The Second Secret to Public Speaking

public speaking

If you can speak, you can influence. If you can influence, you can change lives. ~ Rob Brown (Tweet this)

The greatest secret to public speaking is the role of silence and introspection before you step up to the podium. But obviously, you can’t be silent once you are at the front of the room. So what’s the next step?

Look for the Hook

The next step is to do your homework. Research your topic. Find an angle that is unique or that illuminates your talk in a way we’ve not heard before. Look for the hook that will grab your listeners.

But know, without a shadow of a doubt, that your homework (in other words, your prep) is not what the audience is waiting to hear. What they want from you is a STORY. A narrative. Something that will embody your message – not in the form of a list of bullet points, but as a tale you tell that makes them sit up and take notice.

Facts and figures are the darlings of those who are proficient in a field. But those who are compelling speakers use facts to support a story – not to replace one. For without a story, your facts will not be remembered. Information floats in and out of our head all day long.

It takes up residence in our short-term memory for … well, the short term. If we want to be remembered, we need to find the emotion in our narrative. It’s the emotion that makes our message stick.

The appeal of stories

Storytelling is the realm of tellers of tales and tellers of truths. From earliest childhood, we are always asking for stories. They illustrate, they illuminate, they captivate and they teach. Anything of importance that we have learned, we can tell via story.

But I often see speakers confuse their desire to look smart (by spouting statistics & facts) with the need to be smart (engaging the heart and imagination of an audience with storytelling). And the more educated the speakers, the more likely they are to opt for merely sounding smart.

What an audience needs

Public speaking is the art of diluting a two minute idea with a two hour vocabulary. ~ John. F. Kennedy (Tweet this)

I once watched an expert in his field wow his audience, not so much with his knowledge (which was vast) but with his uncanny ability to make them feel like they could keep up with him. He was more intent on making them feel smart than he was in showing off. That, indeed, is the mark of a confident speaker. So here are some tips:

Care more for your audience than you do for your own self-image. Ask about them:

  1. Who are they?
  2. How much do they know about your topic?
  3. How much do they care?
  4. Are they going to resist your message or accept you?
  5. Are they there because they have to be or because they want to be?

The scientist OR The movie star

I once watched a noted university scientist address a lay audience on the very technical topic of his research. This crowd was not up on the latest statistical studies nor on the latest scientific methods that was this man’s bread and butter. But even before he opened his mouth, the audience was on its feet cheering him. Why? Because his research on a new product was a life-changer for their business. They may not have understood his work but they did understand his results.

He, on the other hand, looked like a deer in the headlights. He really did not expect a standing ovation as soon as he hit the stage. And his first words came from the heart. He said that he was so used to addressing scientific peer review groups whose mission was to prove him wrong, that he didn’t know how to react to such warmth and regard coming from this group.

For the first time in his life, he got the reception of a movie star and was completely flabbergasted. By the time he got around to showing the audience his PowerPoint (which they could not understand), they had  forgiven him for his rather lack-luster slides because he had regaled them earlier with riveting stories about his research.

Why do stories matter?

We learn through stories, as mentioned above, but more importantly, we love telling them. The speaker who has a good story does not need notes, does not feel nervous about forgetting his facts, does not fear facing an audience that might be bored with lifeless slides. A speaker with a compelling story can’t wait to get up and show his stuff. And usually, only an index card with a few items on it will keep him on track.

What next?

The final step in preparation is, of course,  practice, practice, practice. But as I once told a TV host who asked me if practice makes perfect, “Practice does not make perfect if you’re doing it wrong!

So it pays to practice before a real audience, but one that is not afraid to tell you the truth. If you are a CEO, who can cause heads to roll, you may want to hire an outside coach who will speak truth to power. If you ask your lover to listen to your talk, they may not want to hurt your feelings. Find someone with nothing to lose and whose opinion you value.

Know your story so well that if all your notes were to blow away in the wind, you would not care. And, in fact, if you’ve practiced properly, you may not even need to take notes with you. But if you do, never, ever, ever read. Your talk must sound like a talk, not a lecture. Your notes should be a security blanket that you have with you just for comfort; not something you rely on to get you through.

Public Speaking? Who Me? Enjoy Myself?

My final thought for you is this: do whatever it takes for you to enjoy yourself when you speak. For if you’re not having a good time, how can we? When you are at the podium, you are conveying more than just your thoughts: you must also convey what is in your heart.

If you doubt yourself, we will doubt you. If you enjoy yourself, we can’t help but join you there. For only then is true connection possible. And, after all, connecting is what public speaking is all about.

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About the Author

Saskia, known as The Keynote Coach, has been working for over 30 years with Keynote speakers in all professions, from the Arts to Corporate America. She is the Author of "More Than Words Can Say: The Making of Inspired Speakers". More at

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