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Speech Basics

From an Expert (1) Introduction

There was a young man who, while growing up, performed in school plays. He loved the feeling of being out on the stage so much that he was often accused of “stealing the show.” When he was out there on that stage, in front of a huge crowd, he knew that this was why he was put on this earth. He felt it every time he walked on the stage and every time he finished the performance and received a standing ovation. Talk about understanding your destiny! But prior to his performance, he would get so physically ill that he would throw up, get migraine headaches, and snap at people. In fact, if you crossed him before he made his entrance to the stage he would probably bite your head off. But before you start accusing this guy of being a total jerk, I should confess that I am the guy. As good as I was once I got out on the stage, and as much as I enjoyed being out there, prior to walking out on stage, I wanted to die. The anxiety was overwhelming. I used to keep rosary beads in my pocket and do nothing but pray to God begging him to let me be okay. I’m not joking. My anxiety was that bad. I had what psychologists like to call “stage fright.” But I pressed on, refusing to give up.

Early in my career as a speaker, I was asked to give a motivational speech at a leadership-training program in New Jersey. I would be speaking to several hundred young leaders about making a difference in the world. My speech was rewarded with tremendous applause, and soon I was approached by the management and asked if I would develop a public speaking course for the program’s participants. In writing the course, I focused on technique, which is emphasized by many public speaking books and courses: how to use good eye contact, how to project, how to use proper body language. The course focused on how to write a basic speech, how to use note cards, and how to tell a joke. But something was missing. The participants were certainly benefiting from the class— after all, they were learning valuable skills—but I could see in their eyes that there was something deeper about human communication that I was missing. Something that I had yet to find in a book or a course. Something only life and experience would reveal to me in time.

But then was not the time.

Years passed, and I found myself on national television facing the unsympathetic glare of the camera as millions sat on the other side watching me. I was terrified, and yet in the moment of that great anxiety, I learned a powerful lesson that would soon become the basis of this entire training program. Only I didn’t realize the lesson yet. I would first have to make a lot more mistakes along the way.
I wanted to understand how people connected with one another. I wanted to understand how truly great communicators are able to hold an audience in the palm of their hand and convey messages that would change the world. I began to see public speaking as one of the most powerful skills human beings could possess. It gave them the ability to help others and to help themselves. I wanted to understand it. I wanted to learn. I wanted to be able to put my finger on why certain speakers were great and why others simply weren’t. I had read books on communication, and they were very helpful in explaining the science of communication, and many even offered useful techniques on how to be a good speaker, how to prepare a winning presentation, and how to make the audience laugh.
But something was still missing. I knew how to give a good speech most of the time. I knew how to create a presentation that would get my message across in a persuasive and informative way. But I still didn’t understand why I could really connect with an audience on some days but not others. The human connection with an audience is one of the most magical feelings you can ever experience, and I wanted to achieve it every time I spoke, not just once in a while.


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