You know what to say when you are talking to your friends. You know exactly how to tell a story to get your mom to laugh. You have no problem speaking up when you are sparring with your significant other.
Public speaking is terrifying to many people. Eighty percent of adults suffer from glossophobia, or a pronounced fear of speaking. Some are so frightened that they literally will make themselves sick at the thought of addressing an audience.
It’s understandable. Instruction in verbal persuasion has long been neglected in the American educational system. We teach oral advocacy at the University of Virginia School of Law, and we find that the large majority of our gifted, well-credentialed law students have no prior training or experience in oral presentation skills. Our own experience from our law school days is similar — Harvard and Columbia offered very little instruction in the subject. It’s hard to speak well if you don’t know how to go about it.
And our culture offers few examples of people who can articulate their ideas well to serve as role models. In both formal and informal interactions, most people fail to speak at a level equal to their talents. You can see it everywhere, from the hallways of school to the corridors of Congress—verbal exchange is often awkward, stiff, notes-bound, angry, chock-full of “ahs,” “ums,” “likes,” or “you knows.” Our growing reliance on computers, Twitter, Facebook, and other electronic media compound the problem, because if we communicate primarily through typing and texting, we speak less to one another face-to-face. We grow even more out of practice at it.
You need to learn how to do it, though. If you can articulate an idea aloud, you can lead a student organization, stand out in class, get a job, even move an entire nation to action. Learning how to speak effectively can be one of the most empowering exercises that you will ever undertake.
Here’s the good news: virtually anyone can become an effective, even superb, speaker. We see it again and again, every semester. Simply through mastering some basic rules about effective verbal persuasion, and also by speaking aloud again and again, our students achieve amazing things. Once you get started, progress by leaps and bounds comes very quickly. And once you know what you are doing, you never regress — the new skill is yours for life.
How to make this happen? First, you will have to commit yourself to some repetitive, hard work. Take the time to write your ideas down, and then edit them, shorten them, craft them — not once, but over and over. Devote an equal amount of time to practicing the speech, aloud, several times — and then pick up your pen again. Rewrite the sections that are hard to say, or that you can’t remember, or that should be organized better or eliminated altogether. Practice some more, so that you know the bones of your speech perfectly. It can also be helpful to enlist the help of a mentor who can watch a practice session and offer feedback about what works well and what needs revision.
Second, pay attention to the most important, time-honored principles of effective speech. They include:
* Wean yourself from notes and the safely of a podium. Don’t bury your face in a script — look at your audience and genuinely connect with them. If you must have notes nearby when you speak, try using a few words jotted on the page to remind you of your main points, rather than the entire text of the script, so that you will not be tempted simply to hide behind the podium and read your remarks. A good speech feels conversational, not recited. You need to know the speech well enough that you can let the notes go.
* Aspire to a natural delivery. That means you will need to move your hands on occasion, because no one stands perfectly still in real life. You might try videotaping your performance to watch your body language for any habits that are distracting, such as repetitive hand gestures or swaying. If those are your habits, practice keeping your feet rooted to the earth and using a variety of hand motions, including some moments of stillness. Larger, definite hand gestures show more confidence than small, timid ones.
* Seek a clear, simple structure for your speech. Three points are better than 20. Themes and refrains make a speech more memorable and easier to deliver.
* Start and end strong. That means that you should spend extra time crafting your first and last paragraphs, and you should memorize them so that you can deliver them with power. Audiences will listen — and remember.
* Cadence, pausing, adequate volume and eye contact are essential for making a speech compelling.
* Learn to use visual aids well. They can help you remember what you want to say, they can make complex ideas comprehensible, and they can add drama to a dry talk.
* Heed the teachings of Aristotle. He said that a persuasive advocate exhibits ethos (trustworthiness), pathos (the ability to engage the emotions without unfairly manipulating the audience), and logos (offering clear, logical explanations).
* Always keep your audience in mind. Consider why your audience is listening to you, what they want to know, and what their points of view might be, so that you can connect with them and speak their language. Think also about generational issues — an off-color joke might not play to an audience of older listeners, for example.
* Use plain English rather than trying to impress your listeners with big words. Your goal is to explain, not to show off.
* Warm up your voice and roll your head and shoulders a few times to relax before you start talking. If you get nervous as you speak, take a deep breath and focus on the main point that you want to make. Then say it.
Writing, practicing, practicing some more, critiquing yourself, and then doing it all over again — that’s the key. If you can find a class at your school that will require this of you — a public speaking class or a drama class — take it. If there isn’t such a class, join a debate club or try out for a play.
You can also read our book, “Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion,” for more ideas. It contains a suggested curriculum that you can use to teach this to yourself. It is well worth the effort to learn to articulate your ideas well.