Markus Voss lives in Jena, Germany.
Besides working on the Mideast conflict and his research on the philosophy of religion, he has gained national media attention for his pioneering work on U.S. President Barack Obama and is currently finishing his book on the evolution of Obama's personality and speeches.
- Be honest .
(we’ll come to back to that and I hope that at the end of the article, you’ll have good idea of what I mean by that.)
- Be good.
A phenomenon you’ve very probably observed all too many times:
Most people don’t reach their true potential. In fact, many people just try to get by: for various reasons they remain behind their original goals and merely wish they had reached their aims instead of striving for them and achieving them.
Who do you think will have delivered a better speech? – she who says “I did well” or he who says “Well, this one over with, but...”?
It sounds arrogant, to be sure. But remember what a very arrogant man once said:
“The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” (Steve Jobs)
A speech is a product of yourself, that’s a given. It is a piece of art emanating from your very own personality.
So, the only way to deliver a good speech is to be a good speaker.
And the only way to be good speaker is to become one: no one is born a good speaker, no one is born eloquent, no one is born an athlete, no one born sophisticated. These are skills and, if I may say so, traits of personality you acquire and develop. And if you don’t consider yourself to be a great speaker, not even a good speaker – that doesn’t have to bother you, no one started out giving speeches like Barack Obama, certainly not Barack Obama.
What do I mean by that?
Many people who have the talents, who have the opportunity and who have the potential to become great speakers just seem to put these aside by going the way they deem easier: just talking about a subject, following their first associations, and stressing what they presume a speech about a certain subject ought to contain – getting it over with and being mediocre, which is actually much more strenuous than simply doing a good job.
And it's unnecessary, too. You don't have to be tied up in knots, feeling you have to be hellbent on somehow associating, making up stories and filling pages if you really know what you have say and are able to narrow it down. That’s a skill you can develop.
If you can do that, you’ve already taken an enormous step towards becoming a good speaker: knowing what you have to say in the first place.
Do that. Even more important: Practice it, let it become a natural habit of yours. – and observe your speeches getting better and better as people will remember what you had to say, especially compared to so many others merely trying to get by, filling pages and passing minutes.
That’s the basic trick of being a good speaker: knowing what you have to say.
But how do you become a great speaker?
A great speaker: the first advice
Becoming a great speaker is more demanding, it is more ambitious and it will challenge and cost you more than being a good speaker. And especially since being a good speaker is already a remarkable achievement of its own – you should know if you’re willing to pay the price.
If you aim at becoming a great speaker and are willing to walk the extra miles and to invest not only time, but yourself: your emotions and your honesty – then here come the first main advice:
Not only figure out what you have to say – that’s what makes a good speaker, hard enough;
but know what you want to say.
A certain speech may be a task you’ve been assigned to accomplish – that’s fine. Just, your job as someone who wants to become a great speaker is now to figure out just why you want to give that speech, and how you can enjoy the process of preparing and giving it.
That’s a mindset you’ll have to figure out beforehand. If you have, you’ve already taken a huge step to improve your preparation and later performance significantly.
Feeling the interaction: authenticity and honesty
When you are giving a speech, you’re interacting in a relationship between yourself, your subject and your audience. The way that interaction works out depends upon the relationship between the three. So don’t fake it. Be honest:
- if you don’t like your subject: don’t hide it, but explain why
- if you’re feeling insecure, don’t overcompensate: just focus on what you have to say
- if you like your audience: let them feel that
- if you enjoy the opportunity, don’t hide it: why shouldn’t others enjoy it as well?
Don’t try to impress: just be good, be authentic.
Hardly ever has a great piece of work just appeared by chance. That’s not to say miracles can be produced, but you can, however, and should diligently takes steps to prepare your piece of art.
In order to be well prepared and able to give a great speech, beforehand, you’ll have to give your preparation serious thought and spend actual time carefully considering the perimeters of your speech.
a) Know you audience:
Who are speaking for?, Who do you truly think it is you’re talking to?
Be very honest: who are you really, truly thinking of at the moment of your preparation?
Are you for instance writing to charm a loved one? Are you writing to impress or intimidate an adversary? Are you writing so an idol of yours would be proud of you? Are you writing for later recollections of your speech, in newspapers, blogs, graduation books? Or are you basically writing for yourself? – all of these are perfectly legitimate, just in some cases you’ll find yourself not exactly addressing your audience as it is, but rather writing for someone outside of the actual audience observing your speech to the audience.
You’ve got be honest: are you really talking to get your message across to and inside the audience – or are you writing because you’ll have wanted to delivered the speech afterwards?
That’s the first specific difference in preparation that marks a great speech: to know your actual audience.
b) Know your cause:
Have you make sure you know what you’re talking about? – in great speeches, it’s very often not a question of how, but what. Have you done your homework? Are you well informed about the matter? Have you precisely formulated your own questions about your subject? Are you prepared to take questions? Can you already distinguish between the easy questions and the ones that should justly make you sweat? If you had only 2 minutes to teach a loved one about your subject, what would be the essentials you mustn’t leave out? How do you feel when thinking about your subject? How do you feel when talking about your subject? Describe your feelings and name the reason why this subject affects you the way it does and spurs precisely these emotions, not others. Imagine how someone contradicting your views might likely feel – not think, feel – about the subject, and how he or she might feel about the way you feel about it and why so?
Name aspects of your subject you’d perhaps prefer not to talk about: why? Name reasons why it could actually be interesting opening up to the subject at hand and the experiences you might have gained from it a month from now.
That’s the second difference between someone struggling to give a speech and a great speaker: a great speaker can enjoy the process because he knows his subject, has established a certain relationship with it and can draw from that abundance.
As with every important relationship: don’t see what you want, don’t see what you fear, but simply be honest.
c) Know yourself:
Undoubtedly the most difficult task, and undoubtedly the most rewarding.
It may actually turn out to be a bit painful and you should give the question some thought if that’s a price you’re willing to pay. Because in order to become a great speaker you’ll have to travel a long road: the path to becoming a human being.
What I mean by that is quite simple: many people try to make more out of themselves than they are at the moment and in their effort to achieve above-average, let alone extraordinary things, they try to be bigger than life, they sometimes come across as superhuman – and might perhaps loose something very important in the process: themselves. And in an effort to become more than human, they become less, neglecting their personality – give it some quick though and I’m quite sure you’ll think of two or more people you’ve met in your life who left that impression.
The reason for that is, I believe, that many, if not most of us trying to achieve things in life have made good experiences and have made bad experiences: we’ve encountered people we idolize (and I believe it’s important we have figures and role models we can learn from, as long as it’s more than one) and people we who have repelled us. That’s fine: that’s how we learn.
Just the point is that some of us get caught up trying to be someone we’re not: either moving towards becoming our role models or, in contrast, moving away from people that repelled us. That’s fine, too – but only as long as these particular people help us discover who we are and want to be. Because as long as we try to be someone else – either by idolization or emulation of the opposite – we will ultimately overdo it and fail being ourselves. We will feel that and others will, too. It’s an urban myth to believe an audience doesn’t notice a speaker not being authentic.
Be honest: what do you want to gain out of a speech for yourself: a certain emotion, an intellectual challenge perhaps? – that’s fine, just know. Who might you be trying to copy while giving a speech and maybe even in your everyday life? Who might you be trying to move away from? – be honest.
Because as long as you are trying to live out of reaction to a person or people who have impressed you one away or the other – rather than figuring out what exaclty you want to learn from their example – you won’t be yourself. And you may try to be someone else as good as you can – but you’ll only be the best you can if you are yourself. So get to know yourself: not just by the way and on the side, but make it a serious endeavor of yours to discover who you are as human being: what you like, what you don’t like – who you love, who you’re repelled by? How do you interact with others? What do you think others enjoy about being in your company? What are habits of yours that occasionally annoy people? What are your secrets you don’t necessarily want them to know? And, if I may so say, take a look at your friends: not necessarily one by one, but in general: what type of people do you enjoy to be around? – after all, these are people you deliberately choose to spend your most precious resource on: time – that says quite a lot about yourself.
You never simply are a great speaker. You become. And you do that by learning from valuable mistakes and by growing: as a human being. And no matter how well you might emulate someone else - only as yourself can you be a great human being and a great speaker for other human beings. Intellect is only one piece of the puzzle, it’s about heart.
So, find out how you interact with others and how others react to you – be prepared to take some blows, embrace them. Just don’t exaggerate, don’t see what you’d like to see, don’t see what you fear, but simply be honest and allow yourself to be surprised.
No one has ever become a great speaker without taking these three major tasks of preparation into serious consideration. Only if you can begin to answer and anticipate the questions above while preparing your speech, you are preparing yourself to deliver not only a good, but a great speech.
While you’re figuring out these three major tasks, you only have one real task to complete: line out the structure of your speech.
And as you answer the questions above you’ll find that with each time, it gets easier and easier and things fall into place. Line out what you have to say. Break it down. If your audience could only remember 3 things, which are the points you want them to remember? Narrow it down. Which order of the three points comes most natural to you and appears the least illogical? – there you go, you’ ve got your outline.
Once you’ve started figuring these three major tasks out and you’ve got your outline, all else will follow.
In closing, let me address some of practical details that can vastly improve your performance and experience:
Visualize the exact situation of the speech you’ll be giving while preparing it:
the size of room (walk across beforehand if possible), the temperature, the weather and time of day, the smell, the clothing of your audience, the lighting, and most important: visualize at the very least one person you know will be in your audience. In the highly unlikely case you really wouldn’t know anyone at all, call the person you’ve scheduled the speech with, ask them to describe the audience to you as specific as possible and give you an example of a listener, better yet, ask her to come over to your speech, so you already know at least one person in the room.
it’s amazing what effect a change in physiology has in the way you are able to interact with people, be spontaneous and generally improves your mood and energy. Simply by jogging around the building, doing a few push-ups in your room or jumping jacks in the bathroom minutes before you encounter your audience (and catch your breath!) will alternate your perspective and turn stress into energizing potential.
Simplify your message:
Don’t try to appear sophisticated, rather be understood. If you really want to be clever, take care that the 98% of the people in the room can easily follow what you have to say. Rather be brief and remembered than eloquent and forgotten.
Don’t be to abstract. There’s always room for a sketch, a picture, an example, even if the subject requires you to talk about transcendental philosophy (trust me!). Use these means of illustration – whatever comes most natural to you. Remember: you don’t want to show that you’ve understood it, you want to encourage and empower your audience to do the same and benefit from your knowledge and experience.
Let them know what you want them to do:
Don’t be too direct on that one, clever people don’t easily like to follow direct orders. But show your listeners the benefits of what someone could gain if he adhered to what you have learned and why. Don’t let that question open, as it tends to become an elephant in the room, open to speculation or even misunderstanding. So just make clear what you had in mind.
In general: like people you talk to, like words you use:
Both is important: in history, there has hardly ever been a great speaker who hated all of his audience or detested every sentence that came across his lips. Enjoy language and the possibilities it gives you.
Also, enjoy and embrace the opportunity you have to meet the people you’re talking to. Given the situation, after all, the odds are you might have quite a number of things in common with your audience.
Be curious about the people, play with the words: one without the other is hardly effective, and certainly not the second without the first.
Don’t write your speech too quickly:
Rather, jot down bullet points. Remember: you’re giving a speech as part of a conversation, you’re not writing a paper for a scientific journal.
Casually talk to friends about your subject: ask them what they might be interested in. Learn from their views and observe their reactions. How do others feel about your subject? How will your audience probably feel about your subject? Why?
By “practicing” this way – which can be an awful lot of fun – you’ll not only be able to see multiple angles, but also learn to phrase your points quite flexibly.
If you have to, later on, write it down and feel comfortable holding the manuscript in your hand while giving the speech. Allow yourself to be spontaneous: after all, you know what the main point is you want to make, so don’t be afraid to get of track – you’ll find back.
Be perceptive of the atmosphere:
Once you’re talking, chances are you might dominate the atmosphere in the room. But first of all, you’re emerging from it. Acknowledge it, feel it, embrace it, channel it.
Enjoy what you do:
Embrace the moment, it never comes back, so make sure it’ll give you and your listeners a rewarding memory. The odds are your audience has very likely heard some pretty awful speeches and seen some even worse PowerPoint presentations over the course of their lives. That means you are very likely to underestimate the enormous lengths you'd have to go to in order to seriously shell shock your audience: and no matter how bad you're trying to screw up - they have very likely survived worse. So relax!
And lastly: Be honest.