Radio Talk: The Art of Public Speaking

Talk for Yuvavani,
All India Radio, Thiruvananthapuram.
First Broadcast on 20 August 2005.

A wise speaker once remarked: “The human brain is a wonderful organ. It starts to function as soon as you are born and never stops until you get up to deliver a public speech.” There is great wisdom in that observation.

Indeed speaking in public is a terrifying prospect for many. It is terrifying primarily because it involves thinking on one’s feet. With a little bit of training and practice it can be done. But the very thought of doing so can strike terror into many hearts. These seeds of negative thoughts soon sprout and take firm root in the mind. This is popularly referred to as stage fright.

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The word stage reminds us of the presence of an audience. It is the audience factor that determines the intensity of fear one experiences. As one goes on the stage, he knows that the spotlight is focused on him. He knows that all are watching him eagerly awaiting a great performance. The same anxiety an athlete experiences while on the track in a large Olympic stadium with ten thousands in attendance is also experienced by the speaker.

Wobbly knees, a giddy head, a racing heart, sweating palms, and butterflies in random flight in the stomach are all part of this experience. These are not symptoms of some fatal disease but the beginning of birth pains for a speaker. He is about to deliver a baby. And labor pains hit him. Some succumb to it and deliver premature or stillborn speeches. They fail to inspire audiences.

But some speakers have the ability to make the butterflies in their stomach fly in formation. They harness this vital energy and make the turbines of their mind rotate to deliver speeches with punch and gusto. They carry audiences on the wings of their imagination to flights of fancy; sometimes informing them; at other times reasoning with them in order to persuade and move their minds. At other times they entertain with lively jokes and stories.

But it is only when the speaker has connected with the audience that the speech becomes complete.

Originally the speech gets birthed as a few unrelated ideas in the mind of the speaker. Slowly they begin to take shape into some kind of order. But presenting those ideas in that raw state would only amount to having a table full of different vegetables. The dish is not yet ready.

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For that to happen a real mixing of right ingredients and spices are required. Some kind of cooking has to happen in the mind. And this process takes time to work out properly. And when the aroma hits, you can know that it is almost ready. It is then that the speaker first gets the feel that the speech is going to work out all right. He feels confident that the speech is taking form and beauty and taste.

Talking about taste, these days, dishes are not served as it is. Instead chefs make an art out of it. And art makes the ordinary, look and feel exotic.

In the same fashion, this is where style or the choice of words that a speaker uses become crucial. It is the dress of his thoughts. Different fashions are there to chose from. He can opt for a traditional attire which appears very formal. These kind of speeches are suited for ceremonies that require dignity and decorum. At other times the speaker can go for very colorful and trendy dresses for his thoughts. These kind of speeches are for less formal occasions.

The speaker can tell stories and anecdotes, spice his speech with quotes and illustrations and even use visual aids to communicate. At other times the dress of a joker with a long cap, a red ball nose, a painted face and loose-fitting pyjamas can suit the dress for his thoughts. These kind of speeches are meant to entertain audiences. And they are best suited for after-dinner occasions, when the stomach is full and eyelids close and open in rapid succession. Such are the varieties of speeches and their fashions.

But as mentioned earlier, it is only when the speaker has connected with the audience that the speech becomes complete.

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This can happen when the speaker exhibits charisma. Charisma does not mean good looks; though good looks can help to some extent. Charisma is all about having a pleasant look; a genuine and gentle smile, and an exhibition of great posture and poise in front of audiences. The speaker has to communicate an air of confidence and enthusiasm to create charisma. Only then will he be able to connect with audiences.

The audience on the other hand has to feel confidence about the speaker. They have to warm up to him. Otherwise the speaker’s job becomes doubly difficult. In other words the audience can inspire or depress a speaker. That is why Mark Twain said: “Blessed is the man who has an expecting audience.” That is why the audience factor has contributed positively to the making of some great speeches which have been embalmed and treasured in the hearts and minds of men ever since.

In fact, a good speaker understands his audience perfectly. He watches them closely and times his best speaking moments to suit their changing attitudes. At such times he is like an eagle who was hovering above, now descending for the kill in one swift dive. He plays on their emotions, their longings, their needs, their aspirations, their fears and their sense of self-esteem. His speech thus becomes a grand mosaic of designs and patterns, interlacing and interweaving in and out through the inner urges and driving forces of the human psyche and behavior.

The best example of this comes from that immortal address penned by Shakespeare which begins: “Friends, Romans, countrymen; lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Each time Mark Antony repeated the phrase, “And Brutus is an honorable man,” it was like a huge hammer pounding the nails onto Brutus’ coffin. Thus Mark Antony showed to the world his great understanding of audience psychology. Great speakers are armed with such knowledge and they connect with audiences instantaneously.

Even though it is true that many speakers connect with audiences; an uninterrupted power supply throughout the speech is maintained only by a few. In other words, a speaker is continuously confronted with the challenge of keeping the attention of the audience riveted on his speech. This is because modern man is impatient. He flies like a busy-bee all the while. He is caught by the moment’s fancy like a child attracted by new toys. Any slight disturbance in the hall or outside can woo the audience away from the speech. We have to think of the speaker’s challenge in this broader context.

Therefore the best ways to keep audiences glued to your speech are by keeping speeches short and simple. A speaker has to respect the time of his audience. About time sense, Jenkin Lloyd Jones said: “A man who gives a bad thirty minute speech to two hundred people wastes only half-hour of his time. But he wastes one hundred hours of his audience’s time. That surely is a hanging offence.” So, by simply valuing the time of the audience a speaker can transform the kiss of death into a new lease of life.

And about simplicity, Emerson said: “Nothing is more simple than greatness indeed, to be simple is to be great.” In that sense, a great speaker makes it look all so easy like a batsman dancing down the cricket pitch and lofting the ball of a spinner over the long off boundary for a six.

And when the audience feels this sense of ease with which the task is done, the speaker has really connected with the audience. Such a performance shows his mastery of the art in which the audience shares the very heartbeat and rhythm of the speaker and his speech.

In public speaking, connections are made on another level too. This level goes far beyond flesh and blood. It probes the very depths of the spirit of man. The spoken word is like an arrow that cleaves the air and finds a firm lodging in the human heart. The skill of the best cardiac surgeon may dislodge it from there but the wound and the scar shall remain.

The spoken word is also like a song that finds a corresponding melody in another heart. It soothes and heals. The memory of that spoken word shall glow like an ember even when all the other fires in the world would die in ashes. Such is the power of the spoken word.

Of such connections, the Book of Proverbs has something significant to say: “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” It may seem amazing that such a small organ of the human body is invested with the power of life and death. Yet the more one thinks of it, the more fascinating the study of it becomes.

While the words of a powerful dictator like Hitler had the sting of death in it, the words of Winston Churchill and Rev. Martin Luther King had the gift of life in them. One of them had nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. The other man said: I have a dream today. Both Churchill and King represent that host of speakers who pour life and courage, strength and inspiration, honor and dignity to the human cause of justice and freedom, righteousness and lasting peace in a war-torn world.

A speaker who falls into this category leaves footprints on the sands of time. He can be sure that others would follow in his steps. His words would connect to unborn tomorrows and thus ensure that a blazing torch of hope is passed on to multitudes of children and youth of the next generations. His words would echo from every mountain and valley that character and worthy conduct would give life to voices that would shake the foundations of evil empires; thus creating a new and better world.

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