Every Great Speaker Uses These; Every Awful Speaker Avoids These
If you show me a great speaker, I will show you some awful speakers. I have had some successful speaking days where I got standing ovations which is nice and wonderful but I have had some lousy days of speaking an presenting to live audiences and media. I could never forget my worst speaking opportunity ever- I was on a talk radio show in South Florida in the United States and it was the political season. I walked into the station and remember sitting in a really low seat whereas the host was in a high seat and was looking down on me. We were talking about politics and I was beginning to give my point of you but before I could say anything, he pulls the mic from my hand and says that he has no respect for me. I was a bit shocked because I hadn’t said anything that provocative but at this point I was already a public speaking coach so I felt confident and tough, which is why I began pulling the mic towards me to say something. But before I could say anything else, he reaches under the table, and pulls out a gun. He says, “Now do you see my point, Mr. Walker?”. Do you know what I said in that moment with my silvery tongue and all of my oratorical experience, not much of anything. I could only say that I agreed with him. Not my proudest speaking moment. He then got me removed me from the studio in a very theatrical manner. My friends recorded this talk show and they would replay it for years every time I visited them. It was simply awful!
But you know what? I went back to that station, I stayed away from that host, and actually co-hosted other shows. I did not let that one bad media experience destroy my self confidence. I love speaking and I love helping other people speak and I learn from all of my experiences. Everyone forgets it after awhile because there are so many other speeches and media interviews that have happened since then.
What did I just do there? I told a story. Why did I do that? I just wanted to make the point that everyone can make bad speeches and the real message is that you have to learn from them to get better. I could have said it in five seconds but if I would have done that, it would have been much less memorable, the biggest difference between great speakers in the world and everybody else is not the quality of the voice or the hand gestures or the cost of the clothes. The single biggest difference between great and bad speakers is stories. Great speakers illustrate every important point with a story. Your stories do not have to be as dramatic as someone pulling a gun on you- but it just has to be true and relatable. Is the story going to win a Pulitzer prize? No! But does it work? Absolutely! I have my students come up to me and ask me if I have had any guns pulled on me recently which shows me that people remember and get the point. The point is not that I have guns pulled on me all the time, it is that everyone can be awful and you just have to learn from it.
What are the elements of a story? There has to be a setting- I was in a talk radio station in South Florida. The second thing is a character- there was me and the talk show host. The third is a little bit of a dialogue- what he said to me and what I said back. Forth: there is a problem- a gun pulled on me! Then there is an emotional component- I felt scared. Sixth, there was some resolution- I got out of here alive and went back to the station later. Those are the elements of a story and you have stories happen to you all the time. People ask me if they can make up a story. You could but it is really hard. I want you to be lazy. My story was easy for me to tell because I was just reliving an older experience.
It should just involve a conversation you had with a real person about a real problem, how you felt about it, and how it was resolved. You have to ask yourself- if you have never had a single conversation with anyone about a particular issue, maybe it is not as important a message.
I understand if it feels difficult but it is actually the easiest thing in the world. Human beings are hardwired to communicate by telling stories. So much of what makes public speaking difficult is because we are trying to do something we are not comfortable with or accustomed to- trying to list and tell every single thing we know as bullet points and facts. If someone asks you how your weekend was, you would probably not list every single thing you did, you would hop right into an interesting story that happened over the weekend.
What great speakers realize when they are giving speeches is that the stories are the part that you want to keep instead of giving a boring data dump. If you illustrate every point you say with a story, you are definitely going to be the best speaker anyone in your audience has ever seen.