So now you’ve begun the process and have taken those steps outlined in the prior chapter. You’re willing to face an audience but wouldn’t refer to yourself as a pro. Then someone asks you to be a speaker at an upcoming event they are planning. Your first question springs up almost automatically: “What do you want me to talk about?” The answer is never really enough.
You will be given a subject and the setting will be explained, but that still leaves a lot of leeway in structuring your talk. You will be assigned a specific amount of time. Your role will be clear. But you will still have to prepare your talk, rehearse it, know it cold, and deliver it in front of a live audience. That involves a lot of work. Let’s break the pieces apart and identify what you should do to give yourself the best advantage.
In its simplest form, preparation is having done enough work to be absolutely sure you know what you are talking about.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “I believe I shall never be old enough to speak without embarrassment—when I have nothing to say.”
Churchill said it took him six or seven hours to prepare a forty-five minute speech. It’s no walk in the park. If you want to be confident, you must know that your message is worthy of the audience, worthy of the moment, and worthy of you. That takes time and it takes work. And it is worth it. Your sense of triumph at the conclusion of your talk will come, in part, from knowing that you have worked hard for this moment.
The first step in gaining confidence is to know your subject. There is no substitute for that. If you are not an expert on the subject, don’t speak. You become an expert through study and experience. If you think about it, you may see that you are already qualified to speak on a number of subjects. Remember, someone else recognizes you as an expert and as a person who has experience worth sharing with a broader audience. That is why you have been asked to speak. But you still have to decide exactly what to say. The situation will usually determine the direction your remarks should take. For example, when I was asked to speak at the dinner for my father (Chapter 1), it was clear that I should have told a story that showed what a fine man he was and that I loved him.
When Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, he knew his mission was to commemorate those who gave their lives on that battlefield site. He spoke briefly but was so memorable that not only the battle but the speech have become part of our common history. The president of the United States speaks to the country and to the world on the state of the union, the budget, the economy, foreign affairs, etc. The president also speaks in response to any significant happening that involves the United States. These public addresses don’t ramble (thanks in part to an army of crafty political speechwriters) and are to the point.
A department head in a company speaks both internally and externally on the mission of the department, or about a special initiative, an unforeseen emergency, in recognition of someone’s accomplishment, or to announce a promotion, for example.
You can see that events and your audience often determine what is expected of you. Your responsibility is to reach into your own storehouse of knowledge and experience, determine your point of view about the issue at hand, and then craft your message so it addresses the current need.
We live in an age where the computer is at our fingertips. We even use it to help us think. With that in mind, by all means, write out your talk. It will help you put your thoughts in order and your confidence will be buoyed by seeing the talk right there in front of you.
Then, read it over and over again. Read it out loud. Read it to your spouse, to a friend, to another family member, to your dog (if you can keep him sitting there, you know you are pretty good). Read it in front of a mirror while trying to maintain eye contact with yourself as you read.
Now you know the speech pretty well. Next, do the same talk without the script. Make notes if you like. Use them while you rehearse. On the day of your talk, you might even take the notes with you in your pocket to be used in an emergency, but leave the written script at home.
Never read a speech to an audience unless you are forced to do so. They deserve better and so do you. Think of your own experience. Have you ever been impressed when a speaker read a talk or a sermon to you? If your answer is, “No” (and I think it will be), then don’t inflict the same pain on others.
We listeners are savvy folk. When a speaker begins a talk, the first thing we do is decide whether it’s “live” (coming from inside the speaker’s head) or it’s “being read” (from a piece of paper on the lectern). They are not the same. “Being read” is “day-old bread.” No matter how erudite the writing is, the audience sees the speaker as a reader of yesterday’s news.
An audience forced to listen to a speaker simply read notes may feel slighted or shortchanged. The drama is gone. We are not seeing the creation of a talk right before our eyes. We cannot even be sure the speaker wrote the speech. So we, fickle listeners that we are, will give the speaker demerits right off the bat.
But when a speaker begins a talk with head held high, looking at the audience as he speaks, we know that what we are hearing is “today’s bread,” baked fresh, right before our eyes. Our attention peaks. We are watching a live performance. We are impressed. The speech has hardly begun and we are awarding bonus points.