Public Speaking: Learn from Some of the Best

Study and emulate the best, without ever losing sight of yourself.

Picture yourself in a room alongside hundreds of others listening to a former President such as Bill Clinton or Vincente Fox wax eloquently about a significant issue. Or perhaps National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence Wade Davis, a botanist and anthropologist who screens breathtaking photos in accompaniment of his perspectives on why ancient wisdom matters in a modern world. Imagine Stephen Lewis, Companion of the Order of Canada and Former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, delivering his impassioned views on international development and human rights.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been in the right places and times to hear these four speakers in person. Vincente Fox offered political perspectives and his insights on the roles of education and business in Mexico’s development. In Clinton’s case, I was one of thousands who paid to hear his call to action in support of the Clinton Foundation’s endeavours. This former President’s presence at a June 2013 event is said to have garnered a speaking fee, directed to the Foundation rather than Clinton himself, that averaged out at $11,100 per minute. This impressive rate presumably included well timed pauses, but more about those later.

With individuals of varied political persuasions and personal insights in each of the four venues, it’s inevitable that none of these speakers secured unanimous subscription to their views.

That didn’t detract from each speaker’s skilfull use of a turn of phrase to convey the substance of his knowledge and passion with clarity and confidence, without obvious benefit of notes. All four tapped in to the imagery of words, and effective modulation of voice, to reach out and emotionally engage the audience. To a person, each understood the effectiveness of silence and demonstrated the art of a well placed pause. Mark Twain understood this more than a century ago; he encouraged speakers that, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

I’ve also had the privilege of witnessing Peter Legge speak. In addition to being a successful entrepreneur, best-selling author and community leader, Legge is a member of the Speakers Roundtable, an invitation-only society of 22 of North America’s top professional speakers. On stage to receive yet another honour, Legge demonstrated mastery of brevity as well as the concepts above. He spoke of himself only in terms of appreciation of the honour before dedicating the balance of his time on stage to offer words of inspiration from the listeners’ perspectives.

Assistants as Public Speakers

When it comes to public speaking, exceptional assistants and administrative professionals – whatever the job title – typically expend their energies supporting others’ presentations, be it drafting of speaking notes, conducting research, securing background information or serving as a test audience and providing trusted feedback.

Others among us are in careers that see us occasionally or regularly taking the floor to give a presentation, and can turn to our experience in supporting our executive’s or boss’ presentations in honing our own skills. For EAs with limited public speaking experience, this is a good starting point, but where do you go from there?

Begin your public speaking experiences by putting your expectations in perspective.

Recognise that, while we can learn from the masters, we needn’t place inordinate expectations or pressure upon our shoulders by expecting that we will perform at a professional level. After all, it’s unlikely you’ll be commanding a fee, let alone one in the ballpark of $11,000 a minute!

What we can do is recognise that Clinton, Fox, Legge, Lewis and Wade are individuals who have built professional speaking careers from their respective foundations of expertise. If you’re embarking on a path of improving your public speaking skills, it helps to speak about a topic on which you’re well informed, and ideally one for which you have a passion – or at least a high degree of interest. Knowledge and interest lend authority and enthusiasm to your words, and may help prevent your knees from suddenly wobbling at the thought of giving a presentation!

Think about a speaker you’ve enjoyed, in whatever setting – a coach, someone proposing a toast at a wedding, a teacher or prof in front of the classroom, or someone from your professional world. What made you want to listen to this person, as  opposed to counting down the minutes until the speech, presentation or meeting would conclude? When you have an opportunity to observe a skilled speaker, study how the speaker paces him/herself and works to build a rapport with the audience; look around you to gauge your fellow listeners’ reaction. Learn from the best speakers you can observe in action, and consider which practices you might emulate or incorporate in your presentations, without ever losing sight of your sense of self.

Effective speakers are confident by virtue of having done their homework

Not only do they understand their audience and their topic, effective speakers are self-aware and continually work to enhance their skills. Some speakers are known for their dynamic delivery, others for their humour or ability to cut to the chase and break the complex down into simplistic concepts that are more readily understood.

Effective speakers tell a story

They drawn upon a range of internal resources. The best speakers draw upon their voices, eyes, body language, passion and the use of silence as instruments through which they tell their story to engage listeners.

Effective speakers are generous

… with their insights, integrity and respect for the audience’s time, interests and understanding of the topic. An effective speaker will continually read and seek to engage the audience, and will know when to stop.

So, how does a peson join the ranks of effective speakers? Watch for more soon on how to incorporate these three elements into your public speaking.

5 Comments on “Public Speaking: Learn from Some of the Best

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