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The World's Shortest Course in Public Speaking

By Marty Nemko

Giving a talk, even if it’s just a five-minute report, is a key moment in your career. It can catapult you from just another employee to a star.

I’ve given hundreds of successful talks, read extensively on the art of public speaking, and helped many clients prepare for a talk. This distills what I’ve learned.

Perhaps most important, be brave. If you merely spout conventional wisdom, your audience will likely be bored and won’t learn anything new. The best talks include assertions likely to raise some eyebrows. Of course, your views can’t be too discordant with your audience’s views or they’ll be dismissed out of hand. And even if only moderately discordant, such talks are risky, but over a career, the brave speaker makes a bigger difference in the world, is more respected, and enjoys more self-respect than the many mealymouths who say only what their audience is comfortable hearing. If I’m giving a talk on job searching, I might talk about how the much-extolled networking is overrated and discuss more effective approaches. In a speech on workplace issues, I might argue that, contrary to conventional wisdom, men are often treated unfairly in today’s workplace and propose remedies. In a talk on education, I might contend that higher education doesn’t deserve its august status and present a blueprint for its improvement. Yes, I have been criticized for such speeches but receive far more praise, and I’ve given my audience fresh ideas rather than same-old, same-old.

Prepare and you won’t scare. Start by creating an outline, maybe even a script. Of course, every talk is different, but the following template works in many situations:

1. After thanking your introducer and perhaps others, start with a less than one-minute description of an interaction you just had with an audience member, or a shared experience, for example, the rainstorm you all had to brave to make the meeting.

I don’t recommend the common strategy of starting with a canned joke. It makes your audience think of you as an entertainer putting on an act rather than someone trying to communicate important information while revealing your true self.

2. State the one to five main points you will make.

3. For each major point, tell an illustrative story and a fact(s) and/or statistic(s).

4. Summarize, reiterating your major points.

5. End with an inspiring story and call to action.

If you’re a pro, you may not need to rehearse. Otherwise:

1. If you’ve written a script, read it aloud two or three times and then put it away. Few speeches are worse than those that sound canned, let alone are read verbatim.

2. With just your outline in front of you, deliver the speech into a tape recorder. Listen to it, taking notes on what you like and don’t like. Keep delivering it until you feel good about it.

3. Deliver the talk to someone you trust. Incorporate their feedback.

Be a storyteller. Good speeches require good stories. The best ones evoke emotion and offer a lesson. They often tell the tale of a successful quest. For example, I often tell the story of how my father survived the Holocaust, then was dumped in the Bronx without a penny to his name, not a word of English, no family, no money, only the scars of the Holocaust tortures. Yet he never complained. When I asked him why, he said, “The Nazis took six years from my life. I won’t give them one minute more. Martin, never look back; always look forward.” All of us have suffered in the past, but I’ve found that the happiest, most productive people live by my father’s watchword.

Come Early. Even the best speech will fail if it can’t be heard, so check out the sound system. If possible, before your talk, chat with audience members. That will make them more receptive to you and calm you down. Plus, you’ll pick up an anecdote to start your talk with.

Connect. What’s a speech in which the speaker doesn’t connect with the audience? An article. So, talk to one person at a time, each for a few seconds, trying to make your points with heartfelt passion.

Don’t worry if you fumble. Even great speakers do. What counts is the overall impression: a couple of slip-ups won’t affect that.

Don’t exceed the allotted time. No matter how good the speaker, it’s still a speech. Very few speeches are fascinating, even if you think yours is. The audience members have told themselves in advance, “I have to pay attention for x minutes.” If you exceed that, many will resent you.

A talk is a great way to make a difference and to enhance your reputation. Just follow the above steps and you’ll be better than most speakers. Class dismissed.

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