by Mike_Wr | Last updated Nov 21, 2017.

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Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg mike writing public speaking

Abraham Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address

Public speaking – some of us get uncomfortable by just saying the words.

This article will not transform you into an expert public speaker. It won’t be a catch all keys to public speaking, but it will give you ideas for how you can improve. I’ve studied the pros. I’ve watched and learned. I’ve practiced. I’ve soaked up feedback. Because I’m not yet an expert, this article is presented to you as a what-I-know-so-far kinda guide.

Define the Speech

Let’s start with developing the habit of being specific about the speaking engagement. Most speeches will fall within your four basic types: demonstrative, persuasive, informative, or entertainment. But what exactly is the kind of talk you’ll be giving? You might give a lecture, facilitate or participate in a group discussion, host an event, debate, accept an award, audition for a play, recite from a book, preach a sermon, toast at a wedding, make a new friend, do stand-up comedy, defend a prospectus, etc. I call the speaking engagement what it is, because in my mind, that shrinks it into a smaller box. It also helps me prepare the speech when I keep the purpose out front.

Have a Conversation

At its simplest form, public speaking is having a conversation. You feel like you have to be charismatic, funny, witty, beautiful, perfect, but what you need to BE the most is genuine. Offer whatever you already have in those areas and combine it with some of the skills I mention below.

Most of us compare ourselves to someone we want to emulate. It’s easy to do: we think of someone that seems to have that something that we wish we had, and we pull off our best impersonation of them

mike writing 40 year old virgin Steve Carell Elizabeth Banks OMGHF Andy Beth

Credit: “Be David Caruso in Jade” scene, 40 Year Old Virgin (Universal Studios, Apatow Productions)

It’s a classic and effective play for some, but I think it’s more beneficial to build from your own character.

I think the first step in getting over the anxiety of public speaking is normalizing it. Telling yourself that you’re having a conversation isn’t nearly as intimidating, and like I just mentioned, having a conversation is exactly what public speaking is.

Making of a Good Speaker

What comes next in mastering conversation is understanding the characteristics that make great talkers. I like to think of these elements in terms of Skill or Gift (talent).

A skill takes time. It takes dedicated hours of training. It takes learning, instructions, guidance. It takes measured, concentrated effort to acquire. For Muhammad Ali, boxing was a skill. Certain physiological properties that he brought to the sport like speed, agility, intuition, reflexes, etc. are the gifts he combined with the skill work that made him a legendary boxer.

A gift, or talent, is what you’re born with. Things that you came here with. Maybe you discover your gift(s) at three years old; maybe it doesn’t awaken until 30. The gift of insight is why a 7 year old can solve a Rubik’s cube in 9.5 secs (Chan Hong Lik). Strategic thinking is how big brothers always win arguments. Creativity is a gift that allows someone to create connections that others don’t see. The creative minds not only excel in the arts and OCD, but they also do well at problem solving.

Singing is one of the classic debatable topics of the Skill vs Talent discussion. One could argue that it takes a pretty serious lung capacity to sing well. Having a great lung capacity means you can hold your own against anyone at the pool in a handstand contest but doesn’t guarantee you can hold a note. Singing well is controlling pitch and tone of your voice by manipulation, specifically the vibration, of the vocal chords – those magical inventions. While a pleasant voice is a gift, singing well is a skill.

The Qualities in Detail

Let’s comb through some of the qualities I believe make a speaker exceptional. I’ll explain why each is a skill or a gift:

  • Passion–SKILL–Passion in performance or the display of passion is a learned behavior. Making the audience believe that you care about the topic and caring about the topic can’t always be the same thing. Does a singer love to sing a song for the 600th time as much as he did the first time? No way. Since passion is key to the audience’s buy-in of your delivery, it can’t be slacked on. It takes practice putting your heart into it when you’re not naturally enthusiastic about it, so you have to learn to consistently project passion at every round.
  • Charisma–GIFT–It is that compelling SOMETHING in a person that influences or inspires others to follow. When we were younger, we used to call my little sister bossy. She wanted to play school; she had to be the teacher. She found her niche in childcare, and runs her own business. No one in the family will argue that she was born to do it. I call her the “Baby Whisper”, because kids just flock to her. They mellow out. They tune in. It’s a power, an ability that’s just there or it isn’t.
  • Confidence–SKILL–On the surface confidence probably looks like a gift because the masters and legends of speech make it look so natural – like they were born to do it. Let’s take impromptu speaking as an example to break down why confidence is a skill. There’s a short list of reasons someone can be confident in impromptu speaking. One reason is that they’ve logged time talking, so they’re comfortable engaging an audience. Next, they believe in their ability to wing it, because they trust their wit and creativity. Lastly, they understand how to show interest and knowledge of a topic backed by some acting and imagination. All three of these take practice to execute at drop of a hat. If you want to build confidence, practice with real people.
  • Command–SKILL–If you’ve had a lesson or two in speaking, maybe you’ve heard the phrase “Work the room.” You establish your presence among the audience members as their leader, their liaison to information by engaging their attention. Welcome the control. I think about how often I get to speak and everyone in the room is forced to listen. I try to trick myself into thinking that’s something that’s pretty cool. It’s power. For that moment in time, what you have to say is kind of a big deal. Seize the stage. It’s an opportunity to show case yourself; it’s not a crucifixion.
  • Articulation–SKILL–Similar to confidence, articulation takes mileage. You have to get in time behind the wheel. It’s simply defined as putting thoughts into words, and it comes with practice. When I prepare for speeches, I speak from an outline and record myself. I listen to sentence flow, timing, and clarity. It’s huge for a solid delivery because you get instant audible feedback. Listening to yourself is a must.
  • Be British–GIFT–It’s widely known that no ears in a room can resist the allure of the UK native tongue. Like the music you use to workout to, you don’t care much for the content because it’s really about the sound. Isn’t it? You could do you best to fake one, but realistically, you’d only fool other Americans. It’s a gift, because you are or you aren’t, mate.(I just got an idea of putting on a British accent during an Uber ride to see if I can pull it off the entire way #challengeaccepted)

Seize the stage

Ask Yourself

These are the stand out qualities I think a good speaker needs to have. This isn’t a definitive list.

What quality(ies) would you add to the list?

How would you describe any of the qualities I mentioned differently?

Which quality do you think is most critical for crushing speeches? Why?

What quality is most critical for crushing speeches?




Oh, Public Speaking, Where Is Thy Sting?