On Speaking

Over the past week, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to quite a few speakers.  I’m proud to say I’ve learned from each of them– and not about their topics.  Instead, I learned about the art of speaking.  I’ve taken speech classes over the years, but none of it was as useful as learning straight from the masters.  Here are a few of the biggest things I learned.

Make your audience care.  The first speaker I heard was by far the best of the bunch, and it showed.  He began his speech by making his audience like him.  I’m sure there are many different ways to do this, but this time he made himself envy the audience.

Flattery is definitely one of the most powerful tools for making people like you, because few people are so modest that they automatically deny praise.  Yes, they pretend to for appearance’s sake, but everyone likes being complimented.  Except when it’s overdone.  This speaker, however, did it perfectly.

This speaker set apart the audience as a select group of people he aspires to one day become– and as high on the governmental food chain as he is, that’s high praise.  After that, his speech was easy.  I didn’t agree with everything he said, but I didn’t feel like he was forcing any ideas on me.

It’s an important tool for fiction as well as speeches, making your audience care.  For fiction, we make the audience care about the characters.  When speaking, we make the audience care about what we have to say– we make them respect us, even if they don’t want to.  That’s a difficult task, but that little tool makes the speech work.

Writers are not necessarily speakers.  I think I knew this already, but when I heard an author speak at a book signing, I realized that with all that time on our own staring at computer screens, we might neglect other aspects of our public personas.  Being able to write a brilliant book is great, but if you mumble through your reading, you won’t get the big audience you want.

One of the common problems is that writers don’t write the same way we speak.  In first drafts, we do– whatever comes to mind comes to the paper– but after numerous edits, it doesn’t seem to work as well.  Sure, it flows, but not along your normal speech patterns.

So what to do about it?  Practice.  Don’t practice the same speech all the time, the same words, the same timing– that’s for people who always have scripts in front of them.  You’re an author, not a newscaster; you speak your own words as well as the words you’ve figured out beforehand.  If there’s a difference between your spontaneous words and your written speech, the audience will notice.  Try to practice with points instead of definite words.  Figure out what you want to say, of course– but after that’s done, you should know what you want to say, so say it.  Your mind remembers it– it’s only specific things like names or quotes that will require more memory.  Use notes for the words that aren’t your own and for the structure you need to follow, but other than that, let things flow.  And if you’re still having trouble remembering what you want to say, just rewrite your speech several different times, all first drafts.  Don’t try to improve on the words, just write the way things come to you.  Don’t memorize it, just recreate it every time, completely new.

Never say everything straight off.  People misunderstand when speech classes teach about thesis statements and introductions.  The classes say you should introduce all your points at the beginning and get to them gradually.


Imagine listing all the spoilers for a book in the first chapter.  There wouldn’t be any suspense, no surprise– you’d have a boring story.  That’s what happens when you introduce all your points at once.

“Today I am going to speak about the reasons you should eat cake.  One, it looks good; two, it tastes good; and three, it stimulates the economy.  Firstly, it looks good.  Cakes are pretty.  Cakes look good.  They look pretty…”

You can tell where it’s going.  Having introduced all his points at once, all the speaker has left is to expand on them– and with such straightforward points, there’s no need to expand.  In fact, he will now be labeled long-winded and boring, because no one wants to hear an hour and a half of things they learned in the first minute.

Is there a solution?  Of course.  Your first option is not to introduce your points straight off.  That’s the obvious solution.  But how do you introduce your speech without introducing your points?  Find a common thing about all your points and state that in the introduction instead of all the points.  For instance, in the introduction to this post I said I had learned things from all the speakers I had heard recently– I didn’t say what they were.  The common theme, however, was the speakers.  Notice, I haven’t mentioned them much since.

Another trick you can use (especially good for persuasive speech thesis statements) is to introduce an ambiguous question instead of a clear statement.  You don’t want to make the question too clear, nor do you want to make the question too ambiguous– with the former, the audience can figure it out for themselves; with the latter, you risk making it so ambiguous that not even you can answer it.  You want to ask the question and move on so quickly that the audience can’t figure it out without zoning out from your speech (which they won’t do because you already made them care about what you have to say).  You want to leave them wondering about the answer, but content to let you figure it out on your own, because that’s what you’re here for anyway.

Don’t build buildings in a war zone.  No explanation needed.

Obviously, this is no seminar on speaking brilliantly– nor is it an encyclopedia of tricks for you to use.  It’s only a few things that I realized over the past week.  If you’re looking for a full guide to speaking, I suggest a professional course, though I could probably pull it off too.  But most importantly, listen to real speakers.  Not newscasters, not even the president– listen to lectures, real speeches written by the same person who speaks them.  I’m sure you can figure it out.


10 thoughts on “On Speaking

  1. Oh yes, that last one is the most important part, I think.

    …okay, maybe not. These are some interesting points, though. I’ve never done much with speaking, but I’ll keep this in mind if/when I do.

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