More Speaking Tips that Beat "Pretend Your Audience Is Naked"

How rhythm, word choice, and presence can lead to mastery of public speaking.

Posted Sep 07, 2011


Everyone would love to be better at public speaking--or just to be able to speak without shaking.

After giving over 600 speeches, I am supplementing my March 14 entry, "Seven Speaking Tips That Beat ‘Pretend Your Audience Is Naked," with three thoughts that changed my career.

First, go to Pick out three topics that interest you. Then note which speakers most engage most. Just from osmosis, you will learn from them. And you will realize that they don't give speeches. As TED recognizes by its use of the word "Talks," a great speaker talks.

Now, ask this question about those Talks: What was missing in each one?

The answer? It was the podium. There wasn't one.

To appreciate the podium's influence, imagine a concert where the singers sing from behind podiums. That concert would not feel the same to you. And a TED talk wouldn't, either.

Your audience wants to see you. Our bodies speak pages, and your movements become the dance that accompany your songs. As an added plus, moving around helps silence your butterflies.

Second: Think of your talk as a concert.

First, your words. They matter, but the words aren't the entire heart of a talk or song. Your heart is. A passionate speaker can fumble a few sections, but if she conveys passion, her audience shares it.

Think of Kim Carnes ("Bette Davis Eyes") and Bob Dylan. They never could have succeeded on their pipes. Carnes sounded like agony feels, and Dylan sounds like his lungs are storing pea gravel. But each singer strikes chords inside millions of listeners that they would have missed if either had sung "beautifully." Similarly, Vladimir Horowitz was known for his mistakes, but his passion helped to make him one of his century's most popular pianists.

There's actually a problem with a flawless speech. The err is human, and to speak without error sounds less human. This is supported by recent research that discovered that a sales person who makes an occasional error far outperforms sellers who deliverer with perfect fluency. I’m reminded here of a speaker who gives the identical speech, word-for-memorized word, everywhere she speaks. I mentioned the speaker's name to Yvonne Douran, a leading speaker's agent.

“I’ve seen her video,” Yvonne responded.  “She sounds soulless.”

Just knowing that---that your speech should not be perfect--will help you relax.

A good speaker's pace also makes her words more song-like. She moves quietly, then quickly. She hits a full stop to allow a vital note to linger. She creates a tension: a build and release.

TED talks, speaking tips

Not speeches, not presentations: Talks.

For an example of speaking as music, consider Martin Luther King's famous "I Have A Dream," particularly King's use of multiple hooks, rhythm, and his build and release. Four times he pleas "Now is the time"; Then he he insists "We cannot be satisfied" six times, followed by "I have a dream"--seven times.

All this builds up to his's plea, "Let freedom ring." He delivers those words musically--and then repeats them ten times, rising to his crescendo.

Might King's speech suggest that a speaker's rhythm alone is part of what persuades us? Matthew McGlone of the University of Texas has studied the persuasiveness of a related phenomenon, rhyme. He showed subjects the expression, "Woes unite foes," and a second expression conveying the same idea, "Woes unite enemies."

What happened?

McGlone's subjects were far more likely to believe the rhyming version--which suggests that we are more persuaded by words that are expressed rhythmically.

Number three:  An interviewer once asked the actress Rosalind Russel, “What makes a great movie?" “Moments,” she said. “If your movie has a couple moments that your audience remembers, it will succeed.”

This principle applies to presentations, too. Give your audience three moments.

One moment should touch them. Think of the proven power of happy endings, the signature of American movies.

Your second moment should delight them. Laughter lubricates the connecting process. But your humor shouldn’t be a joke. Instead, tell a true story with a funny aspect, or show them an image that would make almost anyone laugh.

Your third moment should move your audience to act, which evokes an observation about two famous Greek leaders:

"When Aeschines spoke, everyone said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes
 spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip.’” 


So think about a presentation differently. Think talk, think concert, and think moments.

These three thoughts will help you to make music yourself, while they help coax your butterflies to sleep.


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One final note. After he read the study that shows that more people are afraid of public speaking than are afraid of death, Jerry Seinfeld observed:

"So more people would rather be lying in the coffin," he said, "than be giving the eulogy?"

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About the Author

Harry Beckwith

Harry Beckwith, J.D., is the author of five books including Selling the Invisible and What Clients Love.

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