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Speaking Tips From the World's Greatest Communicators

Stashed in: #TED, Presentations, Warren Buffett, Stories, Churchill, MLK, Lincoln, Good advice

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Embrace the Anxiety

Did you know that Warren Buffett used to be terrified of speaking in public? According to this story in Forbes magazine, he picked out his college courses based on whether he’d have to speak in front of the class, avoiding the ones where he knew he’d be forced to face his fear. He even dropped a public speaking course. 

But then he decided he would have to overcome this fear to be in business. And that he did—becoming not only one of the world’s richest people but also a well-respected storyteller.

We can all do the same thing. A fear of public speaking is not just common; it is innate. Our ancestors had to be accepted into social groups in order to survive, instead of standing out and being alone (and then possibly being a predator’s dinner!). We have to acknowledge our fears; don’t try to pretend they’re not there! Instead, harness the jitters and refocus them by thinking of those nerves as positive energy and excitement. If we reframe anxiety as our desire to do our best, it can help us control those feelings.

Tell stories. With emotion.

Tell a Story

Think about the elements and flow of a great story. What drew you in? What kept you reading or listening? Chip and Dan Heath mention this in the book Made to Stick. The same elements go into a great speech! Paint a picture with your words. When it comes to advocacy, this is especially important. Show the faces of your students and what affects them.

Connect With Your Emotions and Show Passion

Don’t be afraid to be human in front of an audience. There is something great about human connection that builds relationships, even from behind a podium. A great example of this is Rita Pierson, who emits her love and passion through every syllable in her speech “Every Kid Needs a Champion.”

Be succinct, use wit, use cadence, use silence, use repetition.

Be Succinct 

Think of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Big message, 265 words. I think we sometimes think more is more, but the mantra “less is more” really stands true. 

Use Wit

Think of the last line of Socrates’s famous speech, given after he was condemned to death: “But it is now time to depart—for me to die, for you to live. But which of us is going to a better state is unknown to everyone but God.” Now, I wasn’t a literature major, but I am a connoisseur of witty banter and comments. I took that comment as the ultimate example of a witty closing comment (pun intended).

Think About Cadence, and Don't Be Afraid of Silence

The perfect example of cadence? Martin Luther King, Jr., in “I Have a Dream.” The intonation, the inflection of his words, the rhythm, and the power of a carefully placed pause. Don’t be afraid of silence—it can be more powerful than any word. I have another trick here: I write notes to myself. “Pause,” written in capital letters, or underlining words to emphasize. I read lines over and over again until the cadence feels right.

Use Repetition as a Golden Thread

Repetition can tie your message together. Think of Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Sweat, and Tears,” where this great orator would weave a phrase through both the beginning and end of a speech. I wouldn’t use this strategy all the time, but it’s a good trick to have in your back pocket.

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