Harnessing the Power to be a Memorable Public Speaker

How many of us remember the great speeches or presentations? I know I have a few favorites. It is not just the content I remember but the power of the presentation and how it was delivered that makes it memorable or not.

Recently, I overheard a man referring to a speech he’d heard a few weeks earlier. “I can’t remember anything of the actual speech – but I can recall the story.” It’s a remark that only reinforces what I have known for years: apart from a personal experience – nothing sticks in our minds more than a story. There is something almost tangible when a series of visuals images arise in our minds at the prompting of an oral storyteller. Imaginary visual images stay with us long after facts and figures and even appeals to our emotions have faded into oblivion.

For example, in the 1980s I presented a particular story to a ladies group. Twenty years later I was on the telephone to this same woman – whom I had long ago forgotten – who was once again seeking a speaker, this time for a Probus Club she belonged to. She didn’t remember my name either. But after a few minutes on the phone, it became clear to this lady, now quite elderly, that she had heard me speak before. “Oh, you’re the man who told us that story about the seals and things on Macquarie Island. I remember that story.” “I remember that story.” And so we do.

In another example which goes back even further in time, in the 1990’s I was asked to present a Christmas Story to a Toastmaster Club. I thought, “Well, I don’t think I know any….wait a minute!” And it came flooding back to me after half a century. “The Fourth King.” It was a great Christmas story, and I’d only heard it once before. It was told to me when I was a little boy in Primary School in London, England around 1946. Fifty years had gone by and I still remembered it! That is the power of story!

For the public speaker who truly wants his or her presentation to be remembered, put in at least one really interesting and reasonably lengthy story; something that can be visualized in the mind of your audience and, chances are, your story too will be remembered long, long afterward. What better recommendation can a speaker get?

What is it that creates our individual styles as speakers? Why do we develop as we do? It seems that some of us are naturally gifted whilst others find it tough to become really competent and effective. It’s more than an innate confidence. Some of those who come into Toastmasters brimming with confidence – and there aren’t many of them – improve only marginally over the years, whilst others, almost painfully inhibited and shy, rise to become speakers well above the average.

Is it formal education that does it? Is it natural intelligence? Is it something indefinable but sensed by the speaker in himself or herself? Or maybe it’s the encouragement or discouragement received in their earlier or first few Toastmaster club encounters. As asked earlier – why do we develop the way we do?

What are the seeming intangibles that make one speaker present in an interesting, riveting way whilst another finds it hard to keep an audience’s attention? Is it the words spoken? Is it the body language and eye contact? Is it a combination of the two? Or are these more noticeable attributes of a speaker portraying a ‘something’ which comes deeper down in one person than that of another? Is it a matter of ‘heart’ rather than mind, soul rather than intellect?

Some speakers have a propensity for presenting the right words in the right order. Some find that alliteration and the combining of ideas into the ‘magic, one, two, three’ falls naturally to them. Others can’t do this without rehearsal and, even then, it comes across as false, not their genuine selves doing the speaking.

Could it be the books, the novels, poetry, essays consumed and filed away into the minds of the speaker over long years of reading? Certainly, we pick up words and phrases and ways of presenting this way. Some speakers have a good speaking vocabulary, others not. I suspect it comes from the volume and type of reading – and possibly writing – done down the years.

Still, others have a veritable dictionary of long-sounding and exact word usage that should ‘hit the spot’ but fails to do so because, to the listener in the audience, it’s almost as if the speaker were deliberately parading their language for our admiration. It comes across as too perfect. Very educated people who have studied in certain areas of the Arts, but have little Life experience, can come across this way.

As a long time speaker who has heard hundreds speak, it becomes clear to me that the best speakers have read widely, do feel passionate about their subject, have a wide background from which they can unselfconsciously extract words and terminology without sounding that what they’re saying is contrived, and who are able to place pictures in the minds of their listeners.

This reminds me of something that Syd Field, the Dion of script writing for movies, in his book, Screen Play – The Foundations of Screen Writing. He was a Hollywood legend and his book is a masterpiece on how to write a good film script. In the introduction of this book, Syd writes, “A screenplay, I soon realized, is a story told in pictures.” Oral storytelling is also like that, except that the pictures are not shown on a screen in a cinema. They’re seen on the screens of the audience’s mind.

Action seen on the ‘silver screen’ is largely a passive occurrence. The audience views the pictures and listens to the dialogue and sometimes, to a lesser extent, the narration of a voice describing what is happening. In oral storytelling, the audience takes a more active part, their minds evoke the pictures they see, albeit clearly or not so clearly, by the words put to them by the storyteller.

There is quite a bit of similarity between a storyteller and a public speaker presenting a speech. In both, the story or speech is the thing; the presenter is simply how the story or message is imparted. The good presenter of either of these genres should, if they’re doing their job right, be hardly noticed. They disappear, so to speak, and the minds of the audience are moved by what is being conveyed. The body language and eye contact of the storyteller or speaker, the pitch, pace, pause, the vocal variety and nuances of meaning are noticed but noticed by a part of the recipient as non-intrusive. If the storyteller or public speaker is doing it right there will be little or no conscious evaluation of how it is being presented. The audience will be lost in the content of what is being portrayed.

Public speaking is both a craft and an art. The craft is the content: the knowledge, the memories on which one can draw: the art is the unconscious presenting of the words in the right sequence, the delivery, including voice variation, pitch, pace, pause, eye contact and body language. The craft is garnered through our life experiences, the art through our continuing practice. So if we are to become the best speakers we can be in this lifetime we need to look at both the art and the craft. It needs to be a lifetime work. It is something we should never ever give up.

So, if you wish to be the best speaker you can be, look these aspects of speaking and keep on keeping on. You never know…you could end up being one of the top speakers in the entire world. Be memorable for the right reasons with the right content and the right delivery.

Get outside and speak! Work out what is required by way of the speeches that are acceptable to outside audiences. Mostly, they like to be entertained. This includes not only subject matter but the length of time. Five to seven minute or even twelve to fourteen-minute speeches are, as a general rule, not long enough for your outside audience. So work on a thirty, forty or even fifty-minute presentation. Then find your audiences – deliberately put in plural because you’ll present that presentation more than once – and get out there and speak!

In likelihood you will succeed and, as it has been said many times, ‘Nothing succeeds like success.’ Before you know it you’ll be speaking to many different types of audiences, putting together new presentations, growing and enjoying a newfound confidence in speaking. So why not do it? Nothing is holding you back. Go for it!

Arthur Thomas (Tom) Ware DTM
He is an international public speaker a Distguinished Toastmaster. The Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) award represents the highest level of educational achievement in Toastmasters. Based in Australia, Tom shares his expertise and knowledge with others in his field including how to be a better public speaker.

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