By Brian Tracy
Whenever someone asks me how he can become a successful public speaker, I paraphrase to him the words of Elbert Hubbard, who said, “The only way to learn to speak is to speak and speak, and speak and speak, and speak and speak and speak.”
But while it’s true that the only way to become good at anything is by repetition, over and over until it becomes second nature, there are many things that you can do immediately to be more effective speaking in front of audiences of any size.
The dean of American public speakers, Dr. Kenneth McFarland, wrote a book titled, Eloquence in Public Speaking. In this book, a classic in the speaking industry, he did not talk about methodology or technique at all. His central message, which strongly influenced me when I began speaking publicly, was that the key to eloquence is the emotional component that the speaker brings to the subject.
To put it another way, the starting point to becoming excellent as a speaker is to really care about your subject.
I watched Wally “Famous Amos” give a talk to 1000 professional speakers in Anaheim a few years ago. He had started with little money and built up an extraordinarily successful chocolate-chip cookie business. Famous Amos Cookie stores sprung up all over the country, making him both wealthy and famous.
He then began to devote much of his time and money to helping people who are less fortunate, especially those who cannot read. His goal for this speech was to attract support for his charitable work.
He was clearly not a professional speaker and everyone was curious to see how he would make his presentation. But even without training or experience, his talk was absolutely excellent, and the reason was because he spoke from his heart. He spoke with a deep concern and compassion about the needs of people who couldn’t read. He wanted to get across to the audience how important it was for everyone to be concerned about this problem, not only for the individuals involved but also for the future of America as a competitive nation.
Although his structure and his style may not have been as polished as that of someone who had spoken professionally for many years, he was eloquent because he really cared about his subject, and everyone listening could sense that emotion. He got a standing ovation that went on and on.
He demonstrated that the starting point of good public speaking is to pick a subject that is really important to you. You always begin by thinking about the experiences and ideas that have had an extraordinary impact on you, the information that you would like to share with others because you intensely feel that they could benefit from your knowledge just as you have benefited.
Let us say, for example, that you feel that people could be far more successful in life if they learned how to be more understanding of others. You have found, in your own life, that the more you worked at understanding how others were feeling, and where they were coming from, the more effective you became in interacting and communicating with them. Because of the impact that this knowledge had on your life, you feel that others could benefit from learning and practicing what you have learned and practiced.
With this, you have a springboard off of which you can leap into your first public talk.
The second part of public speaking is preparation. Preparation is more important than any other factor in speaking except caring about your subject.
Ernest Hemingway once said that to write well, you must know ten words about the subject for every word that you write. Otherwise, he said, the reader will know that this is not true writing. The reader would feel that this writing is shallow and insincere.
According to the experts in public speaking, to speak persuasively, the standard is much higher. You must know 50 or 100 words for every word you speak. Otherwise, your audience will have the sense that you don’t really know what you are talking about.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PREPARATION
It’s not unusual for a person to spend many hours, days and even weeks preparing for an important talk. I was once invited to give a 20-minute presentation to an elite group of top executives and politicians in a private meeting in Silicon Valley. Because of the potential importance of this talk, I did 16 hours of review and preparation. I read the minutes and reports from the previous meetings, and memorized the biographies of each key person. I planned my opening words carefully, and memorized them.
The executives did not know that the chairman, my client, was bringing in an outside speaker. When I was introduced to the group, I saw immediately that several of the attendees were not happy that I was there. Nonetheless, I smiled, scanned the group, and began.
As I spoke, I moved around, made eye contact, and quoted from things the various people had said in previous meetings. At the end of 20 minutes, I closed my talk by asking them to allow me to facilitate the rest of the meeting. The entire group agreed unanimously. It was a complete success. In thinking back, I was deeply happy that I had spent so much time in preparation. It was a turning point in my speaking career.
A MASTERFUL PRESENTATION
My good friend, Nido Qubein, now President of High Point University, once gave a one-hour talk to several hundred members of the National Speakers Association in Atlanta, Georgia on the future of the speaking industry in the 21st century. The talk was scheduled for one hour. He concluded it in 59 minutes and 55 seconds.
Nido gave the talk without notes. He built the talk around ten key ideas and insights. He then developed each of the ten parts of the talk in a logical way, holding the complete attention of the audience. Each of the ten sections contrasted a pair of principles that involved marketing or sales or promotion. Each of those parts was thoughtful and detailed, and each idea was both insightful and thought provoking.
As he spoke, he walked back and forth across the platform. He gave specific examples and anecdotes to illustrate each point that he was making. He impressed me, and the entire audience, with the depth of his knowledge and with the thoroughness of his preparation.
He gave the talk as though he had given it 100 times before. He was extremely relaxed, genial and friendly throughout. He smiled and used body language skillfully to convey key points, and to illustrate and emphasize his key points. It was a beautiful example of professional speaking.
Later, in talking with Nido, I learned that, even though the talk was meant to be given only once, he had spent more than 100 hours of preparation, over a period of two to three months, getting the talk to the point where it was “just right.”
FALLING ON YOUR FACE
A good friend of mine, a professional trainer, told me a story recently about a speaking experience he had had recently. He had been speaking on his subject for several years. He had become so confident that he had gone in front of an important business audience with almost no preparation for a half-day presentation. He felt that his knowledge of the subject would enable him to pull off the talk without anyone’s realizing that he had not done the in-depth preparation that is necessary for that kind of a presentation. He did not fully understand the special situation, business and problems of this group.
To make it short, he told me the presentation was a disaster. Within a few minutes, he knew that he wasn’t fully prepared. In a few more minutes, the audience knew that he wasn’t fully prepared. They were both insulted and unresponsive. By the end of the first hour, the session had evolved into a series of critical questions from audience members, followed by challenges, disagreements and arguments that took up the rest of the morning. It was a terrible experience for him, and it was caused solely because he had neglected to prepare.
The next time my friend got a chance to make a presentation in front of a business audience, he spent every spare moment the week before fastidiously preparing and organizing. This time, he was ready. The presentation went off without a hitch. He received rave reviews and commentaries from the audience. Afterward, he told me that failing to prepare for the previous talk was one of the most valuable lessons he had ever learned. He would never again make the mistake of thinking that he could get by simply with knowledge of the subject.
PREPARATION IS THE MARK OF THE PROFESSIONAL
To prepare for a talk, the first thing you do is to write out an objective statement of what you wish to accomplish as a result of your presentation. Whether you are giving a 10-minute presentation or a six-hour presentation, the statement of your objective is the same. It is the answer to the question: “Who is my audience, and what effect do I want my talk to have upon them?”
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The aim of all public speaking is to move the listeners to take action of some kind, action that they would not have taken in the absence of the talk.”
You need to ask, “What action do I want this audience to take as a result of the things I say to them?” Write out this statement of your objective clearly. Then write down everything that you think you could possibly say, one point after the other, to this audience to cause them to take this action. Remember, the reason for public speaking is not simply to teach or to share information. It’s to move people’s minds and hearts in such a way that they do something differently, that they change their behavior in some way.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Once you have an outline of what you want to accomplish and some of the things that you can say to accomplish it, begin to do your research. Gather information. Ask the meeting organizer. Go onto Google. If you don’t feel that you have enough information, begin to read and to ask questions.
Another friend of mine, a top professional speaker, was asked to give a talk on something about which he felt very strongly, the importance of strategic thinking, but on which he had not done very much reading. He was amazed to find that it took him two solid weeks of reading and taking notes to gather enough information to give a one-hour talk on strategic thinking.
When you begin to speak professionally, you’ll be amazed at how much work you will have to do, even on a subject with which you’re relatively familiar, before you’re in a position to speak fluently on the issue. Remember, you need to know 100 words for every word that you say. You need to have read at least 100 words for every word that goes into the talk that you give to an audience. If you’ve not done this quantity of research, both you and the audience will know very quickly.
WRITE IT OUT
If you’re giving a short talk, the best strategy I have found is to write it out, word for word. Then read through it and edit it. Revise it wherever necessary. Add to it, and subtract unnecessary data. Work on it until it is polished, and then read through it several times so that you have such a good sense of the material that you can go through the entire talk prior to falling asleep or while you are driving your car.
Not long ago, I was invited to give a 22-minute keynote talk to an audience of more than 5,000 professionals. The organizers asked me for a written script of the talk, which they would carefully review and critique before giving me the go-ahead to put it into its final form for presentation to their audience.
Although I knew the subject intimately, it took me many hours to write and rewrite the script for the talk. I then gave the talk to a special audience of reviewers from this organization. They gave me about 20 ideas on how to expand or improve the talk in some way. I then rewrote the talk again and submitted it to them for their approval. Only then did I get the go-ahead to give the talk to the 5,000-person audience four months later.
OVER PREPARATION IS THE KEY
Once the talk had been finalized, I then reviewed it and rehearsed it more than 50 times. I need to memorize it so completely that I could give it from my heart rather than simply read the words from the teleprompter that they insisted I use to assure that there was no deviation from the approved texts.
The net result of all this preparation was that the talk brought a standing ovation from 5,000 people. Later, the organizers told me that it had been one of the very best talks ever presented to this group in 37 years of conventions that this organization had been holding.
It was no miracle. Every single additional effort at preparation eventually paid off. Preparation will account for fully 90 percent of your success in public speaking. You may not have the platform skills of a great orator, but you can be an extremely effective speaker if you do your homework and prepare thoroughly.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
The first two parts of successful public speaking are caring and preparing. The third part is practicing. You need to practice your talk over and over, in front of friends and relatives and associates, and even in front of a mirror.
If you have an audio recorder or, even better, a video camera, record yourself giving the talk from beginning to end. Then listen to it or watch it, and make notes on how you could make it better. If you are videotaping your talk, look right into the camera and use the same facial expressions and body gestures that you would use if you were speaking to someone personally. When you critique yourself, be hard on yourself. Remember, the more honest and objective you can be about how you come across to others, the more effective you will be when you stand up to speak.
Practice makes perfect, and repeated practice makes it even better.
FROM THE MOUTHS OF CHILDREN
Let me tell you a story concerning my daughter Christina, who was 10 years old at the time. Christina was attending a private school near our home. The school wanted to add on a new building but was rebuffed by a neighborhood group that had gotten together to appear at a city council meeting to loudly disagree with the expansion of the school. The members of the council had no choice but to suspend the application, neither approving nor disapproving it.
The founders of the school asked me if I would help them to prepare a presentation to the city council, to help them to make a second attempt to get the building permit. I told them that I would work with them but that the entire presentation would have to be very carefully prepared and organized in advance. Previously, they had just walked into the city council chambers unprepared to face an entrenched opposition, and they had been defeated hands down.
While we were reviewing our strategy for the presentation, Christina spoke up and said that she wanted to get up and ask the city council members to approve the permit. She actually wanted to speak at a public hearing. I told her that she could but she would have to write out her talk, word for word, and memorize it if she wanted to get a chance to speak.
TAKE IT SERIOUSLY
Before the week was out, she had sat down with her baby-sitter and my wife and written out a five-minute presentation. She then read and reviewed it, over and over, and prior to the city council meeting, she was able to stand in front of the family and deliver her speech word for word without notes.
On the evening of the city council meeting, various adults gave parts of the planned presentation and were quite effective. But perhaps the turning point in the entire process was when little Christina stood up on a chair behind the speaker’s lectern and gave her talk, ending with the words, “Please pass this application and save our school!”
The reaction from people in the crowed city council chamber was incredible. Even though many residents of the surrounding neighborhood had gotten up to speak against the application, the city council voted to approve it. More than 130 adults, including representatives of two local newspapers, were in the audience. The following day, on the front pages of both local newspapers, Christina Tracy was written up—and quoted— as the 10-year-old girl who had swayed the city council into approving the application.
ADVANCE YOUR CAREER
Your ability to speak effectively in front of a public or private audience can do more to advance your career and increase your income than perhaps any other skill you can develop.
That being said, it is normal and natural for you to be nervous about public speaking. Fifty-four percent of American adults rank public speaking ahead of fear of death among life’s major fears. Most people become nervous and uneasy at the very thought of standing up to speak in front of an audience.
Almost all people who can today speak fluently and fearlessly were at one time terrible public speakers. But they faced their fears and did it anyway, over and over, until the fear went away, which it always does.
However, you can overcome this fear, just as you can learn to type or ride a bicycle. You can take a course from the Dale Carnegie organization, or you can join your local chapter of Toastmasters International. These organizations help you with a process of what psychologists call “systematic desensitization.” At every meeting, you get a chance to stand up and speak to a small group of other people who also want to learn to speak. Eventually, your fears go away and are replaced with confidence. Within six months, you’ll be quite accomplished at selecting a subject, organizing your material and presenting the subject effectively within a specific time period.
JUST DO IT!
Speaking professionally is not really a skill that you can decide to develop or not. You don’t really have a choice. If you want to realize your full potential in the world of business, you must learn how to communicate more effectively with groups of people. I have seen executives make extraordinary career leaps, saving themselves as much as five to ten years of time working up the executive ladder, simply by speaking extremely effectively in front of their peers at a corporate meeting. I’ve observed men and women who’ve put their careers onto the fast track by overcoming their fears and learning how to speak effectively before others.
Pay any price, spend any amount of time, overcome any obstacle, but make a decision, right now, that you are going to learn to speak well before groups. It could be one of the most important decisions you ever make in assuring long-term success in your career.