According to various surveys and polls, public speaking is one of the most frightening things a person will have to do in his or her life, often more feared than severe physical dangers, even death.
For some people, public speaking is a fairly natural part of life’s routine. Teachers, salesmen, supervisors- all of these do have to speak to crowds of some size on a regular basis. And perhaps certain personalities gravitate toward jobs and situations in which public speaking is a necessity. It is rare to meet a professor, a trial attorney, or a military drill instructor who is meek and shy and afraid to hear their own voice come out of their mouth in front of a group. But it is common to meet scientists, librarians and architects who have such fears. As well as delivery drivers, construction workers and accountants. Anyone who is not required to speak to crowds in an organized, compelling and articulate manner may harbor extreme trepidation at the prospect of public speaking. In fact, even some of the aforementioned people who do speak publicly on a regular basis may not feel that they are up to the level of ease and effectiveness that they would like to be or that they feel is expected of them.
The need to speak publicly often comes up outside of one’s job or profession. Perhaps you need to toast someone at a wedding, or deliver a humorous trip-down-memory-lane speech at a birthday party or anniversary dinner. Maybe at your house of worship you are suddenly called upon to speak to the congregation. Or you join a social or political organization where you unexpectedly find yourself in a leadership role. Maybe you find yourself in court, called to the stand in a trial, and you must rise to the occasion like Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men” and deliver a blistering, unforgettable speech capped by the legendary phrase “You can’t HANDLE the truth!”. Whatever the case may be, instances of important public speaking are almost sure to come your way.
Instead of dreading your moments in the spotlight, you can easily follow just a few simple steps and learn to thrive there; to be the bold, assured public speaker that makes everyone feel at ease and who inspires confidence and heightened listening at your every word.
Let’s look at four essential ingredients to a great public speaker. If you only remember what I call ‘The Four C’s’, you will be way ahead of the game. In fact, you will be able to come off like a pro. The Four C’s are Composure, Cadence, Communication and Comedy. Let’s find out exactly what they entail.
1.) Composure. This means how you present or carry yourself. Your body is your instrument. You are thinking: “Wait, my mouth is my instrument when I’m speaking.” Yes, but your entire body is physically the vessel that carries your voice, and visually, emotionally and even spiritually, your entire body helps you connect with the people that you are talking to.
Try to stand straight up, and make your spine and your limbs straight. Not ramrod, uptight, stiff straight, but self-respecting, commanding straight. Stand to your full height. If you are much more comfortable leaning over just a bit, or bent slightly, that is OK. The point is, find your “power position”, where your body feels most naturally authoritative and deserving of being looked at and listened to.
Look out and survey the crowd. Develop hand gestures that convey strength and discipline. Perhaps fingers together, facing up , like a “church steeple”, or a very loosely made fist like Bill Clinton used to do, or a flat “karate chop” hand. Some people point. Some give the “thumbs-up”. Some lightly slap the table or podium under them for emphasis. The point is, experiment beforehand and find your “power position” and your “power moves” or “power gestures”.
If you feel nervous at the outset of a speech, take more time before starting, become more deliberate and look around the room and the crowd for a few moments. You know exactly why you are taking time and looking around. Everything you do is on purpose. You are in control. You are leading and the crowd will follow. This is just a law of nature.
2.) Cadence. This means the tempo, rhythm or speed that you are speaking. Most people, most of the time, simply speak too fast. They rush. If you are at all a nervous type who has any inclination at all to speak quickly, especially when nervous, then SLOW DOWN. Make yourself speak a good fraction slower than what initially comes out of your mouth.
Slowing down a bit helps make you seem more deliberate and in control. To the audience, what sounds slow to you probably sounds very coherent and actually easier to understand. Also, if it doesn’t sound hasty and rushed, then almost subliminally the message to people is that: “however long it takes for him to say it and for us to sit through it all, we know that it must be interesting and well worth hearing, because he’s not rushing and not acting apologetic about having to tell it. It must actually be important.”
However, if you suspect that you might be a naturally slow talker, then ask a few friends or confidantes and confirm this. If you really are a very slow talker, then speed up a bit. But most of you will naturally be on the fast side when initially public speaking.
3.) Communication. OK, you know what this word means literally. But what do I really mean by it? It’s so easy to forget when speaking in public, but you are really just having some kind of conversation with human beings. It could be a Presidential address, trial attorney in court, actor thanking the Academy Awards or standup comedian doing his bits. They are all just SPEAKING TO HUMANS. Sure, the audiences don’t literally answer back, and sure the size and scope of the situation is very different from an intimate conversation, but the basic mechanics of intention, emotion and personal need are really the same. And I know that every one of you reading this knows how to talk, how to just talk to a person, be it a family member, co-worker, friend, shopkeeper, what have you. When you talk to another person, you naturally and unconsciously attach real emotion and urgency to what you are saying, because the words really mean something to you. They come from a need, whatever that might be: “Can I have some potato chips?”, “I can’t believe you finished your report.”, “I hate the 405 Freeway!” or “Will you give me a hug?” It sounds simple, and in your everyday life it IS simple.
Being a human being, you are a GENIUS in communicating realistically and compellingly. Now, simply bring that to your public speaking. When you speak, imagine a real person you know, right in front of you, or out in the audience. Speak to that one person if you need to. Connect with that person in your mind. Convince him or her of the importance, the deep meaning of what you are saying. Unless you are just calling bingo numbers, or reciting statistics for half an hour, you are not just saying words. You are saying THOUGHTS, FEELINGS and IDEAS. You are communicating MEANINGS.
Now, of course, emotional doesn’t mean loud, overly dramatic or scary. It means literally that there is some emotional component or feeling attached to it, the way regular people really speak almost all the time, at least regular people that you want to listen to.
Therefore, to summarize Communication, practice public speaking as if you are conversing with close friends or people that do not intimidate you at all. And make personal, emotional associations with what you are saying so that it sounds like you CARE about those ideas. Because you really DO care about them. Because then the audience will care.
4.) Comedy. Humor, levity, funniness, comedy. By whatever name, it is a very potent and valuable weapon in public speaking. Presidents use humor. Corporate CEO’s use it. Law enforcement uses it. So do military brass, athletes, teachers, managers and professionals of every type, stripe and classification.
Human beings use humor, and not just those we think of as being “clowns”, “jokesters” or “funnymen”. Sometimes the most deadly serious character can crack a sharp comedic line and bring down the house, elevating his stature and command to even higher levels. Think about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the Terminator movies. He was a huge, heartless, robotic killing machine. And he had a series of funny one-liners that have become among the most widely used and appreciated in the world. Now you are probably not a heartless, humorless robot. In fact, you probably do already use humor at times in your life. The key is bringing appropriate, razor-sharp humor into your public speaking.
If you feel unable to write clever, appropriate, relevant and gut-bustingly funny lines into your speech or presentation, fear not. There are professional comedy writers out there who can make you hilarous at just the right moments for a reasonable and affordable price, and no one in the audience need be the wiser. In fact, they might all just assume that you were the brilliant comedic mind behind the golden zingers.
I happen to own a company called The Funny Business that creates custom-written comedic content for whatever your need. We’ve done speeches, toasts and roasts for weddings, birthdays, bar mitzvahs and corporate promotions. We’ve done presentations that involve fairly detailed, specific corporate and technical lingo. We’ve done standup material for both top-level and aspiring standup comedians. In fact, if you come to The Funny Business and request something funny to be written, we’ll do it! Unless we can’t do it, and then we’ll tell you so, but probably in a funny way.
Not everybody was born a giant of public speaking- a Bill Clinton, a John F. Kennedy, a Winston Churchill. But with a little work, a bit of preparation and some serious concentration on The Four C’s, just about anybody can become a strong and compelling public speaker.