Public Speaking: Learning from Some of the Best

Have you given public speaking a try and decided it’s not for you?

It’s easy to both enjoy and be daunted by the talents of captivating speakers such as Canadian Rick Mercer, below. When you think about your turn at the podium, you may mistakenly hold yourself to standards it’s taken others years to achieve.

What? It Takes Time and Practice?

Of course it does. While many good speakers weave an air of magic when they take the floor, such auras are typically reflections of good old fashioned hard work.

It takes skill borne of experience to make something appear effortless

While a number of orators are naturally talented, even the most gifted have become that way by virtue of discipline, practice and investments of time to hone their skills.  That’s right – much like the best admin. professionals you admire. They didn’t become that way overnight, and you can bet that most had at least the occasional faux pas along the way.

Choose Not to Be Intimidated by Others’ Capabilities – Instead, Watch, Listen and Learn from Them

Instead of being intimidated, why not draw on the talents and expertise of speakers you admire – either on the international stage, or right in your own office or network? Next time you’re in an audience, pay attention to such speakers for techniques you can develop through time and practice.

 Pay attention to nuances, pauses, voice modulation and body language

… and then think about how you can adapt their approaches in a way that rings true to who you are. Watch for strategies and techniques that you will want to incorporate.

Some of the Best

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.

It’s inevitable that none of these speakers secured unanimous subscription to their views

… but do you think these speakers let that stop them from sharing their convictions? Not a bit. Instead, each speaker demonstrated skilful use of a turn of phrase to convey the substance of his knowledge and passion with clarity and confidence, in order to persuade his audience of his views. 

These experienced speakers reached out to their audiences without obvious benefit of notes. That, too, comes with experience, repetition and from a base of knowledge. These people spoke with conviction on topics for which they have passion, topics in which they believe. 

Paint pictures with your words, and emotionally engage your audience

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.”

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.

Admin. Professionals 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 constructive feedback.

Others among us are in careers that see us occasionally or regularly taking the floor to give a presentation. If you’ve done so, you may have turned to your executive as a role model. For readers 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?

What makes you want to listen to a speaker, rather than catnapping through a presentation?

When you have an opportunity to observe a skilled speaker, study how the speaker paces her/his words, and works to build a rapport with the audience. Look around you to gauge your fellow listeners’ reactions. 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 . Others develop an ability to cut to the chase, effectively breaking complex issues down into simplistic concepts that are more readily understood.

Effective speakers tell a story

They drawn upon a range of internal resources, and project their voices effectively. 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 person join the ranks of effective speakers? Watch for more soon on how to incorporate these elements into your public speaking.

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