Most presentations benefit from a question-and-answer session (Q&A). Audience members appreciate this time to get clarification, share comments or ideas, and get deeper information on key concepts. However, because the Q&A feels less formal than the main presentation, many speakers neglect to prepare for this time. In reality, the Q&A requires just as much preparation as any other section of your talk.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Having grown up in the restaurant business I love bringing people together for a traditional Thanksgiving feast. It is a time to celebrate community and share our gratitude for our close-knit family and wonderful friends. Yet even with our mild mannered guests, conversations can get awkward.
Have you ever found yourself sitting in the center seat of a packed auditorium—hemmed in on both sides by people and laptops—listening to a keynote speaker who is supposed to be imparting knowledge and wisdom, but instead is droning on and on? You want to run, but you can’t. So you endure what seems like torture.
You probably think this only happens in large university lecture halls, right? Not so. I’ve seen it at trade shows, association meetings, speaker forums, customer meetings, and yes, even at TED talks. One can only wonder what these speakers were thinking. How could they come to an event of such high caliber and not be prepared?
The funny thing is, if you ask them, they might tell you they spent a lot of time preparing, perhaps even over-preparing. Because the truth is that you can prepare and still not do well if you prepare incorrectly. In other words, not all preparation is the same.
Here is a list of the seven “sins” of poor presentations—all of which focus on the mistakes made when speakers prepare for their presentation incorrectly. Avoid committing these errors and you can give a stellar speech every time.
- Not having the right intention: In public speaking, as in every other worthwhile pursuit in life, intention is everything. If you don’t have a clear goal and objective for your speech, your audience will know it and become lost and confused … and most likely so will you. So set your intention, state the purpose of your presentation, and tell your audience what you hope your presentation will achieve for them.
- Not preparing your content before you prepare your PowerPoint™: Many people are in the habit of creating their slides before they create their full content, as if the PowerPoint slides are the end game instead of a useful, though limited, outline. They never take the next step to fully develop their message. That’s like building a house with a napkin drawing instead of a blueprint, and we all know how risky that can be. Take the time to fully develop your message first, and then create powerful visuals to accompany it.
- Not realizing that your content has two parts—message and structure: This is the tricky part for some presenters. Creating an interesting story line and developing an exciting topic complete with great examples, metaphors, and data comes naturally to some, but then taking the next step and forging that great content into a simple, easy-to-follow beginning, middle, and end structure is overlooked. Too much content without enough structure can leave the audience overwhelmed and perplexed.
- Not practicing your delivery ahead of time: Most people know better than to wing it in front of a large, high-stakes crowd, but there are plenty out there who think they have enough experience to stand up and speak with very little rehearsal. Every audience is unique and deserves your time and preparation. The best speakers practice out loud at least three times before every presentation they give.
- Not showing physical excitement and passion: Passion is an overused word when it comes to public speaking, but that’s because it is such a necessary component of a successful speech. You may feel plenty of real passion for your subject, but if you don’t practice showing it you will not be able to convince your audience that you mean it. Showing how you feel about your subject is just as important as knowing the details of what you are talking about.
- Not letting your voice be free: The human voice has the capacity to excite, stimulate, persuade, and inspire. Let your voice ring free of inhibitions by speaking with power, raising your pitch, using inflection, and exploiting dramatic pauses. The audience loves the music of the human voice, so make sure to let yours sing out and work for you.
- Not showing confidence and energy: There is the old adage that if you happen to be charismatically challenged you should “fake it until you make it.” That means even if you’re not “comfortable” performing with more vocal strength and physical action you must still do it. The audience depends on you to be lively and energetic during your presentation. They will forgive you if you try and fail, but they won’t forgive you if you don’t try at all. The more you practice, the easier this becomes. So take a chance at success and Come Alive!
When you prepare your presentation, be the saint and not the sinner! Use your knowledge of good presentation skills and prepare the correct way so that even those audience members stuck in the center of the crowd will stand up and cheer for you.
Please let me know what other preparation “sins” you would add to this list!
Last week I received a call from a sales manager whose team we worked with last year. He wanted a presentation skills “refresher” for his salespeople because their presentations were getting “sloppy” again. These were the same salespeople who did extremely well during our training class one year ago, but over the months they had gradually slid back into old habits. Granted, they were still “pretty good” in terms of their skills. But the manager wanted them to be great again.
While this is certainly frustrating for the sales manager, it is understandable. After all, salespeople have a lot to balance between prospecting, selling, client follow-up, and all the other things they must do in a day. With so much on their plate, they often let things like speech preparation slide to the back burner. Unfortunately, the result is that their presentations don’t always hit the mark, and they may look ill-prepared in front of prospects and clients.
From the manager’s standpoint, though, he’s not happy. He wants his team to shine. He’s invested time and money to train them, and he knows they have aptitude and skills to deliver successful presentations to their customers. And while he knows that doing things like prospecting and client support are important, he also wants them to find the time to keep their presentation skills up-to-date so they communicate effectively and consistently deliver high quality presentations.
We talk a lot about Continuous Learning in our programs, but it requires more than simply filling out a worksheet. Salespeople have the best intentions, especially in a training class, but they need help to realize their goals and it’s often the sales manager who can provide that level of support. So what can a sales manager do to stir things up, enlist everyone’s commitment, and keep the team motivated so they can perform at a high level?
Here are five tips for keeping your sales team focused on improving their presentation skills:
- Plan for continuous learning: Part of the challenge of continuous learning is staying focused. It’s easy to set goals but it’s difficult to follow through and actually achieve them. That’s why support and accountability are important. I recommend having everyone on your team create a three-month presentation skills action plan. Set aside time during staff meetings so everyone can share their action plan with the team, get feedback from others, and then refine the action plan as needed.
- Pair up for progress: The buddy system works. Have people pair up and commit to working with a partner for the duration of the action plan. Encourage the “pairs” to find creative ways to help and challenge each other. For example, they can listen to each other on phone calls and give feedback, or they can practice the same skill for one week and make it a point to catch each other doing it well.
- Use audio and video: We have more than enough technology options to keep us on track. For example, encourage salespeople to use their cell phone, tablet, or video camera for video/audio feedback. During playback, have them analyze themselves. How do they sound? Clear, organized, and passionate … or boring, monotonous, and rambling? Watching short clips of yourself as you prepare or present will give you good feedback on your body language and facial expression. Another idea is to have them transcribe their calls or use a program like Dragon Naturally Speaking to have their voice presentation turned into text. This is a great way for them to analyze their vocal skills, count their fillers (“um,” “ahh,” etc.), and check their vocabulary and word choice.
- Develop a resource file: Collect effective hooks, touch points, (stories, metaphors, examples, facts, statistics, humorous comments, etc.) and final thoughts that everyone on your team can use. This is a great way to “share the wealth” and ensure consistency.
- Use regular staff meetings: Take advantage of regular staff meetings for giving formal feedback. For example, use your status meeting every Monday, your bi-monthly presentations, or your all-hands meetings as a platform for skill development. Have people take turns giving a presentation at the meeting and getting feedback on their presentation from others. Use audio or video to record the presentations.
No matter how busy people are, continuous learning is possible. When everyone works together for the betterment of the team, staying focused on improving your presentation skills is possible … and relatively simple. Even better, when this philosophy becomes part of your company’s culture, new hires will be up-to-speed much quicker. So implement these 5 strategies today and watch your sales team’s presentation skills (and closing ratios) soar.
A client suffering from a mild case of public speaking anxiety recently told me, “When I’m giving a presentation, I’m too concerned about what people think of me to act like ‘the leader.’ I don’t want to stand out or project the notion that I’m better than or more knowledgeable than other people in the room.
Imagine knowing your audience members’ questions while you’re speaking and being able to address them on the spot, before the Q&A. Imagine getting a better “read” on what your listeners are thinking or understanding about your topic and not having to solely rely on their non-verbal cues, which may not always be accurate. Imagine having an audience truly engaged from your first word to your last, because you know without a doubt that you’re delivering the information they find most useful.
The good news is that today’s technology tools can help you do that—while you’re speaking in real time. While some people may think that having technology front and center during a presentation (aside from PowerPoint™) would be too distracting and hard to manage, there are technology tools that make engagement much easier. Here are the three to consider using for your next presentation.
- Twitter. For years, we’ve all heard the request made before important or main stage presentations: “Please turn off your phones.” These days, however, more and more speakers are instead saying, “Please take out your smart phone and turn it ON. Go to your Twitter app and tweet me your questions during the presentation. I’ll monitor it from up here and answers any questions I can in real time.” You can even make a special hashtag phrase that relates to your presentation to make monitoring easy. This low-tech technology approach is simple for audience members (most probably already have Twitter on their smart phone), and those who don’t can follow along and still ask questions by logging into a Twitter conversation tool like Twubs. Don’t like or use Twitter? Just have people text you their questions in real time.
- Audience Response Systems. At the other end of the technology spectrum are Audience Response Systems (ARS). These are hardware and/or software technologies that audience members use to give feedback in real time. If you’ve ever taken part in polling during a presentation, where you received a gadget and then pushed a button to enter your response, you’ve used an ARS. Of course, ARS tools have evolved over the years and come in all shapes and sizes and do much more than simple polling. To get an idea of what ARS offers these days, check out Turning Technologies.
- Apps. Need more audience engagement? Yes, there’s an app for that! One I recently learned of is called Join Speaker. What’s nice about apps is that they don’t require a special device like an ARS does. Rather, the attendees use the browser on their smart phone or tablet, enter your unique URL, and then interact with you, sharing input (questions, comments, or ideas) and even voting on other audience members’ input.
Of course, no technology can replace the essentials for audience engagement, such as using gestures, making eye contact, speaking with passion, and practicing your presentation so it sounds natural. Those are the timeless techniques that will never go out of style and are vital to your foundational skills. But still, it’s nice to know that technology can help with the engagement factor and actually encourage input and participation. When used wisely, today’s technology can positively impact your audience’s experience.
We all know that when it comes to public speaking, “practice makes perfect.” So if you want to bring the house down, you have to prepare your script or outline in advance and practice your delivery by rehearsing out loud. Only then can you rest assured that you’ll give a great speech.
But what about those times when you have to speak on the fly, as in an interview situation where you are speaking “off the cuff,” on a panel when any question can come your way, when the camera is running and you’re put on the spot, or when you are in front of a hostile crowd? How do you organize your thoughts so you sound like an expert and come across as natural, flowing, credible and confident? As one of my clients told me this week, “I want to be able to riff off the script and speak eloquently off the cuff.”
Here’s a secret: The best impromptu speakers follow many of the same principles you use when planning a more formal presentation. Since you’re being call upon to speak, it’s assumed that you’re a subject matter expert and passionate about what you have to say. So in those few seconds you have to plan your reply, use the simple rules of content organization:Keep your audience in mind, remember your purpose, and quickly organize your response into three discreet sections: beginning, middle, and end.
As you speak, keep your message concise (and yourself on point) by using short sentences. When appropriate, include an interesting story and relevant example to highlight your key point. Stick to your structure throughout – “first of all…” “second…” And finally…”
To appear confident, keep your posture upright, use gestures and facial expressions, and make eye contact with your listeners. Concentrate on your voice by controlling your rate of speech, using inflection to highlight key points, and pausing to give yourself and the audience or interviewer a chance to reflect on what you are saying. These few vocal skills will prevent you from getting tongue tied and help you come across as cool and collected.
And even though you have only minutes or sometimes seconds to prepare, make sure you hit your talking points. For example, if you’re on a panel and get a question you didn’t expect, bring the focus back around to the key points you want known about your topic. Most subject matter experts have key sound bites memorized about their topic. This is the time to draw upon those.
You never know when you might be called on to speak on the fly, but if you use the same public speaking concepts and techniques you use for general presentations, you can make any presentation look like a well-planned event … even if you have just a few seconds to do so.
This is the time of year when I check-in with my past Executive Immersion clients to see how things are going with their presentation skills—what’s working and what still needs attention. I had several interesting calls this week which revealed tips to fit nicely into a “Best Practice” list.
When I call people, I usually get the same response, “Thanks for reaching out. It’s nice to hear from you,” meaning, “[Gulp!] I better give a few great presentations before I speak to Angela next week!” It reminds me of my annual dental check-up. Like many people, I always brush and floss twice as much during the weeks before my appointment.
All of the people I spoke with give presentations to a range of audiences and venues, including all hands meetings, staff meetings, department meetings, executive briefings, board presentations, customer presentations and large national and international conferences.
I begin the calls by asking my clients how things are going with their presentation skills. Here are some of the typical responses I hear:
- “I think I’m doing much better.”
- “I’m using everything you taught me.”
- “I’m getting good feedback.”
- “I’m more relaxed.”
- “I’ve gotten really good at telling stories and the audience seems to like it.”
- “I’m recognizing the audience consciously.”
- “I love using the delivery techniques I learned—the gestures, posture, eye contact, slowing down and pausing.”
- “I’m more concise.”
And so the love fest goes on for the first part of the conversation. Then, without my saying anything, they switch gears and become their own worst critic with insights like:
- “But I’m still not as strong as I could be.”
- “I can’t seem to stand still.”
- “I still go off on tangents.”
- “I know I should spend more time preparing, but I still slap together dense slides sometimes.”
- “I haven’t practiced the 3, 4, & 5 syllable word drills you gave me.”
Finally, I ask what they learned from our work that has had lasting impact. Here are the top replies they shared—and that everyone can benefit from:
- Simplify the message.
- Understand the audience and use techniques to engage them.
- Use engagement questions such as, “I know what you’re thinking” and “You’re probably wondering.”
- Be aware of my posture, gestures, and facial expression.
- Use more emotion and show more passion even though I’m not comfortable doing so.
- Keep my slides simple—use graphics and tell a story with pictures.
- Prepare for the Q&A based on past presentations. Keep a file of questions and review them.
- Practice by giving the presentation out loud and not just reviewing it in my head.
Everyone I speak with always has a long list of what skills and behaviors that have changed for the better and a short list of skills they still need to refine. They’re proof that the growth process in any area takes time. So if you feel that you still haven’t mastered all there is to know about public speaking, don’t worry. You’re not alone, and there is always more to learn. The key is to focus on a commitment to continuous improvement. If you do that, your skills will improve, and you’ll do just fine.
And please let me know what you would add to this list. I’d love to hear from you.
“Improve my presentation skills” is a common New Year’s resolution. Finding the perfect example to follow on how to do that is a bit rare … that is, until you meet Jack Kornfield.
Jack Kornfield is one of the leading Buddhist teachers in America. I saw him speak a few days ago during the Monday Night Class at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Wood Acre, California, just a short drive from where I live.
The Monday Night Class, now in its 27th year, serves as an introduction to Spirit Rock and the Buddhist practices of awareness and compassion, which are the heart of the Spirit Rock community. This weekly gathering also offers support and ongoing teachings to committed students many who have studied at the Center since its founding.
The room was packed Monday night with hundreds in the audience. When Jack asked how many first-timers were in the crowd, dozens of hands went up. Then someone called out, “Thanks, Oprah!” I learned that Oprah had interviewed Jack last fall and the interview aired December 15. The interview brought out people who had never been to Spirit Rock and were curious about Buddhist teachings.
The Monday Night Class attracts serious students of Buddhism and appreciative newcomers alike and they have never have trouble filling the room. But if you want to exceed capacity with a standing room only crowd, you just need a little fairy dust from Oprah. It was a spirited group.
For Jack Kornfield, it didn’t matter if he was speaking to 2 or 200. He was his usual entertaining and enlightening self, delivering his teachings with Buddhist-style charisma and practicing what he preaches by sharing his stories with patience, compassion and kindness. He is a good speaker, a gifted storyteller and a teacher who knows how to stand on the shoulders of the giants before him, reading their poetry and quoting their wisdom. Watching him, you get the feeling that he takes it all very seriously yet has an infinite capacity for lightheartedness. That combination is his greatest appeal.
And that’s the lesson I want to pass on this New Year as you make your resolutions about public speaking. If you are going to speak with greater poise, power and passion, do so with intense seriousness and commitment, but remember to keep a light heart. Happy 2014!
When asked to describe John F. Kennedy, many people mention the phrase “great speaker.” It’s true. Watch any of his speeches and you’ll see someone who looks natural and elegant in front of a crowd. He had a cunning wit and easy charm. He was articulate, intelligent, direct, and inspiring. Most of all, he looked comfortable.
But comfortable he was not. Over the last two weeks I have watched numerous documentaries about JFK’s life and realized once again that in addition to being a great speaker, he was also a very ill man, plagued with serious diseases from Crohn’s to Addison’s. As James Blight of The Daily Beast explained, “JFK—once believed to be the paragon of “vigah,” health, and vitality—was in reality one of the sickest, most physically compromised American presidents in U.S. history. He was given last rites by a priest at least four times, and possibly a fifth—the latter while he was president, in June 1961.” JFK’s various conditions were treated with steroids and other strong drugs that caused severe side effects and weakened his spine, resulting in chronic pain.
Now think about this: If JFK was in pain most of his life that would mean he was giving some of the best speeches of the 20th century while enduring extreme discomfort, debilitating illnesses, and numerous medication side effects. It’s challenging enough for most people to give a speech to a large crowd when they’re in perfect health and under ideal circumstances. Imagine having to give a critical speech when you are in extreme pain. Yes, it could be that he was carried along on pain killers, other drugs, and pure adrenaline, and that he may not have felt distressed while giving a speech. However, he certainly felt it after the adrenaline wore off and the “performance high” abated. Either way, it’s unimaginable.
Many of us have had the experience of having to give a presentation when we’ve not been at our best—either with a cold, a headache, or with some other physical or emotional challenge. And most of us can “rise to the occasion” in these stressful times and perform effectively. But these situations are infrequent. For JFK, on the other hand, coping with discomfort was a fact of everyday life. He not only rose to the occasion with every speech he gave, but he also set a new standard of leadership through his powerful and eloquent communication.
In a way, it’s a bit ironic. Here was a man who couldn’t even lift his own children due to his illnesses, yet he had the backbone to lead the American people through tumultuous times. Here was a man wracked with pain, yet when he stood in front of an audience of thousands he spoke with passion and certainty—as though he actually had the “vigah” he spoke of.
So, the next time you hear one of JFK’s speeches, listen with a new ear. Think not about just the content of his message; think about the content of his inner strength—of his ability to rise above his own pain so that he could uphold his duty as president and inspire others through his oratorical greatness.
Fortunately, most public speakers will never have to overcome such a challenge. However, if you’re ever in the situation when you have to present with a cold, a headache, or even a heartache, take a lesson from JFK. As he so eloquently said: “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.”
Click here to view some historic speeches from the JFK library.
Many of DeFinis Communications’ sales and technical clients spend a lot of time on the road, delivering presentations to prospects, customers, and users near and far. As such, they often share their road warrior tales of woe during our classes. So many things can go wrong before and during a presentation, from technical glitches to misplaced papers. While you can do your best to prepare and plan for almost any presentation crisis, there are some things that are completely out of your control, such as the weather and airline cancellations.
Rita Williams, one of our top trainers, has a travel story to trump all others. If you’ve ever had Rita as a DeFinis Communications instructor, you know her to be incredibly organized, punctual, and prepared. She’s not the type to wing a presentation or any part of the planning stage either. That’s why I was so surprised to hear her latest travel story.
Rita arrived at the airport early for a routine cross country flight from San Francisco to Washington DC. At check-in, the booking agent told her that she could take an earlier flight. In order to board the earlier flight, though, she had to gate-check her personal travel bag. Normally she never checks her bags for a short 2-3 day business trip, but this seemed safe enough so she was unconcerned.
After settling in to her seat and waiting on the tarmac for 30 minutes, the captain announced that the plane was having mechanical problems. Everyone would have to deplane and wait back in the terminal until the plane could be repaired. Rita wasn’t about to wait so she raced back to her original flight and luckily was able to board … but her travel bag wasn’t with her. Before the flight took off she called her husband and explained her dilemma—that she would arrive in DC after hours with no business clothes to wear the next day and no place to shop. Even though she was clearly distraught, her husband seemed indifferent. He simply told her that it would be okay and not to worry. But Rita was worried. Maybe he was tired, she reasoned. Rita was upset, but how could he help from so far away?
Fortunately, Rita is a natural born problem solver and came up with a truly creative solution. She decided to go to the hotel and offer to “purchase” a hotel uniform worn by one of the women at the front desk—ifshe was lucky enough to find a 6 ft. tall woman working that evening.
She arrived at the hotel, walked up to the front desk manager and explained the bind she was in. Before she could finish her plea and ask the woman for the shirt off her back, the hotel manager said, “Oh, this must be for you,” and handed her two shopping bags: one from Nordstrom and one from The GAP.
When Rita got to her room and opened the shopping bags, she saw two complete outfits in her size, style, and colors. She was absolutely stunned to see these beautiful clothes ready to wear to her presentation the following morning. She called her husband and found out that after speaking to her, he immediately called a friend in DC and described the situation. The friend, a man by the way, left work, went shopping for Rita, and delivered the clothes to her hotel!
Talk about a husband coming to the rescue!
I often think about the community of people we need to make our presentations successful and to make our lives work well on a daily basis. In our programs, we ask our participants to identify the people in their lives who act as role models, task masters, and supporters. Time and time again, when push comes to shove, spouses always seem to come through. So hats off to Rita’s husband, Dennis Williams, and all the other husbands, wives, family, and friends who support presenters every day. It’s always nice to know that someone out there is covering your back.
When you deliver a presentation on Halloween or any other day of the year, your audience expects to be treated to a stimulating, thoughtfully designed, and well developed speech.But too many speakers inadvertently play a trick instead by using poor language skills that distract the audience, weaken the message, and leave listeners wanting to shout “Boo!” That’s why it’s important to beware of your language. Voice and language skills should communicate excitement, passion, and confidence, not leave your audience feeling like zombies.
Here are some tips to rid your language of the most common goblins that haunt presentations.
Avoid non-words: Non-words, sounds or phrase fillers, like “um,” “ah,” and “anduh” pollute your language and can be distracting to you listener. They can make you sound less polished, less prepared, and less credible, which will work against you when you are trying to communicate effectively and persuade others to your point of view.
Reduce distracting words and phrases: Polished public speakers use few if any of the following repetitive filler words: “like,” “really,” “I mean,” “you know,” “in terms of,” “so” “actually,” and many others. At DeFinis Communications our motto is, “Friends never let friends say, ’basically.’”
Limit slang: Avoid modern slang when giving a speech. Phrases such as “you guys,” “folks,” and “awesome” are fine to use in most everyday conversations, but they could weaken your credibility in front of certain audiences. Carefully consider your audience before using these words during your presentation and substitute power words for everyday slang.
What can you do?
If you have a tendency to use non-words, distracting words, or slang in everyday speech, your first step in changing these behaviors is to raise your awareness. Leave yourself voicemail messages, ask friends and colleagues if they notice these fillers, and listen carefully to yourself when you speak. Once you analyze the problem and know what you’re up against, then you can fix it.
Because vocal behaviors such as these are imbedded in our language from a very young age these habits will not change overnight. But there are techniques you can begin using today that will start the ball rolling in the right direction. When it comes to improving your vocal control, a “pause” is your best friend. Anytime you are on the verge of using a non-word, distracting word, or slang, stop and pause for two full seconds. You can also use shorter sentences, speak at a slower rate, raise your volume, breathe deeply, and smile to help you control these distracting words and sounds.
Don’t let your language skills kill your chances of giving a great speech. Whether on Halloween or any day of the year, strive to give your listeners a memorable experience that leaves them howling for more!
Read my past Halloween blog posts:
In many career paths (business, media, PR, etc,), public speaking skills are essential. Whether giving a presentation to your boss, a group of your peers, or simply interviewing, knowing how to express yourself and your ideas clearly is critical. The good news is that there are an incredible number of online resources that can help you sharpen your skills. The bad news? Well, there are an incredible number of online resources to sift through, making it difficult to find what will help you the most.
The folks at Masters In Communication realized this double-edged sword … and they did something about it. Knowing that there are lots of great resources for speakers online, they set out to compile and highlight the best of the best. The result is Public Speaking 101: The Top Online Resources, which are broken down into four categories:
1.Public and professional speaking
2.Presentation blogs and tools
4.General communication and debate
So how did they decide which people and companies to include in their list? They began their research by perusing search engines and asking their current readers for recommendations on quality sites. After contacting a few of the early contenders, they sought out more recommendations from those in the public speaking field. After all, who would know the top online resources better than those actually in it?
From there, they examined each resource and attempted to categorize and accurately describe each site for their readers. Many sites received quite a few mentions and had large followings on social media, so it was easy to identify them as deserving of inclusion. Others may not have been as strong in their followings, but they offered deep content and valuable resources and insights on the subject. Ranking these sites exactly would have been too difficult and subjective; coming to a consensus on 101 great sites to include on a comprehensive list was more practical. The result is the comprehensive list that’s published today.
So if you’re tired of endless searching for reliable information about public speaking, check out the list (scroll down to entry #6 and you’ll see me!). It’s a great resource that will help you now and in the future.
I was an elementary student at Calvert School in Washington DC in 1963. Our school was connected to St. Matthews Cathedral, a prominent Catholic Church in the city noted for the fact it held the Catholic Funeral Mass for John F. Kennedy after he was killed. If you go to St. Matthew’s today you will see a large circular marble mosaic in the floor near the sanctuary with the words, “Here rested the remains of President Kennedy at the requiem mass, November 25, 1963 before their removal to Arlington where they lie in expectation of a heavenly resurrection.” Of the thousands of people in attendance at his funeral, Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of them.
During those years of the civil rights struggle, St. Matthew’s was a voice for social justice. One of the younger priests in residence at the church took it upon himself to expose the Calvert School elementary students to the social issues of the day, particularly the Civil Rights movement. It was with him and a few of my classmates that I attended the March on Washington and heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We heard numerous speakers throughout the day and to my young ears they were all loud and exciting. But Dr. King’s speech was thunderous and drove the already elated crowd to a state of rapture. Even though I could not comprehend the scope of the issues that drew people to the mall that day, I too was caught up in the magic of the moment.
As I watched the “Let Freedom Ring” speeches today I was stuck by how little and how much has changed since August 28, 1963. As Jimmy Carter, Forrest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, Congressman John Lewis, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama summarized, today, as in 1963, we as a nation are still struggling with issues of discrimination and injustice such as entrenched poverty, homelessness, voting rights violations, racial profiling and the high rates of incarceration of young black men, just to name a few. Of course, there has been progress over the decades as well. According to Census reports, the percentage of blacks who graduated from high school jumped to 85 percent in 2012, from 25.7 percent in 1964, while the number of black Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree rose to 5.1 million from 365,000. Additionally, the percentage of blacks working in executive, administrative or managerial positions rose to more than 8 percent in 2011, from a little over 1 percent in 1960.
In the last fifty years leading up to today, there have been gains and there have been losses, all of which have been met with considerable debate if not troublesome disagreement. But throughout our 50 year legacy of the civil rights movement, there is one thing we all agree on: Dr. King’s “Dream” speech, which I heard again in its 17 minute entirety today, remains the greatest speech of the 21st century. As most scholars, historians and politicians agree, it holds this honor because of Dr. King’s immeasurable capacity to inspire hope.
So how did Obama, the new chronicler of hope, measure up to Dr. King? It seems unfair to compare the two men yet we can’t resist. King was a preacher who turned the steps of the Lincoln memorial into a pulpit and delivered a sermon to many. He used parables from the Bible, metaphors that everyone could understand. He began slowly, carefully, keeping the pace controlled, showing little physical or vocal emotion. It was like watching a jockey hold back a race horse until the turn into the home stretch. Because I’ve seen this speech many times I knew what was coming and when it did, when he released the phrase “Let Freedom Ring” with the thunder of his voice, the power of his cadence and the surety of his eloquence, I was just as moved as I was when listening as a young child 50 years ago.
Obama gave a great speech today, there is no question. He too began slowly, carefully, building his case step by step with an even tempo, controlled body language and earnest facial expression. He began to build energy with his phrase, “Because they marched,” which subtlety referenced—at least in technique—to the “I have a dream” phrase.
But then he receded and pulled back again. When I wanted him to drop into “storyteller tone,” he became cerebral. When I wanted metaphor, he delivered fact. He seemed to be speaking one level above his audience, more conceptually, using longer sentences and denser themes. I found myself working too hard to follow along.
I wanted him to make it easy for me so I could be swept up emotionally in the historical greatness of the day. After all, this wasn’t a speech to the government or congress. This was to us, the American people. I wanted him to bring it home. Yes, he crossed the finish line with force and power, ending on a high note, but still I wanted more. I wanted him to step into the skin of Dr. King and breathe in the vigor of his vision, expelling it back to us on fire.
Too much to ask? Impossible expectations? Yes, certainly. But I’m a speech coach. And when the greatest speech of your lifetime happens to you when you’re a child, your fantasies forever exceed reality.