You’ve seen them before; sure fire methods guaranteed to improve your public speaking ability. Things like “Five Steps to Podium Prowess” or “Seven Tips to Add Punch to Your Public Persona.” My favorite is “The Two by Four Method of Gaining Audience Attention.”
Really though, the problem with many methods is that they deal with externals. It’s a lot like putting a new coat of paint on an old car: it looks good, but it doesn’t add any horsepower. In order to be a consistently effective public speaker the orator needs to skip the gloss. Instead, you should seek to create a reservoir of understanding and proficiency to draw from. In the paragraphs that follow you will discover three activities that will help you develop that reservoir. You will discover that to be a weighty public speaker, you need to be a weighty person. Rather than a three step method, it is a lifestyle that will give you depth – a reservoir, a vitality, to draw from as a public speaker and as a business personality in general.
Take a moment and think back to the heady days of your youth when you first began to read. If that memory is lost in the mist of time, take a moment to recall what it was like (or is like) when your children or grand children began to read. When a child learns to read it opens a universe of information and entertainment to him. There is a sense of accomplishment and confidence that normally accompanies the transition from non-reader to reader. A child’s beliefs and character are shaped to some degree by what she reads. He is able to explore, to learn, to become more than he was, simply through the process of reading. This process can continue throughout life. Unfortunately, many adults quit reading as soon as they have the diploma in hand. “Wait a minute” you say, “most business people read constantly.” True, there are company reports to be read, business correspondence to scan, relevant news from trade journals to peruse: the list goes on. However, this is not the type of reading that will fill the reservoir and give you the edge as a public speaker. In order to become a public speaker of depth, an orator needs to participate in what I call the “manifold path of reading.” In other words, he or she needs to read good fiction, history, current events, science, religion, biography – a portion from each category each day. Now, before you throw this magazine back on the coffee table in disgust, allow me mention that I will explain in a moment how even the busiest of people can develop this sort of reading schedule.
To begin with we need to briefly define what constitutes a good book. With fiction, there are two questions to ask: has it stood the test of time (the classics), or does it meet the accepted criteria for good fiction (plot, characterization, grammar etc.). If you are unsure, read the book reviews in better magazines and news papers; discuss popular fiction with your friends or call your old college room-mate who now teaches literature at the state university. If you are already an avid reader of the best sellers, branch out into fiction that you have neglected in the past.
As for the other types of reading make sure it is work produced by recognized authorities. That doesn’t necessarily mean it would be a waste of time to read a book on the frontiers of science by an insurance company CEO. Nonetheless, until you have sharpened your critical reading abilities by consuming large quantities of each genre, it is best to stick with books by the experts. Also, it isn’t necessary to limit yourself to the categories listed above. The point is, don’t confine yourself to reading how-to books, or current events or any other type of writing. The goal is to be reading several types of books at the same time and to stretch yourself beyond the familiar.
The way you read is important as well. It isn’t important that you move your lips as you read silently – let Miss Applewood, your fourth grade teacher worry about that. It is important for you to become engaged with the text. Develop the habit of making notes in the margin as you argue, agree and anticipate the author. Learn to create your own index in the blank pages at the back of the book. These activities are useful even with fiction as you correct grammar, take note of unclear sections and index passages you may want to quote in the future. Mortimer Adler’s classic, How To Read A Book, should be first on your list if this approach to reading is unfamiliar to you.
Now, where will you find the time to read – five or six books at once no less! The demands of work, family, volunteer and social activities leave many of us with very little free time. Yet, is that true? Recent studies tell us that the average American spends 28 hours per week in front of the television. Perhaps you could carve out some time there. How about that time you spend on the bus commuting to and from work? Take note of available time in the evening after the kids have gone to bed and you and your are spouse winding down. The truth is we make time for those things that are important to us. Is becoming a more profound presence and a better public speaker important to you? If so, you will find the time to read at least a small selection from several books each day.
As your regimen of reading becomes habit (lifestyle), you will find that you are creating a reservoir of knowledge and “experience” to draw from as a public speaker. It was James C. Humes who wrote that a “…speech or talk should be the oral projection of your personality, experiences and ideas” (The Sir Winston Method,). Your presentations will be fuller and richer as you draw illustrations from the world of science, history or religion. This richness will also begin to be noticeable in your relationships – business and personal.
Eloquence through writing
One of the best ways to learn to express yourself clearly is to write. I always recommend that the novice public speaker write and re-write their entire speech until they are satisfied with it and then to edit it again. That doesn’t mean he or she will stand before their audience and simply read the speech. It’s best to enter the podium with a brief outline, or no notes at all. However, the activity of writing forces one to think through his or her material and allows them to craft the best possible script for the occasion
Apart from writing his or her speeches, an orator should develop the habit of writing as a weekly or even daily exercise. Unlike your business reading, your business writing may qualify as one of the three “R’s” of public speaking – provided it isn’t primarily made up of sticky notes to yourself or your secretary. Even if your work related writing is fairly broad you should augment it with additional writing exercises.
Adding regular writing to your schedule doesn’t mean that you need to begin the next great American novel tomorrow after work. It isn’t necessary that your writing be lengthy at all. Begin to take time to write love letters to your spouse or significant other. Rather than always phone, write to that relative or friend on the other side of the country. Keep a personal journal and fill it with the events of the day, original poetry or short “editorials.” Try your hand at short story fiction. Volunteer to write for your company or Church newsletter. In each writing endeavor, strive to create a orderly, intelligent and enjoyable piece. Draw from your reading, and life experience, to give vigor and depth to your writing. As you gain experience, you will begin to expand your working vocabulary and your powers of description (even the love letters will benefit). You will find that as you establish a writing style, your public speaking style will begin to jell also.
Maybe your thinking, “That’s great, but I can hardly string two words together let alone write a coherent paragraph.” Well, never fear, there are hundreds of books available that outline the fundamentals of writing. A couple manuals you may want to pick up at the used book store are The Little, Brown Handbook by H. Ramsey Fowler (a basic college text), and The Well-Tempered Sentence by Karen Elizabeth. A good book on writing fiction is How to Write a Great Story by Othello Bach (writing fiction helps the public speaker learn to enable someone else to “see” and to “feel” your topic, whether you have dreams of being published or not). You will also find that the “manifold path of reading” will improve your writing.
Recitation as lifestyle
Obviously a public speaker should practice his or her speech several times before the date of delivery. In addition, anyone who wants to be a proficient public speaker should be involved with a local Toastmasters or some other association that allows frequent opportunity for public speaking. However, recitation as lifestyle means that a person looks for occasions to speak to people from a prepared text in situations other than from behind a podium.
Most of us pass up these chances at stress free “public speaking” on a daily basis. For instance, how often do you read out loud to your spouse or significant other? If you have children, are you taking the time to read aloud to them? Don’t be fooled, these situations afford you the prospect of honing your articulation and delivery. If your spouse doesn’t have time to listen to you read (or interest), or you have no children or grand children, consider volunteering at your local library as a reader in the children’s story hour. When you read out loud (especially with children’s stories), give it life and energy. Be careful to pronounce each word accurately and distinctly. Reading out loud to an “audience” is wonderful practice at articulation, enunciation and a lively presentation – and lots of fun to boot.
Another avenue open to those hoping to embrace recitation as part of their lifestyle, is volunteer teaching. Check into the opportunities at your place of worship. Chances are there is a crying need for children’s teachers. Your child’s school may need volunteer teacher’s aids in the classroom – especially in the younger age groups. Either volunteer activity gives you the opportunity to flex your oratory muscle while sowing something of value back into your community.
If you become involved in a volunteer teaching position, be sure to adjust your reading list to compliment your class presentations. For instance, if you are teaching from the Old Testament at your place of worship, add a text on ancient Hebrew culture to your reading schedule. The task of digesting the information in order to make it interesting to children will force you to fully understand the material. This ability to simplify and clarify complex information and concepts is invaluable to the public speaker
Life experience enhancement is one way to understand the three “R’s” of public speaking. Certainly your speech making ability won’t be the only thing improved by the these disciplines. You will become better informed; better able to express yourself; and better able to provide your listeners with an enjoyable experience – as a conversationalist or public speaker. Will this happen over night? Of course not: but with time, the three “R’s” will work their transformation. Instead of new paint, you’ll be overhauling the engine. Performance will be noticeably improved. Guaranteed.