Secrets of public speaking

A few unique individuals are able to combine words and feelings in stirring, almost miraculous ways. But that does not mean that others cannot learn how to improve their public speaking skills.

by Knowledge@Wharton
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Richard Greene, a public speaking coach and author of the book, Words that Shook the World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events, recently spoke at the 11th Wharton leadership conference, which centered on the theme of "Developing Leadership Talent".

"I would rather hear Martin Luther King read the Philadelphia White Pages out loud than hear almost anyone in corporate America deliver the 'I have a dream' speech," said Greene during his presentation," Greene says.

While King had natural gifts that only a chosen few possess, Greene argued that most people have never been trained in public speaking, in part because the subject is not usually taught in schools. "It's a mechanical process and every single employee, with a little bit of intention, focus and time spent, can learn a new skill set," said Greene.

The first task of a speaker is to realize his or her purpose in speaking, whether it involves addressing several prospective customers across a boardroom table or a convention of thousands. "Public speaking is nothing more than having a conversation about something you're passionate about with two or more people, while you just happen to be standing up, or not," said Greene, who has advised CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and coached presidents, prime ministers, and, in 1996, Diana, Princess of Wales.

One of the biggest pitfalls for speakers in a corporate communication setting is perceiving a speech or presentation as a performance. "It's easy to get nervous and think, 'I want them to know how smart I am and how much I know,'" said Greene. "But if it's just about downloading data, then stay home, hit the send button and save everyone's time and expense."

The best communicators have understood that public speaking is not a performance; it's about making a connection with others, said Greene. "What did Franklin Roosevelt call his weekly radio addresses? Not 'fireside speeches' but 'fireside chats.' He understood that this new technology - radio - could be a way to connect with people."

Greene, who began his career as a lawyer, became intrigued by public speaking after watching motivational speaker Tony Robbins. "His ability to work a crowd is unparalleled and I learned a lot from him. I also decided it would be much more fun to do what he was doing, rather than what I was doing, which was being his lawyer."

During the 2000 presidential election, Greene advised Al Gore's campaign to let the then-Democratic nominee speak about environmental issues, but his advice was brushed off by the vice president's campaign on the basis that "no one cares about the environment." "What was missing from Gore in 2000 was a sense of human passion and authenticity. It doesn't matter what you think of global warming: What matters is you see that he believes in something passionately," he said.

Authenticity can help convince an audience that you are bringing something unique to the table, said Greene. "When you're trying to market an idea or product or service, you have to answer two questions the customer has, which are: 'What makes you unique, as compared to your competitors? And how can your uniqueness benefit me?'"

Greene offered some practical tips, including the observation that "the difference between a good speaker and a great speaker is the pause." He recited a piece of the famous King speech: "He said, 'I have a dream' - pause, pause, pause - 'that one day' - pause, pause, pause - 'this nation will rise up….' He didn't just run it all together, one word after another."

Other simple tools of the trade include making eye contact with audience members even in a large room, establishing a casual relationship by walking in front of a podium rather than standing behind it, and varying voice tone and rhythm. "This is all low-hanging fruit," said Greene, meaning that with a little training, most speakers can improve in these areas.

Of course, some public speaking skills are the result of natural gifts, Greene acknowledged, and voice resonance is one of those gifts. Former CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite won the nation's trust in part because of his deep, full voice, said Greene; on the flip side, Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey lost the 1968 election in part because his voice was high-pitched and even grating.

As for the current presidential race, Greene predicted that Mitt Romney would win the Republican nomination and Barack Obama the Democratic because both are strong communicators. "There is a continuum of great speakers. Where you are on this continuum is pretty much where you are in terms of overall effectiveness."

He attributes Obama's rapid political rise to the skill of his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "It didn't sound like a normal political speech. He spoke from a place of pure nakedness, as if he were saying, 'I'm not even giving a speech; let's just connect.'"

While disparaging an older generation of public speaking advice that recommended viewing audience members in their underwear, Greene offered a different kind of advice that can be summed up in four words: "It's not about you." Referring again to Martin Luther King, Greene said, "He had this ability to reach inside his heart and soul and just bring out what was there. What he cared about at every moment was just getting his message across. He wasn't worrying about how he looked."

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