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Public Speaking Tips from Renowned Historical Figures

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Public Speaking Tips from Renowned Historical Figures

Dale Carnegie said, “There are always three speeches for every one you actually gave: the one you practiced, the one you gave and the one you wish you gave.” The art of public speaking has had many practitioners, but the roster of historical speakers holds a few maestros who brought the art to a peak.

Preparation Is Essential

Mark Twain, the famed writer and raconteur, said in a speech, “… I never was happy, never could make a good impromptu speech without several hours to prepare it.”

As paradoxical as it may sound, even free-form speeches work best with extensive notes. The tendency to ramble, or enter the blank space, and the invisible pressure of an audience has an underestimated power to frighten away fragile intentions. A body of well-organized notes will serve as a sheepdog for ideas, keeping essential elements from being lost in unexpected thickets of words.

Know the Topic

Bishop Alexander Gregg, the prominent Episcopalian clergyman, said, “There are three things to aim at in public speaking: first, to get into your subject, then to get your subject into yourself, and lastly, to get your subject into the heart of your audience.” 

Familiarity with the topic is vital for a speaker who wants the expected audience to understand and appreciate the speech. It’s all too easy to look like an self-important idiot whose words are barely better than those from a grade-school student stumbling into the glimmerings of comprehension. An effective public speaker will triple-check the facts and have a neutral listener point out awkward phrasing that unintentionally leads the audience astray.

A full comprehension of the topic will almost make the words write themselves. This straightforward concept goes back endless centuries. Cato the Elder, the ancient Roman statesman, said, “Grasp the subject; the words will follow.”

Know the Audience

Lilly Walters said, “The success of your presentation will be judged not by the knowledge you send but by what the listener receives.”

A public speech is always meant for a particular audience. A light-hearted speech about fiscal responsibility aimed at a younger audience of college students will likely fall flat with an older audience of experienced investors. A speech tailored to the business concerns of a conservative audience of rural farmers will not work nearly as well for a politically mixed audience of urban home gardeners.

It’s always helpful to pretend to be a member of the prospective audience. Does any part of the speech sound condescending or unnecessarily repetitious? Is the vocabulary well-chosen? Are the ideas truly appropriate and interesting?

Keep It Short and Sweet

Thomas Jefferson, the third American president, said, “Speeches that are measured by the hour will die with the hour.”

A long speech is harder to remember than a short speech. Some speeches do hold complex ideas and must perforce be longer than others, but the best speeches always deliver their ideas simply and clearly then stop. Brevity and power often accompany each other. Conceptual clutter is best omitted.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famed American jurist, said, “Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall.” Ira Hayes, the decorated World War II soldier, said, “No one ever complains about a speech being too short!”

This concept is similarly as old as language itself. Dionysius Of Halicarnassus, the ancient Greek historian, said, “Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent.”

Don’t Be Frightened

Jerry Seinfeld, the popular American comedian, delivered the following joke during a performance: “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. … This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Being nervous is perfectly natural, but the central thought should always be that the audience wants to hear the speech. Few listeners actually want a speaker to stumble. The members of an audience are rooting for a successful speech with clear ideas and flowing words. With preparation and practice, there’s absolutely no reason not to succeed.

Everyone Enjoys a Great Speech

Alexander Smith said, “It is not of so much consequence what you say, as how you say it. Memorable sentences are memorable on account of some single irradiating word.”

D. H. Lawrence, the controversial English novelist, said, “… when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.”

Marcus T. Cicero said, “A good orator is pointed and impassioned.”

A great speech is a joyous celebration of the possibilities inherent to language. A speech that brings the audience to its feet has gathered the strongest of compliments.

Lastly, here’s an odd little tip that I picked up from a public speaking class in New York last year that has helped me immensely: It’s called systematic desensitization, and it involves imagining the worst-case scenario and events that would make you nervous while engaging in relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises. I don’t know why this helps, but it does! Keep in mind that systematic desensitization requires a long-term approach. Don’t expect a miracle overnight, but if you keep at it you will very likely change the way you think about public speaking.

Image: RAG New York 

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About sashalevin

  • Interesting article. Re the breathing exercises, there is some interesting research by Dr Stephen Porges that suggests that anything that let’s our bodies know that we feel safe allows us to be more relational. He suggests that breathing out slowly is one of those things that triggers this safety response.

  • Re: the Lilly Walters comment, the author, educator and activist Parker Palmer has a lovely way of putting it. He suggests that in our listening, in our hearing, we can literally ‘hear each other into speech,; that the quality of our listening can bring out something fresh, new and even surprising in the speaker.

  • Many thanks for this wonderful blog post. I spend far too much time in class and not enough time researching. I appreciate it enormously when somebody produces invaluable research like this.
    Regards Vince