CHAMPION STRATEGIES – PUBLIC SPEAKING WORKSHOP – OCTOBER 17, 2021
Key points – How to speak in public
- Speech anxiety is a common and frustrating experience. You might blame yourself for lacking the right ability or disposition, but the issue has little to do with your emotional makeup, and everything to do with basic speech training.
- The ancient Greeks recognized public speaking as an important, eminently teachable art form. Training in rhetoric was a fundamental aspect of education for centuries.
- Borrowing from the Greek approach, begin preparing for any speech by considering your audience. Who are you talking to? What do they know about you and your topic?
- Define your general goals. Is your speech intended to inform, to entertain, to persuade, or to inspire? Next, define your specific purpose in a single sentence: As a result of my talk, I want them to know X and do Y.
- Think about what’s in your talk for your audience. In terms of subject matter and delivery style, how can you show them that you’re not just prattling away, you’re speaking their language and focusing on their wellbeing?
- Don’t expect eloquence to flow without rehearsal. Practice your speech and aim to memorize your introduction and conclusion.
I’ve focused on ways that ancient Greek techniques can improve our ability to speak in public. What I find more interesting – revelatory, even – is what these skills can do for us emotionally, spiritually, socially and politically.
For much of my life, the topic of speech training was an abject turn-off. The modern approach to the subject, with its focus on smiling and faked, peppy self-confidence, seemed insincere. The idea of deliberately altering my ‘natural’ way of speaking seemed inauthentic.
I discovered the Greeks – and fell in love with the subject of speech training and language theory – in 2009, purely by accident during an interview (for an oral history about love) with my reclusive step-cousin from rural Iowa. Long the family oddball, he’d lived in his parents’ basement since high school, speaking to almost no one. At the age of 59, he broke out of his isolation and got married. How? He joined Toastmasters, the world’s largest organisation devoted to teaching the art of public speaking.
As my step-cousin explained it, speech training had served as a kind of non-psychological therapy. By learning to think less about himself and more about his listeners, he’d transformed his entire life – well beyond the relatively few moments he spent giving speeches. As I’d later learn, this technique – of paying attention to how others listen as a way of reaching our own full potential – was central to the ancients’ aspirations for speech training.
In 4th century BCE Greece, prior to the invention of Athenian democracy, public speaking was virtually forbidden. However, with the advent of elections, trials and other public forms of debate, speaking to groups of people became a common and, in some cases, required activity. The ability to express one’s opinions to one’s peers became an essential component of social and political life, a means for keeping public discourse from being hijacked by loudmouths, liars and charlatans, but also the surest route to wealth and power.
As the subject became universally taught, the Greeks and, later, the Romans found that language skills are like the operating system that connects us to others. When we’re unable to advocate for our point of view, it’s far too easy to become sidelined, alienated and angry, to whine that ‘people are selfish’ (for not understanding us) and that ‘public discourse sucks’. A citizenry trained to speak up is a citizenry far less likely to suffer from bad politics or mass alienation.