According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy…
Seinfeld puts it humorously, albeit bluntly, but the truth is, for so many people, public speaking is especially scary. I’ve had a career of decades of public speaking and at a rough, modest estimate would say I have probably given in excess of 6000 speeches and sermons. In short I’m a serious, serial speechifier!
This week I had an opportunity to reflect on the art of public speaking at a sensational conference on Jewish leadership ( Launchpad) attended by several of us from Jewish Care.
From one of Judaism’s earliest and greatest leaders we learn that public oratory isn’t necessarily a natural talent but an acquired skill. We aren’t born elocuting gracefully…Moses grew up in a palace but felt inadequate as a speaker. When called on by God to represent his people he says: “I am not a man of words” . Yet he delivers one of the Bible’s most powerful, lengthy and superb stories in his final valedictory, the Book of Deuteronomy aka The Book of Words. Another man who grew up in a palace, King George 6, was a stutterer yet he went on to deliver his storied inaugural address to the nation on the BBC. These men like the fabled Greek philosopher Demosthenes found a way of overcoming their fears and making history as articulate leaders.
Demosthenes did it by putting pebbles into his mouth and speaking loudly against the sound of the waves on the sea shore. Moses and George had great coaches in Aaron and Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue respectively. They all learned how to cultivate confidence in their capacity to lead, communicate and inspire. They found the confidence within to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. They carry a lesson for all of us – speaking is a natural human skill that is polished and perfected through hard work within and without… and it’s a skill worth learning be it for a toast at a small home gathering, for a birthday or for an important work conference.
Very few people can stand up and speak spontaneously. Even seasoned speakers can struggle with this. Mark Twain quipped that it takes three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech! One of the most basic rules of public speaking is preparation and preparation precedes and informs presentation. As in the truism, if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.
A good and significant speech demands thinking and a gentle cooking till it’s toasted to perfection. It can involve a jotting down of ideas and research. It can be improved by testing ideas on others but most importantly it’s about discovering and developing your own unique voice. You may not become a Martin Luther King Jr but you can become a captain of your own dreams.
One of the things that chills me to the bone is when a novice speaker stands up and declares: “I haven’t prepared because I want to speak honestly with my heart.” Unfortunately they confuse impulsivity with honesty. And in turn this often leads to two other deadly sins of public oratory: sentimentality and superficiality. Sentimentality is about self indulgent and unprocessed emotions which are awfully trying on the hapless recipients. Superficiality stems from a lack of thinking and thoughtfulness and is often reflected in the use of copious cliches and painful platitudes. Almost as bad is the inappropriate use of humour -if you’re not naturally funny don’t become a try hard!
All of this reminds us that we need to know and respect our audience – don’t talk down to them, don’t exploit them by wild rhetoric and don’t try to be a populist pleaser. One of the last century’s best public speakers was Dale Carnegie and he advocated for both loving and informing your audience. It’s a balance of heart and head.
I have made many lousy speeches in my time, enough to recognise that it’s best to keep your talks short, sincere and simple, to know exactly what you want to say and to be able to summarise your message in a succinct statement. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is a stunning example of simplicity in action. And the Uluru Statement Of The Heart is just that. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is a modern demonstration of the power of profound exposition expressed in straightforward language. This also means pacing your speech, modulating your voice, pausing and looking directly at your listeners. To be effective you gotta talk the language of the common man. Be natural, be you and be passionate.
In conclusion, I love the line of Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” If you put your heart and soul into your speaking it will speak to others. A famous preacher put it a little differently – catch on fire, he said, and people will come for miles to see you burn!
So let’s keep it well cooked, but still tender and hot and we will all be better speakers!