Start with a bang. Literally. Or maybe with a clap of thunder. The sharp report of a baseball rocketing over an outfield wall could work, too.
“You need to draw the audience in,” says Jim Samuel, 20-year veteran of Toastmasters, the non-profit devoted to developing speaking and leadership skills. The beginning of any talk is important, as is its body and conclusion, along with the vocal tones and gestures with which it is delivered, he says. This is true whether the speaker is addressing a gathering of hundreds, a few colleagues, or a job interviewer.
Samuel leads a free three-part “Better Speaker Series,” a Mercer Free School event, on three consecutive Tuesdays, beginning on October 16 at 7 p.m. at the Ewing Library. Call 609-403-2383.
The Mercer Free school was launched in March 2010 as a voluntary association by users of the Ewing branch of the Mercer County Library System. It was initially called Ewing Free School, but the name was changed a few weeks later the name was changed to Mercer Free School to be identified with a wider geographic area.
“It is a ‘free’ school in the sense that no monetary exchange is involved and it is not controlled by obligation or the will of another, according to the school’s website.
Samuel, a Jamesburg resident whose day job for the past 10 years has been investing in real estate, helping others to invest, and giving talks on investing, attended high school on Long Island, where his father, Jerry, was an ophthalmologist, one of the first to use lasers, and his mother, Frieda, was a stay-at-home mom who became an accomplished artist despite “not picking up a paintbrush until she was in her 50s.”
Samuel earned a B.S. in math at Syracuse University (Class of 1971), an MBA in finance from the University of Connecticut, and an M.S. in computer science from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Admittedly a left-brain guy, he spent the better part of three decades as an independent contractor, working on computers — “testing, doing analysis, managing projects, fixing whatever needed fixing.”
While this background doesn’t seem to have much to do with speaking, Samuel points out that he was constantly meeting people and interviewing for new assignments. It takes verbal skill to sell yourself in these situations, even when demand for computer professionals is high.
On one of those assignments, at Warner Lambert, he met a Toastmaster who convinced him to give the organization a try. He saw the appeal right away. “As the oldest of four boys, I didn’t get much attention,” he jokes, adding that the chance to hold the attention of an entire room for five minutes was irresistible.
In a Toastmaster meeting, several members stand up and give talks while others evaluate them in a friendly, no-pressure setting. During a typical meeting there are also opportunities for members to give impromptu talks. The practice and feedback lead to more skill and assurance in any situation requiring polished verbal communication skills.
And while the need to speak can arise every day — at work, at networking events, with new acquaintances — the kind of speaking that causes many to ice over with terror is the talk to a roomful of people. Here are some hints on taming the fear and delighting audiences:
Train your butterflies. “There will always be butterflies,” says Samuel, “but with practice, you can teach them to fly in formation.” He works with his butterflies by visualizing his talk in advance — not only practicing what he will say, but also picturing his gestures.
Another important tactic is to make eye contact with as many members of the audience as possible, holding each for about three seconds. Making these connections, one-by-one, can make it feel like the talk is just between the two of you.
Moving around is helpful, too. Samuels suggests ditching the lectern if possible, moving closer to the audience, and walking to the right and left during the speech. This movement also serves to “give some sense of whether you’re getting through.”
Questioned on the efficacy of a pre-talk, nerve-steadying drink, Samuels replies right away, but gently enough, that he is a teetotaler who doesn’t think alcohol or drugs have any place in speech preparation. “Besides,” he says, “you want to be sharp.”
Mistakes Happen. Among other reasons for keeping your wits about you, says Samuel, is the fact that, inevitably, there will be mistakes. You will lose your train of thought or stumble over a word. It happens, he says, recounting his worse gaffe, which involved shooting a paper airplane right into the forehead of a speech judge. (He recovered with a joke, the judge laughed with him, and the speech was a success.)
A big reason not to worry about an upcoming speech, mistakes and all, he says, is that “the audience is with you. They want you to do well.”
Toss a grenade. “You need to draw your audience in, to make them pay attention,” says Samuels. “I like to start with a question or an unusual sound, something to focus people.” The opening gambit could also create a feeling of crisis, asking the audience to imagine themselves in a very different reality.
“We had a speaker whose son has a disability,” Samuels gives as an example. “He started a talk by asking ‘What if you couldn’t hear?’ It was a pretty effective opening.”
Another of Samuels’ fellow Toastmasters, a top speaker, is an ovarian cancer survivor who asks her audiences to imagine how they would function on medication or while awaiting surgery.
Let the question hang in the air. Whether the opening is the crack of a bat or a sobering question, Samuel says he likes to toss it out, and then leave it hanging in the audience’s mind. He goes on to the body of his talk, which may seem to be going in a very different direction. Then he circles back to the opener at the very end.
Make it personal. The best speech that Samuels has ever heard? “Jim Valvano’s speech when he received his lifetime achievement award,” he says without hesitation.
The legendary college basketball coach had been diagnosed with cancer and had two months left to live. At one point in his acceptance speech, the teleprompter said he had 30 seconds left. Seeing it, he said “they got that screen up there flashing 30 seconds, like I care about that screen. I got tumors all over my body and I’m worried about some guy in the back going 30 seconds.”
Nothing is more gripping than a personal story of life and death, but everyone has stories. Sharing them, going to the first person, often gives any talk an immediacy that pulls listeners in.
Don’t go it alone. “Fifty-five percent of what an audience will take away is visual,” says Samuels. This is a big reason why moving around and making appropriate gestures is important. It’s a good idea to get feedback on gestures, he adds. Toastmasters is an excellent place to learn whether your arms appear to be superglued to your sides or your hands look like they are ready to take flight. But friends can also give valuable feedback.
Another visual element that can enhance a speech is a prop. According to Toastmasters, a prop is different from a visual aid. “Props are thrown, dropped, picked up, put down, talked to, fondled, swung, flung, and more. This active quality adds spice to your speeches.” Examples of potentially effective props are the daily portion of food for a refugee, the uniform worn by George Washington’s troops at Valley Forge, or even the paper airplanes that Samuel sometimes uses.
Be a copycat. This strategy is for one-on-one talks, and Samuel says it is important in job interviews. Under the theory that people are attracted to people who are like themselves, he says that it is important to mirror the body language of the person interviewing you. Lean forward if he does. Cross your arms if his arms are crossed. Copy his voice, too. If his tone is slow and measured, match it.
Stop talking. In a one-on-one speech, whether it be a job interview, a sales call, or a networking chat, be sure to listen more than you speak. Samuel, a veteran of dozens of job interviews, says that he knows he has done well when his interviewer has done most of the talking.
Ask at least one question. Samuel recalls one job interview during which time was short. Not only that, but he knew that the interviewer was aware that he was completely qualified for the assignment.
“He asked if I had any questions,” Samuel recounts. He didn’t really have any, and he knew the interviewer was in a hurry, but even in that situation, he said, “It would have been rude not to ask a question.”
Always, always have questions ready, he says. Not asking any, in his opinion, shows arrogance.
Rally the troops. The very best way to leave an audience is with a call to action. “Salesmen know this,” says Samuel. No matter how great the presentation speech, it will not be effective if it doesn’t end with the salesperson asking for an order. Likewise, job seekers need to make it clear that they hope to leave with the job.
Great public speakers know that their messages need to win the hearts and minds of their audiences. There is, for example, Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!”
Not every speech will have the emotion and impact that carried the patriot to this conclusion, but every speech can give listeners something to think about. Whether the speaker is hoping that his audience will pledge to give up texting while driving, embrace wildlife preservation, or vow to make it to the polls in November, he needs to throw out a call to arms that leaves them eager to act.
If new public speakers don’t hit the right note from the start, there is no reason to despair. Rather, they can heed Jim Valvano’s call to action when he used his lifetime achievement acceptance speech to launch a foundation to fight cancer. “Don’t give up,” he said. “Don’t ever give up!”