliberate practice.

“Moreover, take time to discover your speaking style. Grow into one that fits your personality, your story, and your purpose. It will be useful to keep on watching different kinds of speeches to discover the styles you like – and styles you don’t like.”

What Else?

Since this was a very light introduction to what constitutes good public speaking, I highly suggest – aside from practicing – reading up on these absolutely helpful materials.

Some Quick Articles:
Some Useful Books:
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie*
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – Robert Cialdini

*This is an absolute must-read to help in broad communication – not just public speaking.

Though I have not tried any online classes, there may also be a myriad of free (and paid) webinars or even coached practice sessions that you can explore online.

One Last Thing

I’d like to end as I started with another quote that I think provides a good summary – and a compelling take – on what constitutes good public speaking.

There are three things to aim at in public speaking: first, to get into your subject, then to get your subject into yourself, and lastly, to get your subject into the heart of your audience.

– Alexander Gregg

Good luck!

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