March 4th, 2011 By: Dan Pallotta
In 10th grade I joined the debate team. The 1976-77 National Forensic League debate topic, used by high schools everywhere, was “Resolved: That a comprehensive program of penal reform should be adopted throughout the United States.” Just reading it again makes me nauseous with remembered dread. You had to get up in front of a judge and present a response to the other team’s proposal — which you’d just listened to for the first time — for eight solid minutes. You had five minutes to prepare, 480 painful seconds to respond.
I still remember the cream-colored three-piece suit my mom purchased for me at Filene’s basement, and the feeling that I was going to throw up each time Freeman Frank — our debate coach — pulled up on a Saturday morning with the van he’d rented to haul us to the far corners of New England to make those eight-minute speeches.
I did this for three years. And over time, a transformation occured.
The transformation was in focus and intention. At first, my focus was all on me: “I’m going to screw this up so bad.” “I have nothing intelligent to say, and this guy will see through me in about three seconds.” “I’m Italian. I’m dumb. I can’t compete with these smart people.”
But over time I decided I wanted to win. And to win I was going to have to convince the judge — to move him or her somehow. And then it became fun. Because it was no longer about me. It was about my audience: getting listeners from here to there — changing their mind — actually having them leave the room thinking differently than when they entered. And that’s powerful.
It’s been a blast ever since.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned in my years of public speaking. If you have to knock it out of the park, follow these basic rules:
- Know your goal. When the speech is over, what do you want the audience saying about it and you? What difference do you want to make? Most speakers never ask this of themselves.
- Memorize your speech. That’s right. Memorize every word of it. Deliver it in front of a mirror five times, six times, ten times. Then deliver it while your kid is screaming in the background, to develop the confidence that you can recite it no matter what distraction pops up. Why memorize it? Because nothing will put an audience to sleep faster than someone reading from a prepared text. Because when you memorize it, it stops being about getting the words right and starts being about getting the feeling right. Imagine if Andrea Bocelli didn’t memorize the words to the songs in his repertoire. How much room do you think there would be for him to feel them?
- If you don’t want to knock it out of the park, don’t follow rule 2.
- Practice the transitions. What will get you from one point to the next? Is it “if,” or “when,” or “then I.” Know and memorize the precise construction of each transitional sentence. It’s in uncertainty about transitions from one point to the next that people lose their grace in public and start saying “aaahhhh.”
- Don’t fear silence. You want to silence a room? Don’t talk. Be silent and look at the audience. Five seconds. Seven seconds. Just taking them in. Connecting with them. But never do it for effect. Do it to get intimate with your audience. It silences a room like you wouldn’t believe. Why? Because it’s not normal. Audiences are used to speakers filling every nanosecond with the sound of their own voice, leaving zero time for reflection. Audiences are used to being avoided, not appreciated. When they come upon someone who can command their own silence, they understand, “This person is serious.”
- Never, ever, ever use PowerPoint as your speech notes. The slides are for your audience, not for you. The moment they see you rattling through a list of bullets that you should have had the courtesy to memorize, they put you in a category with every other boring presenter they’ve ever seen and you’ve lost them.
- Give something of yourself. Don’t be afraid to feel something in front of an audience. Don’t be afraid to say something that will make you feel something, and that will make the audience feel something.
- Be yourself. Don’t feel you need to mimic the testosterone level of a motivational speaker. You will look and feel fake. Robert Kennedy never tried to copy Martin Luther King’s rhetorical skills. RFK was soft-spoken. He owned that. And as a result, was every bit as affecting as King.
- Don’t speak in abstractions. Say what it is that you mean. Plainly. Avoid the lexicon of your own trade. People are sick of it. It doesn’t mean anything to them anymore. Speak in human.
- Feel what’s happening in the room and use it to connect your speech to this moment. In this way, if your mike goes out, you can make a joke out of it, rather than it making a nervous wreck, and a joke, out of you.
- Make eye contact until it scares you. Distribute your eye contact around the room. Not for effect, but because you genuinely want to connect with the people in front of you.
- Don’t miss your own talk. It is a privilege and an honor to be asked to speak. Take the opportunity to commune with other human beings. It’s like getting to watch a falling star.
- Come from a place of love for your audience. That’s mastery. When you allow yourself to feel the humanity of your audience, you have succeeded in taking the focus off yourself. There is a universe of difference between this place and a PowerPoint presentation. This is the place from which change is made. From here you can move mountains.