VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Making public speaking a better cultural experience

September 12, 2005

Unless I'm just too persnickety, public speaking as a means to influence and inform seems to be in a state of decline these days-a diminishing art form if you please.

My credentials for this assessment are not infallible, but they do go back well over four decades-more than 30 years as one of the team members responsible for programs of the Economic Club of Indianapolis and 14 years helping to fine tune the pulpit skills of United Methodist clergy across the state.

Listening over the years to more platform addresses than any human should endure tells me that some speakers aren't fully committed to this role. More than a few apparently don't work at it, consider it too unimportant or simply don't have the talent to pull it off.

Business and political leaders don't need to be modern-day versions of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King or Ronald Reagan. That's too much to ask. But memories of Chrysler's Lee Iacocca remind me that public speaking skills can be immensely valuable in achieving major organizational objectives. Many say his eloquence before Congress in requesting a 1979 bailout was the single most important factor in the survival of Chrysler.

Let me offer some suggestions for improving public speaking by citing some mistakes I keep seeing.

Who are these people?

It's amazing how many speakers show up without doing much homework on the audience they're addressing. Instead, they arrive with a previously-used, boilerplate speech-perhaps a chapter from their latest book-and do very little to customize it for this special group. The result can be a presentation of dubious value to the audience. Good speakers do research and refine their remarks to fit the situation.

What's the point?

Presenters sometimes leave listeners confused about the essential points they should carry away from the speech. That's because the speaker hasn't outlined his or her thoughts in a logical, sequential style that's easy to remember. The old maxim about telling them right up front what you intend to tell them may be overdone at times. Nevertheless, a good summary at the end can be useful in driving home the key messages you want them to remember.

Let's talk eye-to-eye

Some speakers lean too heavily on a manuscript, seldom looking up from the printed page. But good speakers try to maintain eye contact with listeners in each part of the room, encouraging each listener to think, "He's really talking to me." One problem with manuscript speaking is that it can easily evolve into a dull, mechanical monotone. Be so familiar with the material that you're not a slave to the manuscript. Be conversational and avoid long, drawn-out sentences.

Not everybody is Jay Leno

Many speakers apparently believe a presentation must start with a joke or two. Wrong! This is very treacherous ground because many people simply can't be funny, even blurting out Rodney Dangerfield's best lines. If you must attempt humor, at least rehearse it with an intimate friend who will tell you if it falls flat. And if it does, find another way to get into the topic-a memorable anecdote perhaps, maybe a dramatic quote, or a rhetorical question that your remarks seek to answer.

I'm smart; you're not

Some speakers let their egos become obstacles to clear communication. They try to impress their audience with complex commentary designed to convey the notion that a very high IQ is in their midst. I'm reminded of the young minister of a small rural church who sermonized on the debates between Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth about Neo-Orthodoxy. Asked why a farm community would appreciate, even comprehend, such a weighty topic, he replied, "About every six weeks I preach a sermon I know is way above the heads of my congregation so they'll know they don't have a dodo for a pastor." Whoa! That's pontificating, not communicating.

Where's my Funk & Wagnalls?

Many professions have their own technical vocabulary that is foreign to outsiders. Use of jargon may be appropriate when you're talking inside your vocational "family," but most of the time it's not.

My cup runneth over

Some speakers seem determined to bury the audience with information. They document their case with at least 10 points and cite all the data they can find to support it. Consider the poor audience. Confine yourself to a few points and support them with a few facts and numbers. Winston Churchill challenged his countrymen with the famous "we shall fight" passage that included only 81 words-and only nine of those words had more than one syllable.

Somebody stop me!

An old proverb says that for a speech to be eternal it need not be everlasting. There can be exceptions in some teaching situations, but rarely should a speech go beyond 20 minutes. A speech will bear more fruit if you prune it considerably. When I hear some speakers say, "In conclusion," it usually means another 10 minutes. Keep your good beginning and your good ending as close together as possible.

I could go on, but in conclusion... I won't violate my rules. I'm stopping here.

Gildea is vice president of Sease, Gerig & Associates, an Indianapolis-based public relations and management counseling firm. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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