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Public Speaking - Owning "The Skills"

Jul 31, 2008
People who get paid well to speak all share one of two traits: either they're famous, or they own "The Skills". To be able to move people who don't know you as a celebrity of some sort, you must know how to keep your audience focused on you and your message, and how to keep them on the same page, on the same wavelength, every step of the way.

Keeping an audience with you is simply not possible with the way 99% of all public speakers behave when at the front of a group. When you speak the way most of us have been taught to do from an early age, you engage in behaviors that send the wrong signals to your audience - in many cases exactly the opposite of what you would like to signal. Worse, these standard behaviors actually reduce your cognitive capacity at the time you most desperately need it.

If these statements seem sweeping, please understand that we at PublicSpeakingSkills.com have been training people from business, politics, the military and the clergy for over 12 years in The Skills.

During that time, we have had the privilege to work with over 10,000 people from all walks of life, and here is what we have learned: 99% of speakers engage in exactly the same behaviors, and consequently produce similar results when it comes to the quality of their speaking.

In fact, in every one of our on-site programs, we begin with an exercise that "benchmarks" how each student speaks prior to training, and we are able to predict to the second what each and every participant will do during their initial delivery. To the second!

Good News!

But that's the good news. It's good news because we also know that most people speak the way they do simply because they've never been shown the proper way. And though many people take courses in public speaking in high school or college, the format of those courses tends to emphasize the content part of speaking rather than the actual physical behaviors one needs to understand in order to acquire The Skills.

If you have ever taken a course in school, we bet that your assignments were to create a series of different types of speeches: The Informative, The Inspirational, The Motivational, etc., etc. Sound familiar?

But what were you taught about the actual delivery, other than to look at everyone in the audience and watch your umms and ahhs? Worse, during your speaking career you probably have been receiving positive feedback for your behaviors no matter what you've been doing by people either too polite or simply not knowledgeable enough to tell you otherwise.

Speaking well: talent or training?

When people learn the proper way; when they understand what the audience expects of them as human beings; when they embrace the idea that it's OK to go into a presentation without having spent hours and hours rehearsing it; when they become comfortable with not knowing what they're going to say until just before they say it; and when they come to accept that often the most powerful thing they can say is nothing at all, they never engage in the old behaviors again.

They approach every opportunity to speak to a crowd with desire and enthusiasm, and the larger the crowd, the better. They actually see speaking to a group as one of the most relaxing things they can do, as it is one of the few times left in life where they are free to do only one thing at a time. These people have The Skills.

And we can't emphasize enough that The Skills are, indeed, a set of behaviors that you learn, and not something that you are born with. Only a very small subset of people is 'born' with the ability to move a group to action with their words and actions. Those people have what the rest of us don't: it's called "charisma". Charismatics have been known to lead thousands to action by the power of their spoken words, often for good, and sometimes not.

But charisma alone didn't get Bill Clinton to the top job in the world. Bill Clinton, believe it or not, was not always a great speaker. What he had was both charisma and the brains to know that he did not know everything - and that becoming a great speaker was both an essential job requirement and something that someone could be taught.

Bill Clinton was one of only a handful of men who was elected president of the United States without great personal or family wealth. He got elected on his ability to motivate people to listen to him, work for him, follow him and support him all the way. He was successful because he didn't simply speak; he spoke with a manner and a style that caused people to not only listen to his words but also to hear them, remember them, and to believe them. Bill Clinton has The Skills.

The Skills supersede genes, culture, background, heritage, and to a large extent even education. Many clients come to us because they want help with their accents or they feel their voice needs correcting in some way.

Although we grant that there are some people with a speaking voice better suited to silent films, for the vast majority an accent or unique pitch only adds to the level of interest they can create as a speaker. That's because, as we'll learn, these traits simply add to one's "humanness".

It's about being you

People are not moved by messages delivered by speakers whom they don't feel are "real". And yet most of us were taught behaviors that cause us to adopt completely alien personas when we speak to groups. We try to become "Presenterman!" or "Presenterwoman!". Sadly, Hillary Clinton does this. Could you imagine spending dinner across the table from Hillary Clinton and having her speak to you the way she does to crowds? Pretty painful thought! Yet you could pretty much imagine that if you were sharing dinner with Bill, or Ronald Reagan, the conversation would be not unlike how you know them to speak in public.

Alas, Hillary does not have The Skills.
About the Author
J. Douglas Jefferys is a principal at PublicSpeakingSkills.com, an international consulting firm specializing in training businesses of all sizes to communicate for maximum efficiency. The firm spreads its unique knowledge through on-site classes, public seminars, and high-impact videos, and can be reached through the Internet or at 888-663-7711.
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