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A Dozen Ways to Improve Your Speaking
For years I have enjoyed listening to speakers of all types and trying to identify what makes them successful. Many preachers have developed their skills to a level of art, like Charles Swindoll or Joyce Meyers. With rare exceptions like President Barak Obama or, depending on the occasion, Sarah Palin, civic and political leaders typically lag far behind religious leaders in polish and presentation. Regardless of who they are, leaders would do well to forever work on improving their communication skills.
Here are a few handy nuts and bolts:
Talk. The first law of communication is to communicate, so if you want people to get the message, share the message. And you must speak in a vocabulary – as simple as possible – and in a way that others can understand. Don’t do what some professors try to do, but impress the audience with multi-syllable words. Does not work. When the audience goes home, the only thing they remember is your hubris. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) – it doesn’t get much simpler than that.
Don’t apologize for talking. It is one thing to hear a rare speaker give a nervous apology on the platform of the church; it is quite another to hear this from a manager. If speaking makes you nervous, get over it or get another job. Your excuses for being uncomfortable make everyone else uncomfortable. The more comfortable you are “in your own skin”, the more comfortable your audience will be with your presentation.
Convey trust. Take responsibility for the opportunity to speak and treat listeners with respect. Say “thank you” but don’t shower. Do whatever you can to develop your confidence: prepare properly, practice, use notes, etc. Stand physically relaxed and avoid signaling nerves with strange or extraneous movements.
Connect with the audience. Smile. Look directly at people individually and collectively. Scan the entire audience in a natural and measured way so that everyone feels that you are speaking to them. During or at the event, pay attention to a development that is unique to the occasion than to mention it at the beginning of your speech. Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer is a master at this. Each time, the dingy old high school auditorium or the Waldorf Astoria, he finds something to say that is distinctive and complimentary to his listeners and their venue. Know your audience and relate directly to them, their city or their event today. Make them feel special – why comedians leave stage left saying, “You’ve been a great audience.”
Develop a few appropriate one-liners that work anywhere. Old stand-by one-liners – which you are comfortable with – are always there for you like a good friend. They reduce your anxiety, help you convey confidence and connect with the audience, and help engage the audience and help them relax. One of my favorites goes like this: “I’ve always wanted to speak at XYZ. (short pause) Now guess I can die happy.” That you never fail to have a laugh.
Never read your speech. It may be appropriate to read a short formal notice or a reference to someone else’s opinion. But reading your content is the fastest way to lose your audience’s attention, put them to sleep, or literally lose them when they vote with their feet out the back door. I once sat in the gallery of the Michigan Legislature listening to Governor John Engler deliver his State of the State address. While I appreciated him and most of his ideas, I struggled to stay focused as he thoroughly read line after line. You can guess what the opposition party did. To the governor’s credit, he got better over time, according to a few of his confidants, with professional help and practice. Good for him. Good for his constituency.
Be brief. FDR’s “Be sincere; be brief; stay seated” is a good rule of thumb for any speaker. In November 1863, Edward Everett delivered the keynote address at the dedication ceremony for a new military cemetery in Gettysburg, followed by President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” Everett later wrote to Lincoln, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the event in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
Tell stories. Jesus generally spoke to crowds of followers in parables, which are short stories from everyday life that contain an application of deeper spiritual truths. While more than thirty parables are recorded in the Gospels, the Book of Mark records that Jesus used many other parables in his public speaking ministry. Yes, “He spoke nothing to them except in parables” (Mark 4:33-34). People are interested in people, and that’s what a leader’s best stories should be about.
State core values and/or state goals clearly. Put your values and goals into any major presentation. Why? Because an important way to motivate people is to make sure they know where they are going. Values and goals are part of a vision statement. Share them, or better yet, as a leader embody them. Lead by example.
Be positive. “Negative campaigning” has long since become commonplace in American life. But a manager is better off taking the high road. Ronald Reagan gave us a version of this, his 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any other Republican.” Describe who you and your organization are, not who others or competing organizations are not. Being quoted in the media with an attack on others is more about ego or revenge than it is about advancing your organization’s vision. No one follows a flamethrower for long. The heat is too intense.
Use props to enhance, not replace, your speech. PowerPoints, video shorts, images, audio and other technology can be hugely effective tools for engaging an audience. But you’re still the talker, and for my money you should talk. No medium has yet been developed that is as persuasive as a passionate person who truly believes in what he or she is saying. Use props wisely, but don’t forget the natural power of going “unplugged.”
Use your same (best) sight speech repeatedly. Leadership expert Barry Z. Posner’s formula for good vision communication: “Repetition, repetition, repetition!” Richard Nixon made the point more colorful: “About the time you write a line you’ve written so often you want to throw up, that’s the time the American people want to hear it.” Communicate the vision convincingly and persistently at every possible opportunity. And don’t worry if you share the vision too often. Management consultants Thomas Werner and Robert Lynch recommend that managers communicate their vision 7 times in 7 different ways. I would say much more often than that.
These elements are suggestions born of experience, not rules. Some will search all the time. Some will apply sometimes. It’s your judgement.
You are the leader. Lead with your words.
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