How to Be a Better Speaker

Christopher Witt —  January 27, 2015

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?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

4 responses to How to Be a Better Speaker

  1. This is a magnificent list. I might add something that incorporates elements of all the above. A great speaker shares what the audience needs to hear, rather than what it wants to hear. This requires courage. So much of the public discourse is grandstanding — speakers tossing red meat to true believers. Ironically, this is often labeled ‘speaking truth to power’ by those whose prejudices are being massaged. The great communicators of my lifetime — Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, etc. — inspired people with the hard truth, illuminating way this truth would make us better as a people.

    • Rich,

      Thanks for your insights. I, too, believe that great speakers possess courage, the willingness to make known their true convictions no matter what the consequences. (Both MLK and RFK were aware of and paid the consequences.)

      Chris

  2. Outstanding post, sir. Paraphrasing an Ancient Greek poem, Isaiah Berlin noted that the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

    A good public speaker must be a fox. She or he should be able to adjust to the audience in real time and tweak the medium, cadence, posture, affectation, etc. in order to ensure the message is received appropriately. The speaker must be able to make the content live through the audience. This requires empathy (and a hunter’s instinct).

    Keep up the great posts.

    ~John

    • John,

      Empathy is at the top of my list of what makes a good person, a good speaker. The lack of empathy is all to evident in business and speaking today; it’s also one of the key characteristics of sociopaths.

      Thanks for you insights.

      Chris