There are two kinds of public speakers:
There are those who are asked to talk to a
group and those who, because of their position,
are forced to talk before groups — people
such as ministers, teachers, executives,
and sales managers.
In the first instance — that is, if you're asked to
make a speech — it means you know something
others want to hear. It usually means you're an
expert on some subject, and so people come to
hear you because they want to. If your job
demands that you talk before groups, you have an
even greater responsibility because your audience
must listen to you whether they like it or not.
But in either case, you can make a good speech
with a little preparation. Here are some guidelines.
A good speech is like good conversation
A good conversationalist will make a good
speaker. He's sensitive to the presence of others.
His antennae are forever alert, picking up signals
from his audience and involving them in his talk.
Good conversation is one of the great joys of
human commerce. Good conversation should be
like the game of tennis, in which the ball is struck
back and forth, with each player participating
equally. Bores are like golfers who just keep hitting
their own ball, over and over and over again.
A good speaker is able to achieve a marvelous
give-and-take with her audience, just as a good
conversationalist does with the person she's with.
She recognizes that people in our society desire
recognition more than any other factor.
She will ask her audience questions such as,
"Do you agree with that?" Then she'll pause and
read their response — by their silence, their attention,
their nods, their poking of the person sitting
next to them, by their laughter, or by their seriousness
at the right places.
If they're bored, they'll find ways of showing it,
despite their best efforts. If they're interested,
they'll show that too. And we have a duty to be
interesting or we shouldn't get up there in the first
place. That is the task of the speaker, whether we're
the manager of the sales force, in a car dealership,
an insurance agency, real estate office, or a large
international organization. When interest leaves,
the sell goes out of our message.
Our responsibility is not only to create a speech
that will lead an audience to a believable conclusion;
we must also make the very building blocks
of that conclusion as fascinating as we can. It is in
this way that we can hold the attention of our audience
until we get to that all-important final point.
In addition, if we can develop techniques that
make our audience feel that we are conversing with
them, we will convey that we care what they are
thinking — and that will create the emotional climate
for them to accept us as favorably as possible.
The single-theme formula
Professional salespeople, marketing experts,
and leaders in the advertising profession know
the importance of selling one thing at a time. Only
catalogs can successfully handle a multitude of
items. In a five-minute speech or even a long speech, it's important to have a single
theme, and, like a good salesperson,
you pose the problem and then give
your solution. At the end, the problem
is restated and the solution quickly
Your opening statement should be
an attention getter. For example, you
might say, "Scientists all over the
world are agreed that the world's
oceans are dying." A sobering thought
indeed. It captures immediate interest,
and everyone is thinking, "Why, that
would presage the end of the world.
What are we doing about it?"
Using an internationally recognized
authority as your reference, someone
such as Jacques Cousteau, you provide
the supporting evidence that your
opening remark is indeed true, and
then you proceed to outline the possible
ways that the disaster might be
averted. At the end, you might say,
"Yes, the oceans of the world are dying
today, but if we can marshal the combined
efforts of the world's peoples, if
we can influence every maritime country
to pass laws governing the pollution
of the seas by oil tankers ..." So
you end on a note of hope and at the
same time enlist the sympathy of every
one of your listeners in your cause.
Not all talks are about social problems,
of course. You might be talking
about a recent fishing trip, in which
case, you find something of special
interest in the story and open with
that. You might say "Ounce for ounce,
the rainbow trout is one of the gamest
fish on earth." It's a much better attention
getter and interest stimulator than
saying, "I want to tell you about my
recent fishing trip." A few words about
the fish you were after, and then you
can work in the rest. "Two weeks ago,
John Cooper and I decided to try our
luck on the White River near Carter,
Arkansas. It's one of the most naturally
beautiful spots in the country" and so
on. Stay with the trip and that rainbow
trout, the hero of your story, and how
good it tasted cooked over an open fire
on the bank of the river. Then at the
close, to more closely link your listeners
to the subject, you might say, "If
you've never been trout fishing, let me
recommend it as one of the world's
best ways to forget your problems,
clear your brain, and gain a new perspective.
And when you hook a rainbow
trout, you're in for one of the
greatest thrills of a lifetime."
Watch your personal pronouns. Keep yourself out of your conversation
as much as possible. As with the case
of the fishing story, talk about the fish,
the beautiful scenery, and your companions,
other people you met, a
humorous incident or two perhaps,
but don't keep saying, " I did this" and
"I did that." The purpose of the speech
is not to talk about you but rather the
subject matter. There's an old saying
that small minds talk about things,
average minds talk about people, and
great minds talk about ideas. What
you're selling is almost always an idea,
even if it's painting the house. The
idea is the good appearance or the protection
of the house. The fishing trip
story is about the idea of getting away
and going after exciting game fish. One
idea, well developed, is the key.
Just as a beautiful painting is put
together by a thousand brush strokes,
each stroke makes a contribution to
the main theme, the overall picture.
And it's the same with a good speech.
Don't be a comedian
Humor isn't something that can be
forced, nor should it be reached for.
It's something that comes naturally to
those with the ability, or at least it
seems to. If you have it, congratulations.
Use it wisely. If you don't have
it, use it sparingly and make certain
it's really funny before you use it at all.
Don't try to dabble in one of the most
difficult professions in the world —
that of a stand-up comedian.
Before you include a joke in your
speech, ask yourself this: Why am I
telling it? Jokes aren't necessary to the
opening of a speech. Neither are funny
comments, unless they have a clever
tie-in of some sort that the audience
will genuinely appreciate and enjoy.
I've heard so many tedious speakers
say, following the introduction, "That
reminds me of a story ..." and then proceed
to tell a story that hasn't the
faintest resemblance to anything said
in the introduction at all. It didn't
remind him. He just wanted to tell a
joke, and everybody in the audience
knows it and begins to move their feet
and cough and look around for the exit.
Here's a good rule to follow that I've
found works. If there is any doubt in
your mind whatever, if there is the
faintest feeling of uneasiness about a
story, never tell it. That feeling of
uneasiness is your more intelligent
subconscious trying to tell you to forget
it. Save if for the locker room at the
club if you must tell it.
If you want a foolproof system, use
the enormously successful Jack Benny
system: Make yourself the joke. Benny
has produced the most prolonged,
helpless laughter in the history of show
business. It happened on his old radio
program when he was approached by a
robber who said, "Your money or your
life." What followed was simply
silence, the deadly, convulsively funny
silence that only Jack Benny could
manage. The silence lasted only a few
seconds when the laughter began, then
mounted and mounted and continued
for a record-breaking period of time, I
think something like 15 minutes.
Finally, when it did subside, the robber
repeated, "I said your money or your
life." And Jack Benny replied, "I'm
thinking. I'm thinking."
Again the laughter took hold and
the program nearly ran out of time
before it could even attempt to finish.
A simple silence did it as Jack tried
desperately to decide which was more
important to him, his money or his
life. He was always the loser in his
elaborate plans, as is the coyote in his
attempts to trap the road runner.
People love us when we're foiled by
our own weaknesses.
If humor is your forte, then you
don't need any advice or help from
me. If it isn't, use it sparingly and in
good taste. It's wonderful when it's
right. It's so awful when it isn't.
Speak with style
I was a speaker at a hospital benefit,
and as I waited in the wings of a large
theater where the benefit was being
staged, I noticed that one of the officials
for the evening was on stage in front of
the lectern reading the names of the
various high school graduates from the
community who had won scholarships
in nursing. He never looked up at the
audience. He spoke in such low monotones
that he was difficult to hear, even
with an excellent audio system, and his
performance was as lackluster as any
I've ever seen. When he was through,
he walked back to where I was standing
in the wings. As he disappeared from
view to the audience, his face broke
with a beautiful broad smile, and he
said in a strong voice, "Man, am I glad
that's over." I stopped him and I said,
"You should have flashed that wonderful
smile to the audience and used your
normal voice. It's excellent." "Oh,
that," he shuddered. "I'm scared to
death out there."
Now, the audience got a picture of a
very lackluster man with no personality
and no style whatsoever, a total cipher.
Yet, here was a good-looking man with
a beautiful smile, an excellent style of
his own that his friends and acquaintances
no doubt greatly admired. I wanted
to go on stage and say to that great
audience. "I wish you could see so-andso
as he really is. He's quite a guy."
Everyone has his or her own special
style. It seems to come with the genes
and the upbringing and the education,
all of thousands of experiences that
coalesce to form a person's own
You have only to study prominent
people on television to quickly see
that each of them has a style all his or
her own that he or she is completely
unconscious of. Just as we should
never doubt our hunches or our own
unique powers, we should never
doubt that we have a natural style. If,
and it's a big if — if we can be natural.
The key is to lose ourselves in our
material. In an ideal speech, we are
conscious of putting on a performance,
but at the same time we're so interested
in what we're talking about and we
know our subject so thoroughly, we
can immerse ourselves in it.
I was chatting with a salesman on an
airplane one time. It turned out we
were both going to the same convention.
I had to speak. He had to receive
his company's highest honor as
national sales leader. As our conversation
grew more animated, I asked him
the secret of being number one in sales
with his company. And he gave me the
most interesting answer. He said, "I
was in this business for several years,
and I tried hard and I worked hard, but
I was a long way from the top. Then
one day, a wonderful thing happened.
All of a sudden, things were turned
around. Instead of my being in this business, the business got into me."
He looked at me and his eyes were
shining, and he asked, "Do you know
what I mean?" I told him I knew exactly
what he meant and he could number
himself among the most fortunate
human beings on earth, the people
who actually enjoy what they're
doing, the real stars. It reminded me of
John Stuart Mill's theory of happiness
in his book Utilitarianism. He said
that only those people who do not
seek happiness directly are happy.
People who spend their time helping
others and are engaged in some art or
pursuit — followed not by a means,
but as itself an ideal end — find happiness
along the way. The important
part is that those who are the happiest
are engaged in a daily pursuit, followed
not just as a means, but as itself
an ideal end. And it's the same in making
a fine speech.
Unless the speech is in us to the
extent that we can forget ourselves to a
degree, it will never carry the
impelling, moving effect of a great
speech, the kind that brings the audience
to its feet at the end of it.
I'll never forget as a youngster hearing
Franklin D. Roosevelt say in a campaign
speech in that high, stentorian,
and effective voice, "We must prevent
the princes of privilege from dominating
this great country." I remember so
vividly the beautiful alliteration "prevent
the princes of privilege."
Alliteration sticks in the mind, as does
short poetry. At one time earlier in our
culture, virtually all oral traditions,
passed from one generation to another,
were in a kind of poetry because it was
easier to remember. How can we ever
forget "Mary had a little lamb" or
"Thirty days hath September, April,
June, and November"? Or how about
powerful onomatopoeia such as "The
stock market hit bottom with an ominous
Well, perhaps I could have thought
of a more cheerful example, but there
is poetry in the proper use of words.
We hear so many bad speeches, a good
one is like a cool green oasis in a burning
desert. A good, but unaffected
They laughed when
I stood up to talk
My friend Norm Guess, formerly of the Dartnell Company in Chicago, sent me a little piece
on some of the causes of our fears of groups ... and how to overcome them.
- The fear of self. Just plain self-consciousness, a feeling that expresses itself in the mental
question, "What in blazes am I doing this for? How in the world did I get myself into
- Reflections from the past. The remembrance, even subliminally, of old classroom failures;
being laughed at or ridiculed.
- Overconcern about what others think. The questioning of our authority to be talking
before such a group.
- Poor preparation. The panicky feeling that the speech needs work or complete overhauling
or throwing away.
- Lack of courage to try new things. The fear of doing the unusual.
- Lack of encouragement from others. I know it always helps me tremendously to hear
a comment such as, "The group is looking forward to hearing what you have to say."
Well, what do you do about these problems?
Someone has said, "The human mind is a wonderful thing. It begins at birth and never stops until you get the chance to say something before a group of people." Turn the situation around; realize that if you were in the audience, you'd be interested in what you have to say.
- Recognize that others have the same fear.
- Try to analyze what and why you fear.
- Find a compulsion to speak; realize that you have important things to say and that you want to say them.
- Be prepared.
- Take a course; join Toastmasters.
- There's nothing like actually doing it.
- Talk only on subjects you know very well, subjects you're an expert on and feel comfortable with.
EARL NIGHTINGALE was the author of Lead the Field. To read more articles by Earl Nightingale, "Life of the Unsuccessful" (Mar/Apr 2006), "The Cure for Procrastination" (Sep/Oct 2005), and "The Strangest Secret" (Nov/Dec 2004), visit www.AdvantEdgeMag.com/Nightingale today.