Public SpeakingWhen I was a young, young child, I attended the same school where my father taught.Like many children, I wanted to be just like my father, and I could already see that, formy father, the ability to speak in front of a group was second nature – a talent thatflowed out of him with the ease of water purling up from a clear spring. It is notsurprising that, when our school announced that it was looking for volunteers to read setpassages during morning assemblies, I chose to volunteer: There could have been nobetter way, in my mind, of impressing my father and making him proud of me.As I said, I was quite young – no more than six or seven. I received a mimeographedpurple copy of the passage I was supposed to read, and I practiced it carefully, goingover the words in my memory as I pumped along on the swing in our back yard. On thenight before I was to read, I polished my navy-blue and white saddle Oxfords, checkedmy school uniform, arranged the tie that went with it, and went to bed knowing I wasready.Of course I was not ready. I was entirely unprepared for the one final element thatchanged everything: What I would experience standing at the head of the auditorium, onthe low stage, looking out at over five hundred faces. So, that morning I walkedconfidently up the steps of the stage, went on to stand directly at stage center, and Iturned and looked.Five hundred faces looked expectantly back.I froze; froze solid. I am sure I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I gaped like ahooked fish hauled out onto a pier.I suppose it could have been worse. Given my extreme youth, it is probably pure luck Iwas able to be walked off the stage with dry pants and dry eyes. Nonetheless, I wouldhave sworn that day there could be no worse humiliation than going dry in front of anentire waiting audience. Worse, I felt almost as though I had proven myself not reallymy fathers child. After all, my father never froze, or went dry, or ran cold in front of hisstudents – or of anyone else! Neither did my grandfather, an army officer who couldstand before any crowd. My grandmother, too, and my great-aunts – all active in theirchurches, and all with active public lives. My grandmother was a voice teacher and apublic speaker on the Chautauqua circuit. One great-aunt was an ambassadors wife, theother a high ranking administrator in the Red Cross. How could I possibly have sprungfrom this line of heroic public speakers? How could I have frozen? And how could Iever possibly redeem myself?Many people face public speaking challenges every day, in all walks of life. There is
almost no business that does not require the occasional ability to speak before groups.Students, businessmen, professionals of all walks of life find themselves required to givepresentations of all types; and if polls are to be believed, many of them are terrifiedevery time the issue comes up.There are many ways of dealing with a fear of public speaking. Among the best optionsare to take classes, or to join groups such as Toastmasters, to get both practice andsupportive help as you learn the skills and confidence needed to present yourself andyour thoughts to a public forum. For those with extreme phobias, further help fromtherapists can provide powerful tools for change. It would be criminal not to recognizethe value and merit of these approaches.However, there are centuries of experience, knowledge and wisdom you can draw from,and a large body of support can be gained from self-education on the subject of publicspeaking. By combining old and new wisdom, practicing in company and in the privacyof your own mind, you can develop a strong set of integrated skills and understanding toallow you to speak comfortably in public. UnderstandingThe first, and most painfully obvious element of public speaking, is to know your topicinside and out. Whether you are presenting a free-form, unscripted performance, readingfrom a set speech, or presenting a memorized work, the more you both know it andunderstand the material the more hope and opportunity you have for excellence. Thissimple rule underlies all the others. People commonly tell writers to “write what youknow.” They should as commonly suggest that public speakers should “know what theysay.” Indeed, it should be the first law of public speaking.That knowledge should exist on many levels. By all means, memorize the words; butbefore you memorize the words, understand the material.If there is one speech in all American history to be held up as the standard forexcellence, it is the Gettysburg Address. This one short speech, written to providecomfort and courage to a battered nation – to both sides of a nation – after one of themost brutal battles of the Civil War, accomplishes in the space of only a few minuteswhat others were unable to accomplish in hours. To write it, and then to present it,Abraham Lincoln drew from a deep, deep well of knowledge and understanding.In the Address, there are allusions to Biblical scripture, Greek literature, and echoes ofgreat American church preaching traditions. There are comments on the nature ofgovernment, and particularly the government of the United States, that could not have
been written by anyone not versed in both law and politics. There are currents ofemotional understanding only possible coming from a person of maturity, who had facedboth great burdens and great losses. Lincoln knew of what he spoke, and spoke of whathe knew: The terrible tragedy of war, the need for a vision beyond war, and the profoundrespect owed to the silent dead.To give a speech with power, you must draw power from understanding. Not allspeeches can or should be bone-rattling masterpieces like the Gettysburg Address.Indeed, that level of intensity and concise perfection would be both exhausting andinappropriate for most of the public speaking events any of us will ever give. However,the principle of knowledge that provided a sound and solid foundation for the Address isthe same principle that underlies excellence in less exalted performances.Even a minor speech should grow out of knowledge. Even if you are not the writer, youshould study the material and learn exactly what it is about. Knowledge allows a readerto offer the clearest, most easily understood version of a speech possible.Do you doubt the importance of that understanding? Think, then, of a class of juniorhigh students reading aloud from an assigned novel. It quickly becomes apparent to theentire class who understands the story, and who does not. Those who understand showgreater expression, and far more appropriate expression. Their timing, the rise and fall oftheir voices, even the pacing all support the meaning of the writing, and add to theclarity of the experience for those who listen.Those who do not understand the novel, though, falter. Even when their reading skillsare sufficient to provide a clear, smooth performance with good diction and verbalclarity, the meaning is as lacking. Just as a clockwork music box can only provide aprecise but soulless version of a musical classic, so a reader without understanding failsto support the “music” of a speech, draining it of color and cadence. The power ofunderstanding cannot be underestimated.There have been many speakers through history who lacked formal knowledge of publicspeaking – but who knew exactly what they were saying, and said it with such powerthat their words shook the world around them. If you know what you are saying, if youspeak from clear experience, if you understand the subject, then you have the bestpossible chance of being able to use every other skill you have to present a good speech. Technical SkillsWhen you have taken the time to understand your material and master the underlyingideas and feelings, it is then time to consider the techniques of public speaking. These
one often learns through classes or groups, and these places remain among the best waysto practice; however, it is to your advantage to consider and practice on your own, too.The first principle of public speaking if you are writing your own presentation is toprovide a clear, direct structure to your speech. In material meant to be read at leisure,there is sometimes – rarely – a place for rambling or complicated structure. In publicspeaking there is none. A speech should move simply from point to point, starting withan introduction that clearly lets the audience know what will be discussed and what themain thesis will be. After that the speech should follow through the logical progressionof the argument made, or the story being told, and should end with a summation of whathas been said, what it was intended to mean, and why it was worth saying. The listenershould never need to wonder why the speaker is saying what is said: The reason for thewords should be fairly obvious.An amazing number of speakers fail in that first, simple expectation, committing therude crime of forcing the audience to do the speaker ’s work. Like a lazy waiter forcingyou to fetch your own dinner from a restaurant kitchen, the writer makes the listenerfetch his own idea of the meaning from the speech. Not only is this hard on the listener,it is often damaging to the meaning of the speech, for the more muddled the speech theeasier it is for the listener to take a wrong turn and reach a false conclusion about themeaning and intent of a speech.Another basic technical skill for anyone writing a speech or presentation is a classic,well known as a mnemonic acronym for public speakers: K.I.S.S. What does K.I.S.S.mean? “Keep it simple, stupid.”Why such a terse and unforgiving rule? Because while public speaking is among themost moving ways of conveying a message, it is one of the least effective for carryinglong and complicated messages. A written work that is read silently can be re-read,marked with notes, and underlined. A reader can move back and forth, returning to aparticular point time and time again as he or she makes connections within the work.There is time for breaking down long arguments, and considering each detail.Material is processed differently when it is received through the eyes and through theears: That is part of the difference between read material and speeches. However, thereis a greater difference – the difference of time. When you read material from a book orpaper time is your friend; you can tarry awhile in some portions, race forward in others,even “turn back” time by moving backward to prior points. In speeches, time goes oneway, at one pace, and once it is done, it is done for good.Therefore, it is hard to convey complicated material. The audience has to understand itas it is being said, not a week later after he or she has moved around in the narrative and
jotted notes and compared points and discussed it with a friend. Even if the listenerunderstands, but disagrees, he or she must understand, and understand almost instantly.Therefore, K.I.S.S.: keep it simple, stupid. When you prepare writing for a publicspeech, do your listeners the courtesy of making it clear, simple, and reasonably easy tounderstand.Once you are sure the writing is well structured and simple enough for a public speakingpresentation, it is time to consider other skills a public speaker must have: projection anddiction.Projection is the term used to describe a strong, clear voice. Even in modern times, withmicrophones, a speaker with good projection is easier to follow than one without.Projection involves learning to “carry” the voice and send it out into the audience boldly.The skills that make a voice audible in a large auditorium without microphones are onlymade more obvious with microphones. A speaker who projects well produces a strong,firm “note,” that is not swallowed by the speaker, and it rings out pleasantly to be pickedup by the microphone. Like the difference between the tone made by a taught, firm drumand that made by a limp and sagging drumhead, a well-projected voice simply snapsmore clearly on the listener ’s ear.Diction refers to the ability to pronounce clearly. It can involve issues including accentand dialect, as well as intonation and vocal stress. It always involves the ability topronounce words correctly and completely, without slurring and standard “short cut”distortions.These two skills are, for many, the make-it-or-break-it points that determine whether aspeaker will succeed or fail. With good projection and good diction, a speaker can makea winning public speaking presentation. Without them, even if the end of thepresentation is reached, the effort can only be considered a dud.Again, if you doubt, think back to the junior high school class I suggested, and considerthe voices of the young readers. Some are crisp and clear, their words carrying aroundthe class room, each note sounding to the back of the room, rising above the rustle andhum, the sound of shuffling feet and scribbling pencils. Each word is said completelyand fully; there is no mumbling, no sloppy short cuts. Even if the novel being read isdull, and the reader grumpy, at least the listeners can tell what is being said.Other students mumble and drawl. Their voices seem never to really leave their mouths,leaving the listeners wondering whether they are even talking. Even if they can be heardthe note is blurry and soft, blending in muddy tones with the shuffle and shush of aclassroom. Their words are as mushy as melted marshmallow. Nothing is crisp, nothingis sharp, and nothing has focus. Just as a badly blurred picture can’t be understood, an
out of focus speaking voice is of little use.Skilled public speakers have prepared their “instrument,” as those in theater often say.The ability to use the voice clearly and well is the core skill in public speaking. If youface challenges in this respect, it is well worth your time to consider getting professionalhelp developing a strong, clear public speaking voice. Trained voice coaches and speechtrainers can help you learn to carry a speaking note, sustain it over long phrases, vary thetone and timbre, and make subtle shifts in volume. Speech coaches can help you reduceor even eliminate interfering traces of regional accents, and can improve your dictionenormously. By getting rid of lazy, sloppy speech habits you can bring your speech intothe crisp focus you need for regular public speaking tasks. Breathe While considering practical matters, it is important to take a few minutes to deal with some basic body-control issues.Stress is fear combined with lack of control. When stressed, one of the commonreactions is to reduce breath levels. Reduced oxygen, however, increases the body’sstress response. Soon you are in a closed loop – a tightening closed loop, like a noosearound your neck, choking you and choking your ability to function.Learning to let go of stress in your body is not easy, and requires regular practice.However, it is one of the most useful techniques you can learn, not only in regard topublic presentations, but to your life in general. There is a reason breathing exercisesand relaxation techniques are at the bottom of so many religious and philosophicaldisciplines: the ability to control stress and fear is the beginning of true choice andresolve. This all has bearing on how you are able to perform – on a stage, behind apodium, or in the arena of life.If, as a child, I froze, and learned that I could fail as a public speaker, it was not untilyears later that I began to learn the trick of succeeding. In high school I wanted to try outfor a play in my school drama troupe. Like others, I crept uneasily into the auditorium,took an audition form to fill out, and found a plush seat to settle into for the majority ofthe rest of the afternoon. There is very little as educational in regards to public speakingand public performance as an “open” audition, in which anyone can try out.As the afternoon progressed I was able to watch dozens of hopefuls climb up onto thestage, do a reading, perform a scene, and creep away. One thing was quickly evident: Ittook mere seconds to know who would give a reasonably good performance, and whowould be a complete failure. Trying to figure out what signs made it that clear, however,
required almost the whole audition…and I might never have figured out the difference ifI had not stayed well beyond my drab audition.As the afternoon was drawing to an end, there were only a few auditions left to be done.One young woman, a friend of mine, was trying out for the lead – a difficult, high-intensity role. It was well beyond anything I would have dreamed of doing myself. Thatlate in the process I had heard dozens of girls read the same lines, play out the samescenes, and sing the same songs. By then, the entire thing was beginning to seem prettydull.Then my friend stepped onto the stage.No, that is far too bland a picture, I promise you. Mary took the stage, striding on asthough just going out there was like a cup of strong black coffee to her soul. While not adrab person at any time, her arrival on that stage was pure, centered, and relaxed energy.It is possible she was afraid; if so, she was in the sort of fear that is almost likefearlessness, the kind of fear where times slows, choices are simple and clear, and panicseems a million light-years away. Mary was relaxed but filled with energy, like a fighterpoised for action. She was alert, calm, and she was clearly physically centered. I hadnever seen her balance so fine. Her motions were controlled and graceful, and shebreathed, deeply and calmly. In my opinion, she had won the role before she said a wordor danced a step; and the heart of her victory had to do with being at ease, without beingasleep.Let us face it: Far too many of us use the word “relaxed” to mean “limp.” We forget thegood, alert feeling of relaxation some people feel after a fast swim, or a brisk walk. Wethink of slouching, and drooping, and forget the easy, swinging pace of a trained dancerwalking easily down a sidewalk toward a rehearsal – all elements in harmony and all thebody in balance.Mary owned the stage with the same sort of easy grace and pride. She was centered,breathing well, eyes alight, and happy to be there. There are many aspects of the abilityto function like this in a performance situation. For some it comes naturally, like runningcomes naturally to some of the finest race-horses. For others, though, it is a learned skill.Mary, I think, was a natural. But she taught me what I needed to become the next bestthing: A skilled learner.What did I learn?First, to breathe. Too many of the other auditioners had come on so tense they could notbreathe to say their names, much less actually read and perform. Learning to breathedeeply, in a steady, flowing pace would be the first step of change for me.
Second, to stand at ease and move at ease, from a centered core. Where others mighthunch and droop and curl around themselves, I would learn to walk like a bride to herwedding: Head up, arms relaxed, with a spring in my stride.These are physical lessons: With practice and skill you can learn to ease muscles,deepen your breathing, and relax in body and mind, preparing yourself for performance.The final lesson, though, was more complex, and opens the door to deeper considerationof the nature of public speaking. A Gracious HostThe third, and most important thing I learned watching my friend, Mary, was never to“apologize” for being on stage, or hold back from my audience. I had watched actorafter actor creep onto the stage oozing apology, as though their bodies were shouting,“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be here, please, if I’m bad, forgive me.” Mary’s body insteadsaid, “Thank you for having me here, I hope we all have fun!”Imagine, if you can, going to a party. You are excited and looking forward to it; orperhaps you’re not! Perhaps you’ve dragged yourself out unwillingly, wishing you couldstay home. All you can do is hope it will at least be some fun. Either way, you come tothe party with your fingers crossed, feeling a little unsure, wondering what is going tohappen.Now imagine you arrive, and the host does not appear until after you have rung the bell,waited, and given up. When the door does open he is dressed in old, dirty blue-jeans, aworn out sweatshirt, and a pair of bunny slippers. As he lets you in he sighs, “I’m sorry,I’m not much of a host. You’re not going to have a good time. I’m no good, you know.”He looks at you sadly, waiting for you to reassure him.The house is messy, with no lights. The only food is frozen pizza. The beer is cheap.The host hides in a corner and tries not to cry. And the whole time he keeps saying, “I’msorry, please, love me anyway, oh, I am so sorry I’m bad at this, I should never have letyou in the door.”As a guest you would be less and less likely to want to forgive him, though. At somepoint you stop feeling sorry for your host, and start feeling sorry for yourself and all theother guests at the party who are having a horrible time, while their host begs forattention and nurture like a spoiled child. This party has turned into work, and the mainwork is trying to boost the stupid host’s self-esteem!The afternoon I watched Mary audition, I realized that the actor was a host – and he orshe could choose to be a good host or a bad one. A bad host puts the burden on the
audience: if they are going to have any fun it is going to be in spite of the host, notbecause of him. A good host, however, has set aside his own selfish fears and concerns,and made this time for giving his guests the best possible experience. It is only a couplehours, after all, and the host chose to be there, and chose to entertain this group. A goodhost is accountable, responsible, and generous.Public speaking of any sort is exactly like that. You are the host – for five minutes, anhour, an entire evening. Whatever: You have chosen to be responsible for the experienceof a group of people for that time, and it is your job to make sure you carry that load, notthem. During that time you owe it to your guests not to make them pay for your fears,your insecurity, your failures to prepare or plan. Just as you would if you threw a partyand things went wrong, you have an obligation to carry your own load.That is not as hard as you would think. Few people would dream of behaving to anotherwith the sort of overblown “stage nerve” behavior that is commonly inflicted onaudiences. Most of us actually have all the social control and discipline we need tobehave splendidly. The trick is in reminding ourselves to behave like adults, rather thanlike children when we are on stage.All the skills and techniques discussed so far can help enormously. If you have preparedfor your presentation or your performance, understand the material, are familiar with thewriting, you are already in control of much of the evening. If you have learned tosupport your voice, and read with clear diction, you will know you are ready foranything. But let us say you are not prepared – let us say this will be one of your firstattempts to even learn how to speak in public. What can you do?The trick, as Mary demonstrated, is to put yourself so deeply into the “giving” hostmode, that way you never have a chance to slip into the “taking” child mode. You maynot give a perfect performance; you may forget things, freeze, get confused, have to stopand go back. Everything that could possibly go wrong may – but if you are in the heartof “giving,” it will not rattle you; or not much.Many people are unaware that the more deeply you are in a giving/providing mode, themore difficult it is to slip into a dependent, needy role. It is not that a person cannot beboth; it is that a person is unlikely to be both at exactly the same time, with the samepeople. The more completely you can see yourself as a host, in charge of giving anaudience a wonderful evening, the harder it will be to sabotage yourself.The trick Mary used was the same trick you would use to function if you were throwinga party, coping with an emergency, or otherwise in charge of a situation. In her mind,she was the adult on deck, and she gave it her all.
Before you go onstage, take responsibility for yourself, your performance, and youraudience. Accept it as a job and an obligation, and then work at it with the samediligence and lack of apology. No reasonable adult would expect to cringe, sulk, andwhine his or her way through a work day and be taken seriously. In the same sense, youmust refuse to behave pitifully on a stage or behind a podium. When Things Go WrongWhat most people fear most, when they think of public speaking, is what it will be likeif (when!) something goes wrong in front of all those people. They worry aboutforgetting their lines, losing track of their logical presentation. They worry about thePowerPoint jamming up, or their voices giving out. In dreams, they worry aboutstanding up to speak and finding their pants have fallen down. People are, not entirelyunreasonably, terrified about what it will be like to have things fail with so manywitnesses watching.For the most part, we cover our mistakes in real life: What is not seen, we treat as nothappening. That is not possible with five, ten, twenty, maybe even a few hundredpeople watching. The trip, the slip, the fumble: They are all there, big as life and glaringbrightly. How can you cope when things go wrong?Begin by working through strategies before you perform. The more confident you arethat you know what to do in likely situations, the better.One of the bravest and most delightful moments I have ever seen in theater involved asenior actor forgetting his lines. He was a polished, accomplished man, with great humorand confidence, and usually he was flawlessly focused and on top of his role. On onenight, though, he lost his focus, and as a result he immediately also lost his place in theplay.He could not recall what his lines were – you could have bribed him with a case ofimported Napoleon brandy and it would not have changed a thing. He had forgotten,entirely and totally.He tried to say a line, hoping that the action would jar his memory. That is a goodstrategy, by the way, and one that often works – by acting as though we know what weare doing, we often find we do know. That night, however, the method was of no use.He tried again. No help at all. There was no prompter near enough to consult. The playwas running, and the silence building up.What did the actor do?
He did the simplest and boldest thing I can imagine. He simply turned, and said, calmlyto the audience, “I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten my lines. I think I’m going to have tojump back a few paragraphs to find my place again.” And saying that, he gatheredhimself began the scene over – and did brilliantly.At the end of the scene, the audience brought the play to a complete standstill to give thevaliant actor an ovation.You may be wondering why, when I suggested not apologizing previously, that I amsuggesting it as a brilliant choice here. Part of it lies in pure attitude. The “apologeticpublic speaker” is dependent, small and emotionally needy. His or her actions demandspecial attention and special forgiveness from the audience. While they may claim to be“sorry,” they want even more to be told “it is all right.” They are evading responsibilityfor their own errors, and begging the audience to act as though that is all right.The gentleman actor, though, was truly sorry. As a good host, he was placing hisaudience’s pleasure at risk, and failing in his obligations. However, he tookresponsibility for his error, and for finding a cure.Thus, when you are trying to prepare for catastrophe, work through in your mind whaterrors could reasonably be expected to happen, and what responsible, mature way youcould deal with it without asking for special favors from the audience. Do you admitwhat happened? Skip ahead and work back?Often, the best choice in any true disaster in public speaking is to “Keep Calm and CarryOn.” By all means, if it is necessary, do as the actor did and admit you’re lost. But often,even that is not needed. Wait a beat, use that time to work out what you need to beginwit from there, and keep on.What you cannot do – what you must not do ever – is allow yourself to become the childwhen things go wrong. No whining. No blaming other actors, or the noise in the house,or anything. Just do not. It is as undignified and unappealing as a golf-player whoblames his clubs or a card player who considers everyone else a cheat.After making the commitment to being an adult, and a good host, remember you canrely on your body to help you deal with catastrophe, if you ask properly. Your body canremain calm and at ease, or it can become tense and panic stricken. You have the choiceto use your skills to control that reaction.Why does it matter? Because what your body does, your mind believes, and what yourmind believes can keep you sorted out and sane. The same deep breathing and relaxationexercises you use to prepare to go on stage are wonderful allies when you are
performing or reading a speech and everything goes wrong at once. By dropping into acalm mode, managing your breathing and muscle tension, you can free your mind toconcoct a good solution for a bad problem.Finally, be ready to give up. Yes, I did suggest that: In public speaking, if you are theadult, you have to be the one who can throw in the towel.There is a point in any catastrophic event at which someone has to say, “Enough.” Thatperson should always be the performer, acting with dignity, rather than the audience,acting out of desperation. When a performer clings, bitterly, to a planned event that failsto come off, it will in time force the audience to self-defense. It is always better to admitthe truth and release the viewers with a good will than to try to hold them just so you canfeel you have finished properly. TrustRemember the story I told about freezing on stage as a young child? One thing I stillremember from that time is the looks on the faces of the audience. At the time, theyseemed horrifying to me. Over the years they have come to be a comfort.The faces of the audience were not cold, or angry, or resentful. A little pitying, whichwas not nice – but all in all the audience was filled with people who were sad andnervous for me. They wished I had been able to do better. They were not disappointed inme, they were disappointed for me.That may seem like no comfort at all, and yet it tells you one of the least recognizedtruths of public speaking: The audience years for you to succeed. They want that somuch they will give you leeway, if they can. They will forgive dozens of small mistakes,and smile on unexpectedly strange events. If you blank your lines, like the actor Idiscussed above, they will give you a standing ovation simply for admitting it anddealing with it. And audience is friendly, at heart.There are exceptions. There are times, places, circumstances and cultures whereaudiences are brutally hostile, though seldom if they feel they are being dealt with ingood faith. A young and overwrought audience in a rowdy mood can be poisonouslyunforgiving if they fail to get the concert they had their heart set on. Various worldevents can create a hostile audience. And there are speeches that fly in the face of thebeliefs and most cherished ideals of a community.However, for the most part there is nothing – and I do mean nothing – as safe asperforming before an audience. In most cases, you will be met with support, kindness,forgiveness, good humor, admiration, excitement and attention, regardless of mistakes
and bad work. Audiences want you to succeed, and if the only way to ensure thathappens is to pretend hard enough, then an audience will buckle down and pretend youinto perfection.For years I have acted as a director or stage manager for various theater groups. Thatalways ends up involving me in teaching new performers about what they can andcannot count on in a performance. The great rule, I tell them, over and over, as manyways as I can, is that in a life full of anger, judgment, violence, manipulation, rejection,cruelty – in an often horrible world there is no better or kindlier place to be than in frontof all but the most poisonous of audiences.What does that mean in regard to your performance? That you can relax and set asidefear. It means you can offer yourself in courage and good will, knowing that youraudience is rooting for you as hard as your Mom and Dad ever rooted for you in LittleLeague, or cheered you on when you were in a spelling bee. Public speakers of all sortscan count on their audiences to work to struggle to carry them through.Many people have observed that shy, awkward, clumsy, socially ill-prepared people areoften drawn to theater or to public speaking positions. Teachers, librarians, an even,oddly, politicians are often drawn from the shy, quiet, insecure kids. It seldom seems tooccur to people to think how odd this is, though: That the least confident, most sociallyunsettled kids so often choose to get involved in activities that should, logically, beterrifying to them.There have been many theories about this over the years. People suggest that the shy anduncertain migrate to speech or acting for the fantasy retreat it may offer. Or for thesympathetic communities that often form, giving young and old a comforting home andfamily. Few, however, suggest the most obvious: That these shy, uncertain, hesitantindividuals learned the secret; that audiences want to love public speakers andperformers.Why do audiences give so much faith and kindness to performers who may be completestrangers? There are several reasons. First, there is the simple fact that they want to bepleased. An audience of people comes together in the hopes of good company,interesting presentations, and enjoyment. Few if any are hoping to have a rotten time. Asa result, audiences are willing to be pleased, rather than in a mood to resist.Smart performers depend on this. Great performers take that good will, and augment itwith their clear desire to please. Like my friend Mary, they radiate their excitement,confidence, and willingness to perform to the best of their abilities. As good hosts, theygive, rather than asking for gifts – and as a result they receive more than they wouldhave been given if they had asked.
Ideally, everyone at a performance wins: The speaker, the audience, and the organizers.Because everyone wants that sort of collective win, you can count on most audiences toreceive you in good faith.Another reason you can count on audience support is that most people empathize withboth success and failure – but empathizing with failure is painful.A writer once told me of an event he attended for a music school. A small child was toperform, and the truth was, she did dreadfully. As happens with many new performers,she hit many wrong notes, lost her place in the music, got scared, and froze. She beganagain. She got more frightened. In the end, she broke into tears and had to be carried offthe stage.My friend commented on one thing: While this was happening, he watched the faces ofthe audience. They were, he said, in pain – not the pain of disgust, but of sympathy. Thelittle girl muffing her first piano concert was not the only one in agony; so, too, whereapproximately sixty people, most of whom did not know the child, and many of whomcould have happily gloated over the child’s failure, as it would make their own childrenlook better. My friend said there was no gloating; everyone, instead, ached for the littlegirl.Audiences project their affection onto us. When we go out as public speakers, webecome the symbol of everyone we speak to. When we succeed, they feel pleasure andpride. When we fail, they hurt for us. Just as people at a sports game may break intotears over a loss, people at a public speaking event will hurt if things go badly for you.So the audience does what it can to make sure things go well. Audiences egg each otherone; studies have shown that audiences work as a single social unit, in a team effort.Audiences will clap just a bit harder than a joke may rate, and in doing so push the entiregroup further into taking satisfaction from a speaker, rather than being disappointed.They will clap just a bit harder, smile more, and work to try to push a speaker over thetop.Almost all that an audience asks for to give this support and good will is that you offerconfidence, and collected good will in return. Again, the public speaker who hangs hishead, shuffles his feet, mumbles his lines, and stares out with stricken puppy-dog eyes,begging forgiveness will never have the true support of the audience. Such a performerannounces going in that the task of holding him up will be higher than an audiencewants to bear. But with good will and honest generosity, a public speaker can count ongetting a great audience in almost all instances.Audiences want to love you. Make it easy for them, and your job is complete.
Bringing It All TogetherWe have discussed many of the elements of developing good public speaking skills.From basic understanding of the material to the development of sound technique, to thedevelopment of a giving and generous mind set ready to take responsibility for aperformance or recital, we have been dealing with elements a public speaker can workon and develop on his or her own.In truth, though, public speaking is a skill that must be honed and sharpened with groups– ideally with groups designed and aimed at promoting good skills, good philosophy,and good understanding. Public speaking is one of the least amenable skills to pure,solitary self-help methods. In the end, for all you can learn, and practice alone, you mustwork with groups to become proficient. There is simply no other option than to presentyourself, regularly, to an audience.As mentioned at the start, there are many reliable ways of proceeding with the challenge.The best place to start, however, is to determine what your own goals are, as these willaffect your choice of speaking group.The vast majority of adult speech students will have one or two clear areas in which theywant to learn and excel. For example, they may want to learn how to give a businesssummary, or present financial data for a club or a small home business. In many cases,the very best group to help you meet these needs will be a public speaking class – oftenoffered to the community for a minimum price at local colleges. These courses focus onbasic skills and presentation, and push to help students accomplish the necessary abilityrequired of midlevel management and administration through much of the nation in.The group will be short-term, and many of your fellow students will want nothing morethan to learn their skills and get back to their own lives.However, other people will want a more rich and enduring cultural involvement whenthey learn to provide public speaking skills. For these people, the small, communitycollege based group is at best a mere entry way to more complex and rewarding things.More likely to ensure high levels of kill and at the same time plenty of communitysupport and enthusiasm, is to look into local theater clubs, debate clubs and publicspeaking clubs.As stated, the best known of these groups is Toastmasters. This group has beenproviding a warm, supportive and vigorous group in which people may gain publicspeaking skill for almost one year now. Rostrum, Speaking Circles, and others similarlyprovide great group experiences, allowing a learner a great community experiencecombined with a teaching and learning situation. The power of this type of learningcannot be overstated. There is an excitement and sense of mutual dedication that comes
with such clubs which remains missing in those who are just taking a course to preparethem for a business slot. In such groups as Toastmasters, International there is a depth ofconviction about the use and meaning of public speaking that is just not matchedelsewhere. Summing UpWhatever your reasons for pursuing public speaking abilities, remember that it is acomplex challenge that will not be learned instantly or without some consideration ofyour goals and your available options. Be sure to do the research, and make the effort tofind the club or class best suited to you, and proceed to practice both publically andprivately.When you feel you have the skills, and find yourself performing regularly, you willbegin to realize how much power public speaking wields in the world. Few choices aremade without the primary moving factor being public speech. Many private connectionsbegin in bonds formed at public events, in response to public speeches.The vital necessity of public speech is so engrained into American history andgovernment that we have structured it into all aspects of our lives. Whether we watchold movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or read wonderingly about the strugglesof Revolutionary patriots to establish and maintain the rights of free speech in ournation, we are taking part in an ongoing heritage of public speaking. As much asprotection of the press, protection of the right of speech is a hallmark and foundationstone of our methods of government, and we cannot imagine living in a place that deniesthose rights.Yet, comparatively few Americans bother to learn the skills of good public speech and,as a result, the experience is becoming rare. That is unfortunate. There are few projectsbetter suited to integrating you with the history of our people, the future of ourcommunities, and the emotional network of our present like public speaking.It is tragic that so many resist learning as a result of fear. In the end, the loss is to theentire world and the nation.