Are Truly Effective Public Speakers Made, or Are They Born?

By Richard Zeoli

We turn on the television and see certain people speaking before major crowds or handling an experienced reporter with finesse and it looks so effortless. But are great speakers made, or are they just born that way? Are they born with a gift that most of us will just never have, or is there something more to it? I have seen major political candidates up close and personal, watched prominent CEOs interviewed on national television, and known of television personalities who experience anxiety before public speaking. I have learned that even the people we think are naturally accomplished public speakers often undergo significant training. While it is true that some individuals are definitely born with a gift, the overwhelming majority of people are effective speakers because they train themselves to be so. Either they have pursued structured public speaking education or coaching or they have had the opportunity to stand on their feet and deliver speeches on many occasion and have developed theses 7 pubic speaking principles over time:

Principle #1 Perception: Stop trying to be a great public speaker: The best way to truly connect with an audience is by first understanding that people want to listen to someone who is interesting, relaxed, and comfortable. In the routine conversations we have every day, we have no problem being ourselves. Yet too often, when we stand up to give a speech, something changes. We focus on the “public” at the expense of the “speaking.”  In order to become an effective public speaker, you must do just the opposite – focus on the speaking and let go of the “public.”  Begin by having a conversation. If you can carry on a relaxed conversation with one or two people, you can give a great speech. Whether your audience consists of two people or two thousand and whether you’re talking about the latest medical breakthrough or what you did today at work, it’s never about turning into someone you’re not – it’s all about talking directly to people, being your authentic self, and making a connection.

Principle #2 Perfection: When you make a mistake, no one cares but you: Even the most accomplished public speaker will make mistakes. Yet it is important to remember that the only one who cares about any given mistake is the one doing the speaking.

People’s attention spans constantly wander. In fact, most people only absorb about 20 percent of a speaker’s message. The other 80 percent is internalized visually. This ratio is true in nearly everything: a football game, a favorite television show, and even a heart-to-heart conversation. The point is that when you make a mistake, the audience rarely even notices. The most important thing a speaker can do after making a mistake is to keep going. Don’t stop and – unless the mistake was truly earth shattering – never apologize to the audience for a minor slip. Unless they are reading the speech during your delivery, the audience won’t know if you left out a word, said the wrong name, or skipped a page.

Whether you are the president of the United States or a public speaking coach like me, you will inevitably make mistakes. It’s part of being human. And this humanity is what makes us great public speakers in the end, because it enables us to connect with our audience. As members of an audience, we don’t want to hear perfection; we want to hear from someone who is real.

Principle #3 Visualization: If you can see it, you can speak it: All great winners in life something thing in common: they practice visualization to achieve their goals. Sales people envision themselves closing the deal; executives picture themselves developing new ventures; athletes close their eyes and imagine themselves making that basket, hitting that homerun, or breaking that record. The same is true in public speaking. The best way to fight anxiety and become a more comfortable speaker is to practice in the one place where no one else can see you, your mind. If you visualize on a consistent basis, your mind will become used to the prospect of speaking in public, and pretty soon you’ll find that the idea no longer elicits those same feelings of anxiety and fear.

Principle #4 Discipline: Practice makes perfect good: Our goal is not to be a perfect public speaker. There is no such thing. Our goal is to be an effective public speaker. And like anything else in life, that takes practice. Often we take communication for granted because we speak to people everyday. But when our prosperity is directly linked to how good we are in front a group, we need to give the task the same attention as if we were professional athletes. Remember, even world champion athletes practice their craft on a consistent basis.

Principle # 5 Description: Make it personak: Regardless of the topic, audiences respond best when speakers personalize their communication. Take every opportunity to put a face on the facts of your presentation. It’s a basic fact of human nature that people like to hear about other people, about the triumphs, tragedies, and everyday humorous anecdotes that make up their lives. Capitalize on this.

Whenever possible, insert a personal-interest element in your public speaking. Not only will it make your listeners warm up to you, but it will also do wonders at putting you at ease. After all, on what subject is your expertise greater than on the subject of you?

Principle # 6 Inspiration: Speak to serve: For a twist that is sure to take much of the fear out of public speaking, I like to recommend that you take the focus off of yourself and shift it to your audience. After all, when you think about it, the objective of most speeches is not to benefit the speaker but to benefit the audience, and in all likelihood, the purpose of your presentation is in some way to help your audience - through teaching, motivation, or entertainment. So in all of your preparation and presentation, constantly think of how you can help your audience members achieve their goals. By doing this, in reality your role as speaker becomes a role of service to the needs of your audience.

Principle # 7 Anticipation: Always leave your audience wanting more: One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in my years in communications is that when it comes to public speaking, less is usually more. Rarely if ever have I left a gathering and heard someone say, “I wish that speaker had spoken longer.” On the other hand, I imagine that you probably can’t count the times that you’ve thought, “I’m glad that speech is over. It seemed to go on forever!”

So surprise your audience. Always make your presentation just a bit shorter than anticipated. If you’ve followed the first six principles you already have their attention and interest, and it’s better to leave your listeners wishing you had spoken for just a few more minutes than squirming in their seats waiting for your speech finally to end.

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