The art of public speaking from one of its masters

November 30, 2009 | Verbal communication

Millions of people consider public speaking a fate worse than death. But if you occupy any type of leadership position it’s inevitable that you’re going to be asked to stand up before a group – large or small – to deliver a speech.

The careers of most executives advance or stall based on how well they communicate in a variety of forms. Public speaking performances are the riskiest of all, but they also give you a chance to make a very big impact. Being a sought-after public speaker gives you and your company a cachet that would otherwise be absent.

When you do speak publicly you want your voice to be brimming with confidence and power. One of the best places to look for guidance in these matters is the late Jack Valenti, former chief of staff to President Lyndon Johnson but better know in the latter portion of his life as chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Society of America .

Suave and silver-tongued, Valenti was renowned for his public speaking abilities. Whether donned in a tuxedo for the Academy Awards or in a basic business suit for his many appearances on the rubber-chicken circuit, he always presented himself and his thoughts flawlessly.

Valenti was so well known for his talents at the podium that he wrote a book on the subject titled Speak Up with Confidence.

It might surprise you to know that Jack Valenti preached that 20 minutes was the absolute maximum for any speech. That’s quite a contrast to the politicians and keynote speakers of all stripes who routinely devour a full hour of the audience’s time. Valenti believed in economy. It is best to leave an audience wanting more, not glancing at their watches and negotiating with their bladders.

Valenti also memorized all of his speeches, just as stage actors commit their scripts to memory, so he could enunciate them without using notes.

He was full of many good ideas for turning people into effective public speakers. Here are some of his core suggestions:

  • While drafting your speech, keep the paragraphs short.
  • Limit each paragraph to just one topic.
  • Put two spaces between each graph so they stand on their own.
  • Make the first sentence of each graph the key line that opens the door to the rest of what you have to say on that topic, and have these key lines absolutely fixed in your mind. That way, even if you can’t remember the full paragraph you’ll be able to improvise based on the opening line.
  • To memorize your speech, repeat aloud the first two paragraphs over and over until committed to memory. After that turn your attention to the next two graphs and do the same until they’re also etched in your mind. Then put the first four paragraphs together and articulate them repeatedly until memorized. Continue adding two graphs at a time.
  • You’ll quickly be able to speak with confidence the first six paragraphs of the speech. “A strange thing happens as you go about this,” Valenti says. “As you gain confidence in your ability to remember, the speed with which the speech progresses picks up considerably. You begin making measurable progress. The memorization becomes less drudging and less daunting. Your exhilaration level rises rapidly.”
  • Read your entire speech two or three times, then read each paragraph over and over by themselves. Do this, he says, because the mind is like a camera. You can lift your gaze from the paper and almost see the paragraph in your retina while looking towards the audience. It’s the “photographing” of each paragraph that will make you a good or great speaker.
  • Consider underlining or using capital letters to emphasize key words or ideas.
  • Use dashes to indicate where you should pause. There are likely to be many dashes because that’s what gives your speech the kind of rhythm and pacing that takes it to a higher level.
  • Use strategic pauses to verbally lift out special phrases that help add emphasis and understanding to the points you’re making.
  • Speak into a recorder to practice your vocal intonations and rhythm.
  • Rehearse in front of a mirror to practice making eye contact.
  • Time yourself to keep track of the length of your speech.
  • Keep your speech short so you can finish with a “climax opportunity.” In other words, stop talking when your listeners want and expect you to keep going.
  • The shorter the speech the greater your odds of success, according to Valenti, because it’s difficult to make a bad speech out of a short speech.
  • Pick out several audience members and speak directly to them. Otherwise audience members will eventually notice that you’re just gazing out at a formless mass rather than connecting with people.
  • When you make eye contact your nervousness will fade because your speech becomes a one-on-one conversation, which is our natural manner of speaking.
  • Believability is more easily attained when you appear to be speaking for yourself, rather than mouthing words like a ventriloquist’s dummy. For that reason, Valenti suggests delivering your speech without notes rather than reading from prepared text. “Speaking without notes is the most powerful form of communication,” Valenti writes in his book. “You have full command of the audience and nothing to interfere with what you’re saying. You’re looking at the audience … with no paper barriers.”
  • Once you have the entire speech assembled, repeat it during informal opportunities. Valenti would repeat his speeches in the car, the shower, etc. He usually kept a copy handy so if memory failed he could glance at the written text.
  • Don’t stress if you accidentally leave something out. Your audience won’t know anything’s been omitted.
  • It’s especially important to speak directly to your audience while delivering your final paragraph. That final point should be an “interlocking embrace between you and your audience” with no distractions – not even a fleeting glance at your notes.

Implicit in all this advice is Jack Valenti’s steadfast belief that being thoroughly prepared is the best insurance policy against stage fright and poor performance.

How do you prepare for public speaking engagements? How do you delivery a punch to your audience? Let us know in the comment field below.


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