Speaking With Authority

 Are you in control when you speak to a group?

When Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, in his nominating speech for Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, spoke the words, “In closing…” a roar went up in the convention hall. He was finally finishing!

Fortunately for him, his 1992 speech, accepting his own nomination, got much better marks. In fact, some said it was the best speech of his life. Not only was it important as a kickoff for his first presidential campaign, but Clinton erased once and for all the memory of that dud four years earlier.

That story has at least three important points. One, you’re never too good or too experienced to ignore some of the fundamentals of good speaking. Two, you can give an occasional poor speech and still retain your charisma, as Clinton did in the intervening four years. And three-and most important-the ability to communicate well to groups of people can make a critical difference in your career.

In fact, a study conducted by AT&T and Stanford University revealed that the top predictor of professional success and upward mobility is how much you enjoy and how good you are at public speaking. Yet surveys also show that the number one fear of most adults (even above death) is speaking in public. Now there’s a contradiction for you: The best thing for anyone’s career is also what we most fear!

The ability to speak confidently is one of the most marketable skills you can acquire. Organizations continually seek individuals who can sell products, present proposals, report findings, and explain ideas effectively. It’s no coincidence that more than 50 percent of Toastmasters clubs are in-house corporate or government groups.

Audiences, accustomed now to slick media, are less tolerant than ever of marginal presentation skills. So the ante has been upped, the bar has been raised, on what level of public speaking is now needed to get your message across.

Here are some other tricks of the trade:

1. Really care about your subject. Passion is the starting point of all good public speaking.  Peggy Noonan, President Reagan’s celebrated speechwriter, describes a speech as “poetry: cadence, rhythm, imagery, sweep! [It] reminds us that words, like children, have the power to make dance the dullest beanbag of a heart.”

So pick a subject that has an inordinate impact on you, a subject you’d like to share with others because you know, intensely, that they could benefit from your knowledge. Your enthusiasm will show through.

2. Be brief. The best way to impress an audience is to finish early. “My father gave me this advice on speech making,” said James Roosevelt, son of FDR: “Be sincere … be brief … be seated.” So hit it hard, hit it well, finish strong, and, for maximum impression, keep it short. The less opportunity you give your audience’s minds to wander, the more they’ll appreciate you and remember what you had to say.

3. Make use of memory joggers. You can keep attention high and help people remember your message if you use ample examples to transmit your message powerfully. Similarly, statistics, if used sparingly and presented simply, can add drama and credibility to your message. Comparisons can help your audience evaluate different options quickly and logically, and testimony-personal stories of credible people-can make your message more memorable and believable.

4. Remember the pause that refreshes. The sweet sound of silence, the power of the pause, can be artfully used in any speech. Pauses are not really empty spaces. Instead, they’re opportunities for the audience to respond to your words with their own thoughts, images, and feelings.

 “The right word may be effective,” Mark Twain said, “but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

5. Don’t dawdle at the finish line. Good speakers understand that the end is just as important-and maybe more so-as the beginning. This is your chance to sum up your best thoughts, words, and images and imprint them indelibly on the audience’s collective brain.

Don’t miss that opportunity by running beyond your time limit, or fumbling your final message. Know what you want to say, say it, and then say good night.

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