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Giving a good public speech — and making a difference

Presenting a really successful, effective speech — whether to the public or a specific business audience — is an elusive art and skill, sought by civic and business leaders since before Julius Caesar was a Roman consul.

Few have achieved this fully, and for those who have, like Julius, the support was often temporary. But speaking publicly to others may produce a lasting positive result if done well, making a real and positive difference in business and society. Remember Patrick Henry?

Public speaking is also a developed talent which must be constantly honed by practice. Not all gifted orators enjoyed initial success, and the risk-averse often give up just one speech short of making an impact for a cause or position in which they believe.

How strongly the speaker believes his own words and their importance to his listeners will determine whether he or she is game for one more try. That “one more shot” in a political campaign or a planning conference can produce the ultimate win. Don’t quit yet!

A number of skills

Skills in the areas of timing, content organization, voice tone, pitch and believability of message will all enter into a speaker’s credibility.

No one in history has excelled equally in all! Winston Churchill, the late-career master of studied eloquence and feeling, could sometimes talk on almost forever, fulminating like a vocal bulldog until his audience snoozed in their Parliament seats, rose to challenge him in frustration or voted for his bill when worn down by sheer weight of words.

Have you seen on C-SPAN what the House of Commons does to its leaders verbally? They make Congress look like Sunday School. In some venues, yes indeed, public speaking can be tough!

But Churchill also had a persistent, unpredictable stammer, product of an ungentle English childhood in which he saw his parents mostly on school holidays. He overcame it, finally using cue cards encrypted with stage directions. “Pause. Stammer. Correct self.” And he lit the cigar he always carried in hand. It became a consummate dramatic moment, no longer a liability.

Civilization, of course, is glad he discovered this masking device for a verbal weakness, and happy that the content of his message: “Hang in there, Brits!” was heeded by Washington and by FDR, as WWII progressed and London shuddered under the awful blitzkrieg of Hitler’s bombs. Public speaking skill became a nation’s survival tool.

When you believe…

Hitler’s own speaking style, of course, is well documented — scream, harangue, posture, aggrandize and call violently upon the worst of human nature in his audience.

With such blunt-force tactics, he led his country into disaster, for such demagogues can be riveting to hear, and millions often listen. Again, there are modern parallels!

Mass speeches by a person with a powerful belief system may become, as with Hitler and others, a magnetic force for good or evil, setting off social and geopolitical tidal waves. But such are the gifts which create human history — so it’s as valuable a skill to be able to critique and analyze core content of a compelling speaker, as to be one.

The persuasive abilities of a Churchill, a Mandela, Roosevelt and yes, a Hitler or Bin Laden — do not develop without practice, art and determination. None of these men began in silver-tongued brilliance, but all had one thing in common — they believed!

For a female counterpart, I know of no better model than Queen Elizabeth I’s exhortation to her armies at Tilbury Roads, against the Spanish Armada (which sank). Five hundred years later, her words still ring with power. And it worked. In addition, when the speaker so internalizes his or her message that they ARE the message, the earth’s axis does a shift. People attend, act, and war or peace is made. But everyone — not just heads of state — should know how to speak well under pressure, for our effectiveness as citizens, parents and professionals is greatly increased if we can.

Adding up

Here are some points to consider — all simple, but they add up:

1. Check your reflection in a full length mirror if possible, just before speaking. What will the audience see? (This includes your smiling skills — does it LOOK like a smile?)

2. Make your main point fast, early on. Keep your speaking rate moderate, unhurried. Time it in advance and don’t go over. Keep voice strong to the end.

3. Stick with the Rule of Three. This is what it is; this is why it matters; this is what you should do!

4. Memorize an energetic opening (no fat lady jokes, please) and close, word for word. Rehearse until it sounds spontaneous and has smoother delivery.

5. Prepare with a mental image, first, for the numerous eyeballs you will see. Yes, there’s more of them than you’ve got. Get ready, and it won’t overwhelm you.

6. Pronounce your “g’s” and word endings fully. Slang is for the country club barbecue or the ball game. You want to sound sharp, well educated or at least well read, and above all, credible.

7. Check your venue — space, sound acoustics, seating, equipment, etc. — yourself in advance, if possible. That’s what the roadies do for the Rolling Stones. Be your best “roadie,” it’s your tailored suit up in front of everyone!

8. Signal the end, and please — I do implore — CLOSE within three or four sentences. How many speakers do you recall who wrecked all their previous good will with an overlong, self-indulgent ending?

9. Remember — like Captain Kirk on the starship, you have the con! You know the script — they don’t. Even with peers at a medical convention, your speaking skills can get colleagues thinking in new ways. It’s not about you — it’s what you can do for patients that put you up there.

10. For heaven’s sake, forget what “they” think of you! Your wonderfulness is not on trial, but the value of your message. So if it’s got merit, sell the points, go for it, pull out the stops. Throw up in the parking lot later, if you must — but don’t cheat the moment, or your audience, with self-conscious nervousness. Stand and deliver!

And remember — unless it’s a real goat roast, they invited you to come and want to hear what you say. Most listeners are at least neutral. Take the energy of their attention like an actor does, and treat it like a fine fishing line — reel ‘em in!

And first, practice, practice, practice…if you don’t flub at least once (like Churchill) you’re not doing it right. Just keep getting OUT there in front — soon it will be easy, then exciting, then fun.

And your skills will become what the Lord meant them to be — real public service!

Contact guest columnist Linda T. Berry of Jackson-based LBA International via e-mail at ” LBAInternl@aol.com.


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