It’s hard to talk in front of an audience. Your palms sweat, the lights can be too bright, and your brain can abandon you right when you need it the most.
Public speaking is an art form, whether you’re in a boardroom in front of three people or an auditorium in front of 3,000. The language, the tone, the pace, the structure – getting it right is no easy feat, and the best speakers in the world have had years of practice to iron out their mistakes.
If you’ve got to talk in front of people in your working life, the best thing you can do is to keep practicing. The second best thing you can do, is watch and learn from others.
I’ve chosen five (well, actually eight – I had to lump a few together) famous faces to help teach us all a few different aspects about speaking in front of a crowd.
1. Donald Trump: Command the attention of the room
Personally, I find nothing particularly great about Donald Trump. His politics, his ideas, his comments, and yes, his hair – none of it is very appealing. However, when he speaks, I find it hard to tune out.
Listen to him in the clip below. He is enthralling. Don’t pay attention to what he’s saying, but listen to how he is saying it. He delivers his message effortlessly, he commands the attention of the room and he says everything with such conviction. He orders everyone to listen to him when he talks – and that’s the sort of confidence gained via years of public speaking.
The next time you’re addressing a group, remember Trump’s confidence and attempt to exude the same vibe. YOU are on stage. YOU own it. Don’t let anyone tell you to shut up.
2. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Be authentic and sincere
If you don’t know this Nigerian novelist, you should watch the below clip in full. Chances are you were introduced to her after Beyoncé sampled the below TED speech she gave in 2013 in her hit song Flawless, but you didn’t know it. Now you do. You’re welcome.
I have listened to many of Chimamanda’s speeches (she’s in quite high demand these days) mainly because I love her stance on feminism, gender construction and sexuality, but also because she is so easy to listen to. Her voice projects well, but her message projects more. Why? Because she genuinely cares about what she’s talking about. Her whole life has led to the point where she’s in demand globally to talk to others, and the sincerity of her being comes through, whether she’s addressing one person or one hundred.
You don’t need to have a story to be genuine on stage, but you do need to believe in what you’re discussing. Whether you’re talking about big or trivial issues, you will connect with your audience if you are authentic.
Tip: You might have notes prepared, but if something strikes you mid-speech, just say it. It sounds trite, but if it comes from the heart, your audience will pick up on it straight away. Sometimes that’s better than referring to your notes.
3. Steve Jobs: Tell a compelling story
The best way to get your audience’s attention is to engage them in a story. Everyone loves a story.
“Today, I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it – no big deal – just three stories.”
With that first sentence, Jobs sets the scene for everyone in the audience, and they eagerly wait to hear what nuggets of wisdom he’ll come out with. As it happens, his three stories are about why he dropped out of college and “connecting the dots in your future”, love and loss, and – sadly – death.
The stories are littered with anecdotes and honest assessments of his past and present – perfect for an audience of college graduates, really – and they weave together effortlessly. Getting your point across by telling a story is so much more effective than listing your points and just talking at people.
A story builds a narrative, humanises your message, and engages people in something that is ‘real’ – that they can relate to.
4. Lupita Nyong’o (and Roberto Benigni, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr.): Choose your words carefully
When giving a speech – in any capacity – the speaker holds the power to change things. Sometimes big things, like people’s opinions and beliefs. When this is the case, it’s extremely important to be vigilant and careful in how you deliver your message.
Language is a beautiful thing, and a good speech can read like poetry. This speech by Lupita has its downfalls (mostly her sniffing, but I think that’s due to be overcoming with emotion, so I can’t really fault her for that), but in it, she says such a beautiful line that has always stuck with me:
“You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty inflames the heart and enchants the soul.”
Too cheesy? I’m also quite partial to this speech from Italian actor Roberto Benigni when he won an Oscar for his leading role in Life is Beautiful (also my all-time favourite movie – if you haven’t seen it, watch it!)
The poetry in his speech isn’t in the language of his endearingly broken English, but in his body and mannerisms. He speaks with his whole body and his energy seeps out of him (he even makes Goldie Hawn cry). He is so grateful that he is loved by so many, and even though he sometimes struggles to find the words, you can tell he’s thought a lot about how he would accurately express his gratitude if he won.
And I can’t talk about poetry, emotion and the power of language without giving mention to both Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, and Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech – both of which, in two completely different ways, united people, reassured them and inspired them.
5. Matthew McConaughey: Structure is important
Oscar speeches are usually filled with too much emotion and excitement to be coherent – they babble through a list of people’s names and flub over their words. Which is why it was rather fantastic when Matthew McConaughey won for his role in Dallas Buyer’s Club and jumped up on stage to give what I think is one of the best Oscar speeches ever.
He leads in with the expected thank yous, but quickly goes on to tell a short story about his hero, which is both insightful and entertaining. He has planned what he was going to say – you can tell, because he almost doesn’t say a single “umm” – and has structured it in a way that will keep people’s attention, make them feel, and make them laugh.
Ending with the “alright, alright, alright” was a genius touch (anyone who has seen Dazed and Confused will get it) leaving his speech on the perfect note.
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