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Book review: Make that speech brief, and give it passion

Public speaking is one of those skills that can make or break a career — so keep it simple

The Elements of Great Public Speaking. How to be Calm, Confident and Compelling

By J. Lyman MacInnis

Ten Speed Press, $14.95

I wrote the worst speech I ever heard.

I penned the remarks for the incoming president of a provincial association. The president was giving his inaugural address to 500 well-fed and watered members at the association’s annual general meeting.

The speech itself wasn’t too badly written. It was about what you’d expect from a freshly minted university grad eager to impress with his first stab at speech writing.

The disaster came in the delivery. The president butchered the first and last sentences and everything in between. He skipped over verbs. Forgot nouns. Combined sentences in creative ways. Ignored entire paragraphs. Made up new words. And may well have spoken in tongues once all hope of salvaging the speech was lost.

It wasn’t long before the banquet hall was buzzing and everyone was staring intently at their desserts. Some folks wondered if their fearless leader was potted and sotted. Others were genuinely concerned about a stroke or brain aneurysm. In hindsight, it’s possible the president was dyslexic or functionally illiterate. Or maybe he just had a crippling case of stage fright. Whatever the reason, five minutes of floundering was not the first impression the president wanted to make. Which was too bad because he was actually a stand-up guy who was engaging and reasonably coherent one-on-one.

Public speaking is one of those skills that can help, hurt or haunt your career. "Communicate well and do well," says Toronto Star columnist and public speaker J. Lyman MacInnis. "Communicate best and flourish."

Anyone who’s watched American Idol knows Paula, Randy and Simon go on and on and on about the importance of song selection. The same holds true with effective public speaking. It’s all about picking the right topic. About a century ago, Dale Carnegie set out three criteria for successful speaking engagements. Have significant knowledge about the topic. Sincerely care. And have a strong desire to share that knowledge and passion with your audience.

"Think back to every really effective speech you’ve ever heard and you’ll discover that all the speakers knew their topics inside out, they all felt strongly about what they were talking about, and they all clearly wanted to get their messages across," says MacInnis.

"If you meet all three of the formula’s criteria, success is guaranteed."

Still overcome with fear and trepidation?

Your two greatest weapons are preparation and practice. Focus on what you want to say and how you’re going to say it. Rehearse your speech as often as you can. Say it while driving to work. Walking at night. While having a shower. And pay extra attention to your opening. If you’re flawless in the first minute or two of your speech, you’ll quickly calm down and hit your stride.

"Most people’s concerns about giving a speech stem from their own expectations, not those of the audience," says MacInnis. "The audience’s expectations are usually a lot lower than your own. Learning anything well takes time and effort. No one would expect to play like Oscar Peterson the first time they sit down at a piano, yet many people think they should be able to speak like Winston Churchill the first time they stand up in front of an audience."

And one final piece of advice. Be brief.

The Gettysburg Address is all of 268 words. The author once heard a speech by actor John Wayne that lasted less than two minutes. "The impact of the Gettysburg Address is still being felt today, and I doubt that any of the 2,000 people who heard John Wayne that day have forgotten his message." Always leave your audience wanting more.

Jay Robb is a Hamilton freelance writer who’s learned to enjoy public speaking.

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