Most people fear public speaking more than death; severely limiting opportunities to communicate their thoughts and ideas, while stifling their personal growth. Only if forced to give a speech do they practice and then they will procrastinate until the last possible moment. Public speaking is like walking instead of crawling. It is a natural progression but requires practice and, when mastered, it greatly expands one's view of the world. So how does one embark on this courageous journey?
The trick to learning the art of public speaking is much like anything else that requires practice. Find people from whom to learn who are good speakers themselves, a safe and encouraging environment to practice in and then put in the necessary mileage. From the start, it is surprising how quickly one will grow in confidence. It takes just ten speeches to become a competent speaker and, after that, it is all about honing one's speaking style and skills to perfection.
Toastmasters International is a volunteer organization dedicated to personal growth and is a rewarding avenue available for anyone interested in developing public speaking skills. For the past eighty years, they have helped millions overcome their fears of public speaking and, with over 200,000 members across the world a club is always at close hand. Clubs meet weekly, bi-weekly or monthly and, in three months time, anyone can become a competent speaker.
At Toastmaster meetings, members learn to give impromptu speeches, prepared speeches and to evaluate and provide assistance to other people's speeches. All the while, building social skills with people from diverse cultural and professional backgrounds and expanding one's knowledge on a wide array of topics.
In addition, there is an opportunity to learn how to run a volunteer organization, gaining invaluable knowledge on how to motivate others to succeed without the tool of money. Mastering the use of soft-skills enables one to let go of outdated methods, such as pressuring, moralizing, guilt tactics and bribery while experimenting and learning from others helps to build more sustainable and effective leadership skills in a safe environment.
Often overlooked when building speaking and leadership skills, are the tremendous personal advantages one gains from embarking on the journey of conquering the fear of public speaking. When one continuously exchanges thoughts and ideas with others about what is important in life, it helps to clarify one's values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.
One learns to become a keen critical thinker and formulating ideas in a new way, mentally moves one away from a limited problem - solution focus, to questioning the framing of the situation altogether. Raising questions such as: "What gifts do I have to give and what is it I really want out of life?" Incorporating the answer to these questions into one's life through daily practice creates a more conscious life and it becomes much easier to commit to change.
Through assisting people to master the art of public speaking, Toastmaster meetings provide immense encouragement and support from fellow change agents who contribute to the group while they learn to view life as a participant sport.
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Public speaking, by definition, has been with us as long as spoken language.
Professional instruction in public speaking as a persuasive tool is slightly newer, but only slightly. Ancient Egyptians received formal training in speech, and by the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.E. it was the default method of conflict resolution in Athenian Greece.
These days, we mostly think of speech as the purview of politicians. (Though in our internet age many politicians are just as likely to use a bullet-point list and a two-minute press conference to present their agenda.) But the reality is that any “speech” longer than a few sentences qualifies as a persuasive exercise, as long as you’re trying to convince someone other than yourself of some point or perspective.
A sales presentation in a boardroom is public speaking. So is a lengthy explanation at the bar of why Hank Aaron was a better hitter than Barry Bonds. (Though if you’re putting as much preparation into your baseball argument as you are into your sales pitch, you might need to adjust your priorities!) But the same fundamentals underlie both situations — and the better you are at them, the more convincing you’ll be in both cases, whether you’ve done extensive prep work or are improvising on the fly.
The Three Fundamentals
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on the subject of public speaking, but in this article we’re going to break it down to three fundamentals:
If you do your job in those three areas, you’ll probably make a good impression.
All three fundamentals share a common theme, and it’s the most important piece of advice we’re going to give you:
All the fundamentals of public speaking are improved by the groundwork you do ahead of time.
The more effort you put in ahead of a speech, the less work you do during a speech.
Let’s first look at the anatomy of a good presentation, and then dive into each of the three pillars in turn.
Anatomy of a Speech
If you ever had to write “five-paragraph essays” in grade school, congratulations! You already know how to structure a speech.
That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the general framework for the majority of speeches looks something like this:
- Opening, including a statement of the overall thesis.
- First piece of supporting evidence and your analysis of it.
- Second piece of supporting evidence and your analysis of it.
- Third piece of supporting evidence and your analysis of it.
- Conclusion, summarizing your analysis and re-stating your thesis.
Or in the famous words of Dale Carnegie: “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.”
If you watch long speeches, you’ll see that the speakers mostly follow this “five paragraph” format. Written out, something like the State of the Union address might be dozens of pages long, but still has an opening and a conclusion, with three general sections in between: a domestic policy outline, a foreign policy outline, and a specific agenda of the president’s own priorities.
Three pieces of evidence is not mandatory. Nor does every “piece” require its own separate analysis. You might open a section of your speech with a quote, tell an anecdote, and cite a scientific study, all demonstrating the same basic fact or theory.
Do make sure to keep every supporting fact separate. For example, say you’re arguing for a food service requirement that diners put real cream on the table rather than non-dairy substitutes. If you’re going to present evidence that the substitutes are unhealthy, that restaurants with real cream receive higher tips, and that a stronger dairy industry is good for the state’s economy, each of those should be clearly separate points, rather than throwing in arguments on each piece of evidence throughout the whole speech.
As you get more advanced as a speaker it certainly becomes possible to deviate from this basic framework. And there are some cases in which it doesn’t work at all (long first-person narratives told for entertainment rather than persuasion, for example).
But for beginners, and for most persuasive situations, be thinking in terms of “opening, supporting point one, supporting point two, supporting point three, conclusion.”
The focus of a speech is, at its most basic, what the speech is about.
It’s a little more complicated than that, but not much more. If you know your subject matter, you’re a long way toward a good speech.
The trick lies in really knowing your subject matter — not just the topic in general, but what you want to say about it specifically.
It’s the case you want to build, and if you know that case inside out, you’ll give a good speech. If you have a topic you’re speaking on but you haven’t really thought through your specific arguments, you’re in for a rocky ride.
From Topic to Thesis
Unless you’re participating in a public speaking club or something similar, you’re not likely to be asked to give a speech on “any topic.”
Most public speaking situations are predictable. You have a topic and a goal.
The key to a good speech is knowing how to go from a topic to a thesis:
- The topic is a general category of interest. “Great baseball sluggers” is a topic; so is “the new model of leak-proof ballpoint pen.” It’s a subject rather than an opinion on said subject.
- The thesis is the specific argument you’re making. It’s a summary of what you want the listener to walk away believing. “Hank Aaron was a better slugger than Barry Bonds” is a thesis. So is “It’s worth the price to upgrade your ballpoint pens.” A good thesis can usually be summarized in a single sentence or short paragraph, which may or may not appear in the text of the speech itself.
The goal of your speech is to go from a broad topic to a specific thesis. A long, complicated speech might present several theses; most shorter speeches only focus on a single overall argument.
Your key question should always be: “If my speech works, what do people believe after it’s done?”
You need to have an answer to that question before you put pen to paper. It’s the litmus test for your entire composition: words that help make your argument can stay; words that don’t add to the case get cut.
Knowing your thesis ahead of time keeps you from meandering around and speaking about the topic in general. Information about the overall subject might be interesting, but if it’s not advancing your thesis it’s getting in the way.
The more specific your thesis, the better you’ll be at using the broader topic to make your case compellingly. Never confuse the topic for the thesis itself.
Assembling Your Evidence
“Evidence” has a courtroom sound to it, but in rhetoric (more on that later) it simply means anything that supports your thesis.
Evidence is not always factual. A quotation from a famous and inspiring individual doesn’t actually “prove” anything, in a logical sense, other than that one person felt a particular way at a specific time. But it can be a compelling appeal that helps transfer your audience’s affection for a famous person to your specific cause or goal.
In general, most evidence breaks down into one of three categories:
- Factual evidence includes statistics, scientifically proven conclusions, statements of historical record, and anything else verifiable as hard fact. It’s powerful because it can’t be directly contradicted, which makes the argument about interpretation instead. However, too much factual evidence starts to sound dry, and if you have many separate data points it becomes harder to make a single argument that accounts for all of them (and leaves no room for other interpretations).
- Anecdotal evidence is a story or stories that support your claim. It doesn’t have the authority of a statistically sound study or proven science, but it can make a more personal appeal. Saying “Over 15,000 children were injured by guns in 2010” is factual evidence, while saying “When I was a child I lost two fingers in a gun accident” is anecdotal. Anecdotal evidence is not as reliable as factual, but can make a more powerful personal appeal to an audience. It’s much easier to relate to than numbers and statistics.
- Expert opinions are neither factual nor anecdotal. Instead, you bring in the words of someone else, with the implication that they have studied the topic in greater depth. Quoting Thomas Jefferson in an argument for a particular bill being passed is a way of suggesting both that Jefferson would have supported the bill and that he was a qualified expert because of his role in early American government. Evidence of this nature doesn’t always stand up to any deep factual analysis, but it helps present your opinion as something shared by qualified experts, rather than merely a product of your personal beliefs.
If possible, you want a mixture of all three types of evidence in your speech.
If you don’t have any factual evidence, you may have a tough row to hoe — even when something is as subjective as who was the “best” slugger, you should still be able to talk intelligently about batting averages and season lengths, or you’re going to come across as someone who hasn’t done their homework.
On the other hand, if all you have is numbers, people are going to perceive you as a dry know-it-all. The human touch of a personal anecdote or an appeal to an expert/famous authority helps make your data — and your argument — accessible.
The idea of studying words themselves, and the methods of making them more persuasive, is an ancient one. Examples of instructions in persuasive speech date back to the 22nd century B.C.E., and have been found everywhere from Egypt to Mesopotamia to China.
So what is rhetoric? It’s the methods by which you form and word your speech to become more persuasive.