Speaking for Success

Why bother?

Why should you spend time improving your public speaking skills? As long as you don’t have to speak too frequently and you can get through a speech without stumbling too much, who cares? I do and you should. And you obviously do, which is why you are here.

Improving your speaking does much more than enable you to deliver a message to a crowd. Knowing that you can address an audience with less discomfort is a real self-confidence builder. And that self-confidence will snowball and impact every area of your life, personal and professional. After all, everyone feels and performs better when they have confidence in themselves and their skills.

So, what can you do to boost your skills in the public speaking arena? TED Talk Curator Chris Anderson has been reviewing potential speakers for over a decade. In his own Talk, he discusses four major things you can do to ensure a successful speech.

  • – Stick to One Great Idea. Studies show that the great majority of people remember very little of a speech just a few hours after they hear it. By sticking to one idea, you can spend your time making your speech more memorable.
  • – Give your audience a reason to care. There is nothing new under the sun, as the old saying goes. Why should your audience care enough about what you have to say to actually remember some of it?
  • – Use language that resonates with the audience. Choosing the right words to motivate and inspire your listeners makes a big difference in their engagement with you and your topic.
  • – Have something worth sharing. Why is it important? Why do you care about it? Why should they?

How to Make It Happen?

  • – Do you have a choice? Is your speech topic prescribed or do you have some room to pick and choose? Either way, you’ll want to find the seed of the subject you’ll be discussing and coax it into germination. That is your One Great Idea.
  • – Share your passion! Find an angle of your subject that inspires you. Talking about something you truly care about makes public speaking much less nerve wracking because you can focus on spreading the message instead of your nerves. Give them a reason to care by showing them that you care! Passion is contagious!
  • – Tell a story. Present it as a mystery. However you do it, pick words that will motivate and inspire. Use a thesaurus to help you choose just the right word. Adjectives are especially helpful in bringing your story to life.
  • – Why is your speech worth listening to? Does it have the ability to make your audience more successful? Happier? Healthier? Consider why they are there and what they stand to gain. What’s the takeaway?

Try It on for Size

Pick a topic that you have recently spoken about, whether it was a one-on-one conversation or a discussion in a larger setting. Try out some of Chris Anderson’s suggestions and walk it through my How to Make It Happen tips and let me know how it goes.

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Vocal Variety

Vocal variety is a great tool to add to your speaking skills kit. It includes things like your tone, your speed, your volume, and your pitch. It’s something you that already use in everyday conversation, but it can be easy to forget about it if you are nervous before you have to give a presentation. Your voice is an instrument that you can use it to great effect with just a little practice. It’s a way to add interest to your speech and hold your audience’s attention.

Turn it Up

Parents often use a whisper when they want to calm or get the attention of an upset child. Why? Because it difficult to hear what someone is whispering unless you are quiet and able to focus on the words. Try using a quieter voice to emphasize a point or regain the fading attention of an audience. Similarly, a pause can capture attention due to the absence of sound. The so-called “dramatic pause” calls attention to what you are about to say. The classic example of this is Henny Youngman’s joke, “Now, you take my wife…please.”

Slow it down

You can also drag out your words for effect. Instead of saying it was a long trip, say looooong, drawing out the middle of the word. Speeding up has the opposite effect. Think of the commercials you hear where an actor is reading the fine print at very high speeds. It can be annoying when it goes on for that long, but it’s definitely an attention getter.

Although you don’t want to go quite that fast, you can definitely play with speed to great effect. Watch how actor Danny Kaye and some of the cast of the 1956 comedy musical The Court Jester masterfully use a variety of speeds to keep viewers on the edge of their seats as they try to remember whether they should drink from the “flagon with the dragon” or the “vessel with the pestle” to avoid death by poisoning.


Sizzle. Spray. Gurgle. Onomatopoeia is a word that is associated with its actual sound. If you can weave a couple of them into your speech, you can capture the audience’s imagination and hold it. This is especially effective if you are weaving a story through your presentation. Words like these are often used in children’s books, which are a great tool for practice.

Emoting for Effect

Ham sandwich. Ham sandwich? Ham sandwich! This is a popular phrase to use when practicing using a variety of tones and varying your speed and pitch. Try saying “ham sandwich” in different ways, such as excitedly, sadly, happily, or lovingly. How does it take on different meaning as you vary your phrasing? What effect might that have on your audience?

I’m Lovin’ It!

Talking about what you love is a great way to practice vocal variety. If you have a choice of what your will speak about, choose something that genuinely interests or excites you. You will find yourself adding vocal variety without having to think about it because you want your listeners to be excited about it, too.

Give it a try! Pick a favorite topic and practice telling a friend about it. Notice how often you change your tone or speed or use more interesting words to describe the subject.

Let me know how it goes by joining the conversation in the comment section below!

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Make A Speech Memorable

Let’s get down to business. How can you make it easier for your audience to remember your speech? The most important thing you’ll need to do is capture their imagination.

To get started, think about a movie or book that has stayed with you over the years. Great writers and film makers know how to grab your attention and keep you on the edge of your seat. How do they do it?

The Intro: Memorable books and films grab you from the very first sentence or opening scene. There is a mystery that captures your imagination.  Take a look at the opening scene from Jaws, for example.

In this case, it’s the sudden death of a beautiful girl swimming in the ocean. The cause of the death is not seen in the introduction, but it will become clear and take center stage in the movie. The audience wants to know what happened to her and whether it can be stopped.

When you take the stage, it’s best to avoid the traditional self-introduction. The people attending your presentation already know who you are.

If need be, have the person who introduces you establish your credibility, or have that background information available in a handout as people come in. It’s your job to grab their attention with a startling, profound, funny, or otherwise engaging beginning, or hook.

The Hook: Writers and screenwriters have a central story, or idea, to share. They have chosen to spend a great deal of time and money and physical, and emotional labor to tell you about it. They believe it’s important and worth the effort. What is your central idea? What do you want your audience to walk away knowing, believing, or doing? Do you believe in the idea yourself? Why?

The Audience: Writers know their audience. With some exceptions, movies and books are targeted at a very specific audience.

They know what their audience cares about and what will inspire them. They use this knowledge to inform the creative choices they make when presenting the story. Who is your audience and what inspires them?

The Sequence: All stories have a beginning, middle and end. Some storytellers choose to move in chronological order, while others have flashbacks, prequels, sequels, and or an afterword.

Think about what order will have the most impact. Is there a surprising ending that can be told first, followed by the backstory? Or is chronological a better order? What would be most engaging from your audience’s perspective?

The Spice: Visuals are like spice. They add something special to your speech. But if over-utilized, they will drown out the central message.

Limit your visual to no more than one new one every ten minutes. Like great passages in books and films, they make ideal transition markers between important points. Make the image bold and keep the words on the screen to a minimum.

The Wrap: Both your introduction and conclusion should comprise about 15% each of your speech. You’ve spent a lot of time on your presentation and want people to leave with something memorable. This is the time to conclude the story you were telling, present a call to action, remind the audience of your central point, or wow them with a compelling quote or testimony. Go out strong!

Finally, remember that the attendees came to hear you. This already give you an edge. Take that as your starting point and make the rest happen by doing the work ahead of time to engage your audience with a memorable speech. Try using some of these tips the next time you are invited to speak and let me know how it went.

What are some of your favorite ways to make a speech memorable? I would love to hear them!

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Commonly Misused Words and Phrases – Part 2

Here we are again, back to look at the other half of the dozen commonly misused words and phrases we are covering. Be sure to look back at Part 1 if you missed it!

We’ll pick up with number seven today.

  • 7. You’ve got another thing/think coming. People often say “thing” instead of “think” when using this phrase indicative of a stern warning. But it’s really “think”, not “thing”. Think about it this way: if we add the silent but understood first half of the phrase, it would read, “If you think XYZ, you’ve got another think coming!” It’s essentially saying that you need to reconsider your earlier thought, or understanding, of a situation.
  • 8. Imply/infer. The speaker in a conversation is the one who implies something. He suggests it in a roundabout way without saying it outright: “She implied that I would be laid off from work next week.” Conversely, the listener in a conversation, infers something (draws a conclusion) based on what the speaker says, “Based on her comments, I inferred that I would be laid off next week.
  • 9. Couldn’t/could care less. This one is easy to get backwards. People sometimes incorrectly say “I could care less,” when they mean just the opposite. “I could care less” indicates that it is possible for me to care less than I actually do. The correct way to say it is “I couldn’t care less,” meaning that I care so little now that I could not care any less than I do.
  • 10. Acute/chronic. This one is pretty straight forward, because the two words have entirely different meanings. “Acute” refers to a high degree of severity of a condition, i.e. “acute bronchitis”. “Chronic,” on the other hand, means on-going or constantly recurs, “She has chronic bronchitis that has persisted for a decade.” They can also be use together, “She has acute, chronic bronchitis.”
  • 11. Recur/reoccurring. The discussion of acute and chronic in number 10, above, brings us to these two easily confused words. Recur means to happens repeatedly, perhaps at regular or predictable intervals. Reoccur means something happens more than once but not predictably or at close intervals. High tide and low tide recur. Tsunamis reoccur.
  • 12. Disinterested/uninterested. Disinterested means unprejudiced or not favoring one thing over another, as in, “The judge was known for being completely disinterested while on the bench.” Uninterested means not having any interest, or being bored, by something: “She was uninterested in baseball because it was such a slow game.”

And there you have! As I wrote in Part 1, using words correctly is akin to polishing your shoes.

Many people don’t think about it or don’t bother, but those who do have an advantage in the way they are perceived by friends and colleagues.

Getting these right and showing that you are well-polished can make a big difference when you are up for a promotion, trying to win a new client, or making a presentation.

Choose just one a week to work on and let me know how it goes!


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