Discovering new worlds: public speaking

Many psychiatrists have reported that the thing most people fear more than anything else is public speaking.

No. 2 is dying, and No. 3 is heights.

Well, I have been involved in public speaking for quite a few years now, and I can tell you that it can be a rewarding and gratifying experience, and it is not at all something to fear.

So here are some tips that will help you be a much more effective public speaker, and I encourage you to try them.

The most important thing in public speaking is showing your audience that you believe what you are saying. If you cannot do that, almost nothing else you do will matter. That point was brought home to me vividly when I was in a speech class at UCLA. Throughout the semester my presentations were basically mediocre. But for my final speech, I chose a topic that was a subject of genuine importance to me: equal rights for African Americans. The speech surprised my professor and my classmates, and this was the first time I learned that I really could do this effectively. So select something that you really believe in, and your chances of getting the attention of your audience will be greatly improved.

Another important point is coming across as being sincere, believable and credible. Harry Truman was once quoted as saying: “Be sincere, even if you don’t mean it.” I’m not sure if the quote is accurate, and I am not encouraging hypocrisy, but showing that you believe what you are saying, and that you are sincere and have nothing to hide will go a long way toward persuading your audience.

In addition, your audience will not care what you think until they think that you care. So any authentic way you can show your audience that you are one of them will assist in getting your message out. One way is to focus upon things you have in common with them, such as you were raised in the same area, your children went to the same type of school, you had the same types of experiences they have had, etc. Another approach I often use when speaking to young people is to tell them that, believe it or not, I myself was actually a teenager for quite a few years. Otherwise, if you do not show your audience how they can identify with you, their attention will wander because they will not emotionally identify with you or the issue you are discussing.

You also must show how the issue you are addressing affects your audience. “What’s in it for me?” will be in the minds of virtually everyone that is listening to you, and your presentation will not be successful unless that question is satisfactorily answered. Actually, when you think about it, that was pretty much the way you educated your children, with stories, examples and lessons that they could identify with, and from which they could benefit. Your audience will be no different.

And, of course, you must prepare your thoughts. In Ed McMahon’s book about public speaking, he recommended the speaker begin to think about the message at least a month before the talk, and begin preparation simply by writing down random thoughts about the subject. Thereafter, those thoughts should be arranged into a beginning, middle and end.

The beginning should be used to establish your credibility, introduce your subject, and show an emotional involvement with your audience. The middle will be the main content, and should include both highly visible visual and emotional images and educated comments about background matters and relevant statistics. The end will be your call to action, in which you show your audience what they should do about the issue. But you will certainly want to remember to tie your closing to your opening, or your presentation will only confuse everyone.

And remember never to apologize for a lack of preparation, education, knowledge or anything else. And also avoid saying words like “before I begin my presentation, I have something important I want to say.” If you fall into either of these traps, you will have demeaned yourself so severely that your audience will not take you seriously — and probably shouldn’t.

Mostly your presentation should be addressed to those people in the audience who have not been converted, or who are not in agreement with you. In other words, don’t waste valuable opportunities by “preaching to the choir.” Successful attorneys arguing to an appellate court will tell you that they spend virtually all of their time addressing those judges who probably are leaning toward the other side.

In addition, you will also want to choose your words carefully. For example, the word “fair” probably has about 40 different meanings. So, as a practical matter, that word has little meaning at all, and its use should be avoided. Being precise in your word selection can turn a dull presentation into one that is dynamic.

Furthermore, think of your notes as a barrier in your communication with your audience because it destroys eye contact. So if you use notes, as most of us do, pause in your presentation whenever you refer to your notes for new thoughts, and then regain eye contact with your audience before you resume.

Although it seems awkward, when standing in front of an audience, you should plant your feet firmly with your weight equally distributed on both feet, and your trunk should be still. Look at any accomplished speaker or singer, and that is what you will see. It looks perfectly natural, and it shows self-confidence. On the contrary, shifting weight from one foot to the other shows a lack of confidence.

Of equal importance, always try to keep your hands in full view of your audience. If you hide your hands, your audience will have a tendency to conclude that you are hiding something from them, and this is death to a speaker. But if your hands are visible, and even used to emphasize particular points, they will help you become much more persuasive.

Another important lesson is to speak in the present tense whenever possible. We can learn a great deal from the simplicity of small children, and this is what they do.

Your audience will be much more likely to answer your call to action when you address something that is happening now, instead of something that you phrase as having happened in the past.

You will also want to vary both your pace and your pitch. Speaking fast is almost never a good thing to do — in fact, the opposite is almost always true. And there is seldom something more intriguing to your audience than for you virtually to whisper when you are discussing some important point. Varying pace and pitch will keep them interested.

Finally, one of the most effective tools of formalizing a presentation is to condense your entire message into a 10-word telegram for yourself. This will help you to crystallize both your thinking and your presentation itself. And keep your speech under an hour, if at all possible. People mostly cannot concentrate for longer than that.

If you think about it, you probably have a number of important things you have learned that you would like to pass along to other people that would help to make their lives better, safer, or more interesting. Developing your talents as a public speaker will help you to do just that.

And besides, next week we will be discussing the tragic but true state of affairs that our government is not only dysfunctional, it is broken.

This problem is so severe that we will need everyone, including you, to help promote a discussion about what we can do to make government more functional and responsible.

So I will give you a week to start practicing!

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)