Speech coaches and trainers often perpetuate myths and misconceptions about presentations and public speaking.

I begin with the assumption that giving a speech is both an art and a skill.

Public speaking an art in that it requires a certain amount of creativity.

You have to come up with (i.e. create) a good idea to begin with. You have to put it together in a logical and persuasive structure. You have to use words and phrases and, sometimes, stories in a clear and evocative manner. And you have to deliver your speech with at least a modicum of drama.

Public speaking, like any art, is also a skill.

It has its own somewhat complex, somewhat variable set of requirements, rules, guidelines, and principles to learn, practice, and master. To give a speech — a good one, at least — you have to be able to plan and create one, explain your idea clearly in a limited amount of time, connect with an audience, begin and end a speech, overcome fear and project confidence in front of an audience, answer questions, and think on your feet.

Public speaking isn’t as complex or demanding a skill as, say, performing brain surgery or rocket science. But then again it’s not as simple or easy as riding a bike.

Beginning with that assumption — public speaking is both an art and a skill — I’ve developed my list of…

5 Things Speech Coaches and Trainers Won’t Tell You about Public Speaking

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about PowerPointI’m the author of Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint (Crown Business), so you might think I’m always and everywhere opposed to its use.

I’d say I’m critical of it, but not opposed to it. Many of my clients–subject matter experts of all stripes–use PowerPoint, and they should.

But these days it’s assumed, at least in the business world, that everyone should use PowerPoint every time they give a presentation. And that’s a mistake.

I begin with the assumption that PowerPoint is a tool for organizing, formatting, and projecting information visually.

If that’s the case–you can disagree with me–then there are three questions you can and should ask about it.

1. Is PowerPoint a good tool?

Does it make organizing, formatting, and projecting information easy, efficient, and effective?

Opinions vary.

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Influence is the ability to bring about some change in people’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, perceptions, values, actions, or behavior.

Whenever you give a speech you are, essentially, trying to influence your audience.

The purpose of a speech is, after all, to change how your audience feels, thinks, or acts. (If you’re happy with the way they are and what they’re doing, for God’s sake don’t give them a speech. Leave them alone.)

How to Make Yourself More Influential when Giving a Speech

First, be the kind of person who inspires trust.

Who you are as a person — your character, experience, reputation, values — is, in large measure, the message you communicate.

Put yourself and your vision, your hopes and dreams on the line. Make yourself vulnerable. Invite, rather than command compliance.

Second, align yourself and the change you’re proposing with their deepest held values.

You’re not going to change what people care about most, and you shouldn’t try. Instead, show them how what you want them to feel, think, or do affirms, protects, or advances their loves, values, dreams.

Third, challenge them to be more or better than they are.

Making people feel guilty or inadequate or wrong won’t incline them to change their ways. If anything, it will make them resent and resist you.

But at the same time you don’t want them to remain complacent, satisfied with their status quo. Not if you want them to change. So ask them to go beyond, to grow bigger than, to love better than who or where they are already are.

President Obama’s speech to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma is the clearest recent example of a leader explicitly defining his moral vision that I know of.

In an earlier post I defined a moral vision as “sense of what matters and is meaningful, of what has value and worth, of what deserves respect and attention.”

And I claimed that leaders communicate their moral vision – implicitly or explicitly – every time they give a speech.

Not everyone would agree with Obama’s moral vision. Many would – and do – vehemently disagree.

But that’s what makes Obama’s speech a refreshing counterpoint to the tepid posturing of many leaders: his willingness to take a stand.

There are three elements of a moral vision: 1) identity, 2) values, and 3) mission. And Obama addressed all three.

The Three Elements of a Leader’s Moral Vision

1. Identity: Who are we?

Obama’s speech is, in essence, a definition of what America means and of what it means to be an American.

“It [the Selma march] was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills: a contest to determine the meaning of America.”

The last third of Obama’s speech identified who we are, beginning with the phrase, “We are Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea,” and continuing on for ten more “We are…” phrases.

In a 3,500-word speech, Obama used “we” 119 times, “our” or “ours” 45 times, and “America” or “American” 48 times.

2. Values: What principles guide and define us?

A large part of who we are as a people – of our identity – is shaped by the principles that guide our actions, the values that we espouse, the standards by which we judge ourselves.

For Obama, the principles that exemplify America at its best are justice, fairness, inclusivity, and generosity.

3. Mission: What course of actions are we to take?

Leaders don’t defend the status quo or inaction. They stir people to an ongoing course of action in order to achieve some desired goal.

Here is where Obama circles back to his initial campaign theme: Change.

In Obama’s moral vision American is “a work in progress.”

American ideas and ideals have not been fully realized. They must be advanced, expanded, and realized anew in each generation, just as they were by those who marched in Selma 50 years ago.

Things have certainly changed for the better, but things still need to change: “For we were born of change.”

If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such effort, no matter how hard it may seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.

Obama calls out three specific actions we must take – reform the criminal justice system, roll back poverty and the roadblocks to opportunity, and protect the right to vote – but only as a part of his more far-reaching moral vision “…to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.”

Maybe you agree with Obama’s moral vision. (I do.) Maybe you reject it. But you have to admit this: he stakes out his position boldly and unequivocally. I think that takes courage. And I applaud him for it.

Chris Witt Speaking to the UK Speechwriters Guild

Chris Witt Speaking to the UK Speechwriters Guild

Ask any author.

One of the hardest parts of being an author is selling your book.

Yes, writing it was taxing and time consuming. But selling it can be even more challenging.

Selling your book means bringing it to people’s attention, making them interested in it, and finally moving them to buy it.

Other people—with some prompting on your part—will make your book available. They may even take people’s money in exchange (and give you a percentage of their take). But they won’t publicize it and they won’t market it, unless you give them a lot—and I mean a lot—of money. They won’t make people want to buy it. They won’t, in short, sell your book.

That’s your job.

There are many ways to make people aware of your book, to make them want it, refer it to others, and buy it.

Here are some of the most effective strategies:

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Expect more of an audienceWe don’t make enough demands on our audiences.

We assume, with ample justification, that audiences have a limited attention span. They are easily distracted and quickly bored.

We assume, rightly, that it is our responsibility as speakers to prepare, rehearse, and deliver a speech that engages our audience’s interest and involvement.

But we assume, wrongly in my opinion, that a speech’s success depends entirely on our efforts.

A speech is like a conversation. It only “works” if both parties participate.

Yes, as speakers, we work harder than the audience does. We’re the ones, after all, who did the research, formulated the message, rehearsed, and–if you’re like me–obsessed about it and lost sleep over it in the days (sometimes weeks) before. We’re the ones who put ourselves on display, risking an anxiety attack and rejection.

But we have the right to expect something of our audiences in return. As speakers we do more of the work, but for a speech to succeed audiences have to do some of the work.

Two things happen when we expect little or nothing from an audience. And they’re both disastrous.

First, as speakers we tie ourselves up in knots. We work way too hard. And the strain makes us less spontaneous, less engaging, less alert and able to respond to what’s happening in the moment.

Second, we allow audiences to stay disengaged, making them less willing to take action.

The goal of any speech is, after all, to move the audience to act. If they’re not willing to give you their attention at the start, they surely won’t give you their cooperation at the end.

I expect a lot of myself as a speaker. I’ve noticed, over the years, that I get a better response from audiences when I expect more from them.

What’s your experience?

To improve a speech keep it sortThe single best way to improve just about any speech is to make it shorter.

5 Reasons Shorter Speeches Are Better

1. Shorter speeches have a better chance of maintaining your audience’s attention.

Today’s audiences have the attention span of a gnat. They have too many distractions. And they’re trained not to sit still and listen.

Even a masterful speaker with a well-prepared speech will have trouble keeping an audience engaged for long. So keep your speech short.

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Worst-ever elevator speechI’ve heard awful elevator pitches over the years, but today I heard the worst-ever elevator pitch.

An elevator pitch is a brief explanation of 1) an idea, product, service, or person, 2) how people might benefit from it, and 3) what those benefits are.

In networking situations professionals use elevator pitches to introduce themselves in response to the question, “What do you do?”

The whole point of an effective elevator pitch is to start a conversation, hoping people will say something like, “That’s interesting. Tell me more.”

Bad elevator pitches are:

  • Long and exhausting: Ten seconds is best. You can, if you must, take 15 to 20 seconds. But the longer your pitch goes on, the less likely anyone is to say, “Tell me more.”
  • Vague or confusing: Technical experts excel in this regard, although they’re not alone. They might say something like, “I’m a UI designer, specializing in requirement gathering, design alternatives, prototyping, and user interfaces.” As if that clarifies anything.
  • Airy fairy: Which I find particularly irritating. Something like, “I set free your inner child so you can dance with success.” Gag me.

Which brings me to today’s example of the worst-ever elevator pitch.

I was at a networking luncheon of government contractors, project managers, and engineers. When I asked the man seated to my left what he did, he said, “Stuff.”

I’m not making this up. He said, “Stuff.” That was it.

I waited for him to say more, thinking he would add something clever. But he didn’t.

So, fool that I am, I asked, “What do you mean?”

In all seriousness he said, “We design and manufacture stuff that people use.”

Can you top that? Have you heard a worst elevator pitch than “Stuff”? I’d love (or hate) to hear it.

improve your speakingMost public speaking advice focuses on the strategies and skills of creating and delivering an effective speech.

What most public speaking advice overlooks is the importance of being a better speaker, of being in effect a good person.

And yet history and even, sadly, contemporary politics are filled with examples of the damage done by bad people who give powerful, even mesmerizing speeches.

By bad people I don’t necessarily mean that they’re evil people, although some of them are/were. (Is there any better way to describe Hitler, one of the most powerful speakers of the 20th century?)

Bad people may or may not be well meaning and sincere, but they are

  • bigoted, self-serving or willfully misinformed,
  • willing to skew the truth to advance their agenda, to pander to an audience’s less honorable instincts, or to shill for a dubious idea, or
  • lacking in discernment, compassion, or a sense of justice.

Cicero, ancient Rome’s greatest orator, knew only too well the harm that unprincipled, but effective speakers cause. Toward the end of his career he wrote De Oratorethe distillation of his experience.

Cicero wrote De Oratore to describe the ideal orator and imagine him as a moral guide of the state. Cicero understood that the power of persuasion—the ability to verbally manipulate opinion in crucial political decisions—was a key issue. The power of words in the hands of a man without scruples or principles would endanger the whole community. (Wikipedia)

To be a better speaker requires us not just to improve our public speaking skills and strategies.

Being a better speaker requires us, first, to be good people, to be the kind of people who

  • Read well and widely.
  • Listen respectfully, especially to those with whom we disagree.
  • Question both our own core beliefs and the inherited wisdom of our culture.
  • Care about other people’s well-being.
  • Do good works.
  • Are honest in our daily affairs and faithful to our commitments.
  • Contribute some small measure of beauty or laughter to the world.

What would you add to my list?

Important element of a speechThere are many elements that make a speech powerful, effective, memorable:

A message that has the power to change lives for the better, if only in a small way.

Images and stories, words and phrases that are both evocative and provocative.

A connection with the audience that communicates understanding, respect, and a desire to be of service.

A delivery that brings the message to life.

One of the most important elements of a speech is often missing: the person of the speaker.

Who you are as a person determines the audience’s interpretation of what you say, whether and to what extent they trust your message.

Who you are as a person shapes their response: their willingness to support, endorse, or implement your proposal.

Who you are as a person influences their engagement: their emotional and intellectual investment in your presentation.

Who you are as a person is perhaps the single most important element of a speech. And that element is too often missing.

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