Stronger Speaking: Simple Seasoned Steps
to Fundamental Confidence
Pure exhilaration—More than a decade of it now as I’ve been teaching effective public and professional speaking to college students and clients. Every time I start afresh, it’s back to square one with a new group or person whose minor and sometimes-major habits of speech are disempowering them—usually and first of all, with those too-universal killers of attention and meaning: like, um, ya know, and up-talk (or, the constant question-tone?).
Call and leave yourself a 2-minute message about your day.
At the start of it, state your full name.
Then, next day, call back and listen to it.
Did you state your name in a “question?”-tone of voice?
Reverse that to a downward-ending tone, and hear the difference.
If you have 250 words with which to move your life forward,
and 146 of them are blank noise, what are your chances?
If I see transformations in these people all the time (and I do), it’s because of each “generation’s” frank feedback. What worked and what didn’t on the way to these new powers in your speech? So this is a short sharing of the most basic, key changes most people made, and some of the simple techniques that got them there.
For the record, the age of The Dale Carnegie Speak Like An Authoritative White Man Program is bygone. The central point is to clean up and to keep refining how you play your own unique instrument of expression: your voice and language. Together they vibrate who you are and what you intend out into the world.
A recent student with a beautifully musical full name asked whether she should introduce herself, in interviews and first-meetings, without the music. Somewhere in there is the secret of all speaking. For if she wants to trade her music for that killer job, that will describe what she’s signing up for in the chilled-down saying of her name. I told her to keep the music—Like a true charm, it will guide and guard her against any job that kills it.
I observe that every person who makes even basic changes begins to express something powerfully their own and no one else’s. Some of them shake the room like inspired evangelicals, and others speak the meanings of half a novel in the lifting of one hand or just an eyebrow at the right times. What amazes is the endless variety of real expressive power—so I hope this offering helps to liberate yours.
If we don’t get to work together, you’ll find more advanced ways to do that in 21st Century Speaking: Power Toward Every Goal, which is available at my professional website Ancientlights.org.
Performance Anchors are basic elements of excellence that every public speaker must have. Starting right here, you must deal for real with each basic aspect. One point at a time, be 100% sure you have conquered this first Chapter each time you speak. Do that, and right away you stand out from the herd, without seeming to try: the world’s first clues of your first-rate standards in all things.
Basics first. This offering from is a primary check-list to apply every time you get ready to speak. Conquer a few basics, and then your brain and your style are 10 times more free of the petty obstacles and worries that hold back your real powers.
Your New Motto, the Bottom Line of Confidence:
ANYTHING BUT HOMEWORK CAN GO WRONG.
You’re in the audience as a speaker falls right on his face before the first word. But he gets up and delivers a talk that changes the world before your eyes. There’s no doubt of the substance in the style. You take it home because it gives you more real command of the subject. So, what do you remember of the evening? The power of the talk.
It’s the same each time you speak. Above is your new motto and new first assumption as a speaker. Let’s explore why. First:
Nothing changes about the world when you get up to speak.
You feel safe when you’re in the audience. You’re with, and hidden by, a group. Its eyes are fixed on someone else. You sit in the chair of a judge, with (of course) your own perfect calm mixture of wide-awake open mind and intelligent skepticism.
You pity and admire a speaker just for being up there, so exposed, but going for it. Most people in an audience are more or less like this.
They do not disappear or turn vicious when you get up there.
Remember that “you” are still in the audience—all those curious and mostly-supportive people as real as yourself. If you A) know what you’re talking about, and B) work with all your best practice behind you to communicate, nothing that matters can detract from your effectiveness.
From now on, speak with this first fact in your bones.
From hecklers to bomb-scares, Anything can go wrong and do you no harm as a speaker—if you meet the essentials for which you are responsible in a first-rate speaking event.
What are those responsibilities?
HOMEWORK, & PRACTICE ALOUD
Homework and Practice Aloud work together in a circular process that grows more powerful each time you come through it.
Homework is the process by which you discover (and learn how to demonstrate) answers to questions that people can judge for themselves. It’s all to your confidence and power that most people work the opposite way—starting with an opinion built from unexamined assumptions, and shoring it up with a few select authorities.
There are criteria for demonstrating Homework (to come). Here, understand that Homework enables you to demonstrate substance—a reasoned and real contribution to your subject. All the tricks of language go to hide this when it’s lacking. When substance is there, you can’t lose.
Homework answers three questions in clear solid terms:
A) What facts, and varying views of them, do people need to grasp this subject?
B) What must they have learned when they forget 85% of what you’ve said and shown? And,
C) How does each part of the content drive that home?
Practice Aloud brings the physical body to bear on the brain-work above. Half of a powerful speaking experience is a physical event. So you absolutely must include Practice Aloud to make the most of its benefits.
How can you claim them?
You can think all day and write all night. Words will go round and round and convince each other (and finally, you) of their deep sense. Then, when you speak them aloud—especially to someone else—you instantly know what’s good, and what has to be far better.
Ernest Hemingway called the human ear “a one hundred percent foolproof shit detector.” When you sit in an audience, you instinctively know fluff from substance. So, stop letting go of that skill just because it’s now you who is speaking. When you know that a sentence or point isn’t good enough, face the message and take real action.
Your ear is not only your best merciless editor. It’s part of your body, which—as the complement of your scientist’s brain—is the artist in your speaking style, who brings every perfect nuance into the event.
Much more to come on how that works and happens and grows. First, recognize another way that Practice Aloud empowers you.
The human brain in some conceptions has two sides—again, the cool rational scientist and the emotional, intuitive artist. So, at any given time along your day and preparation process, you’re in one mode or the other. (Sleep is a third mode, too: go over a talk just before your day’s rest, and next morning you bring a sharp editor to work.)
Make an ally of this by doing your Homework and Practice Aloud at different times, in different moods, and in different environments. (You can call it Mood Editing.) It seasons your speaking with all the different aspects of yourself. Some sessions improve content, and some improve strategies, rhythm and style.
Each Homework/Practice cycle tells you how to grow more powerful. The main points here:
*Anything but homework can go wrong.
*The audience is as ready for me as I was for other speakers.
*I’ve done my absolute best homework. I have diligently practiced aloud again and again.
*On these grounds, I have earned an expectation that I can trust: Whatever happens, it’s going to be my best.
Basic Performance Anchors: Next Steps
You don’t have to be a perfect speaking being. Half of language is about the pleasures of bonding. We go crazy unless we have places to talk without rules and high-end standards.
The point is to know the difference that most people don’t. There are times for pure play, and times when you speak to advance your life—to land a business loan, to meet the dean, or deliver substance to your peers. Not to mention interpersonal affairs.
From now on—in Practice Aloud, and before you aim to speak with power—raise a hand to your temple, and turn on a Switch there.
When the Switch is on, we speak only our best.
Your Switch puts an end to habits that rob you of power:
Most of all, waste in our words. If you have 250 words to impress the world, but 170 are “Like,” “Um,” and/or “You know,” it’s over. These dead-air sounds have other guises, too—for example, “Well,” “So,” “Then,” and “And” itself.
Dead-air noise is a plea, the crudest of place-holders in a talk. What it speaks is lack of real confidence. Does blank meaningless noise between words and sentences keep people listening? In fact, the opposite is true (more on this).
Difficult, but crucial—The Switch also means no more of the “Question Tone?” Some call this “Up-Talk?”—when the tone or arc of every phrase? and sentence? seems to be posing a question? Worse, it sounds timid? Tentative, and immature?
“They say it’s going to rain today?” “I think you’re on fire?” “You make a brilliant point?”
See Middle Voice below for more on getting rid of Up-Talk. First, here’s how to create a Switch that’s strong and reliable:
Pause More, with a Breath; Work in Shorter Sentences; and, Slow It Down. Start “high” in your voice-range, and end each sentence low. The richer style you want will return (or grow), but without these killers.
Accomplish one “clean” sentence at a time. Start from the higher “bright” end of your range, and you have nowhere to go (short of comedy or hysterics) except down in tone to the finish. It gets easier fast, and the differences make you want more.
Deal with these small problems, and you stand out in every group in both diction and rhythm. You draw the world in without seeming to try.
Start from where you are. A dictaphone or recorder will not lie about where you need work in the basics. Put your Switch on—and leave yourself some long phone messages. Talk about your day or a movie, tell a story or a joke. Then call back a day later—and be honest about how clean or “noisy” your best speaking presently is.
Two very important tips about your Switch:
A) Your Switch goes on just before you start speaking, and stays on until after you sit down again—especially through deceptively-informal Q&A, Discussions or Interviews!
B) If you tell a story that includes dialogue, be sure to use “He/She said”—or better, action verbs (for examples, “yelled,” “whispered,” “announced”). Never use “He/She was like…” or “He/She goes….”
These Anchors work together to root your performances in confidence. The Switch is a commitment to speaking powerfully or not at all. With groups, I interrupt a speaker when their Switch quits, and ask them to pause and start again. I wish you could hear their peers’ applause when they clear a problem. And I know they’d clap the same for you.
Alas, I’m not there to annoy you directly till you change. So these next Anchors of equal import show you more of how to install, maintain and strengthen a Switch of your own.
When early humans hid from predators, they held their breath. We became hard-wired to stop breathing when afraid. So it’s easy to see why people “go blank” just before or during a talk.
If you cut off oxygen to your body and brain, they interrupt whatever you’re doing to demand more. If your mind goes blank before or during a talk (in spite of your best homework and practice), check this first. You likely need deeper, more sustained, rhythmic breathing.
In starting practice (with Switch on), take at least 10 long deep breaths (part of Grounding, next section). You’ll feel your nervous system calm down, flush with a fresh oxygen supply. Then, after each sentence, take another deep breath to fuel the next.
Meet this constant need, and you free up brain-cells to help with what matters. Like a poet, you gain a natural (breath-based) rhythm in the way your sentences unfold. And, you demonstrate (without seeming to try) the confidence to take your time. Plus, a slower pace lets your listeners savor every word and inflection of your talk—the mark of a person sure of the value of their talk.
Life animates us with wild (hard to control) electro-chemical energies. Speaking makes bio-energies surge. Ignore or deny them and they cause (at least) a stiff locked-down posture, that fails anyway to control them. They create nervous “tics” that disconnect the body from a talk’s intended messages (rocking in place, tapping a pen, fishing in pockets, toying with hair, crossing feet). These distract your audience and yourself. There’s a better way.
The point of Grounding is to find your own physical, bodily ways to rise to and integrate life’s crazy energies into your performance.
It’s time to speak. You’ve done the Homework and Practice. Your Switch goes on. Your Breathing is deep and rhythmic. And still you feel over-charged with abundant but uncontrollable nervous energy.
Imagine those forces as a magnificent horse that nothing in the world can tame or hold back. This horse is coming your way, right past you—or, over you if you block its path. What do you do?
Start running in the same direction—and jump on! You don’t stop it, or miss it. You rise to it, match its pace and power, become one with it. From there, it carries you like pure inexhaustible energy toward your goals.
How? You must physically explore, identify and do what works for you: your own best bodily ways to rise to and integrate (rather than resist or hide) this source of power.
With decades of classes and public talks, I still need that Switch and deep Breathing. And, I ground: clap my hands and/or slap them to my sides, or shake fists on the air. When I can, I sing out, or strut a few measures of music that I call kick-ass. Waiting visibly on a stage, I gently wring my hands, or open and close them from tight to loose and stretched. I breathe even more, police my best posture—and see myself still sitting in that audience.
Yet, there’s always more crazy energy left over. To that I give myself in getting up to speak (what choice is there?), and it fills the first minutes with a Let’s Go enthusiasm.
Life’s energies enable and empower you. So, welcome them in. Get Playful. You’ve got it when you “shake it off” like an athlete, and no longer feel divided between a top-form speaker and a nervous animal.
There is only you, “psyched” up into a full-alert state with a calm, poised, ideally-playful center. You’re good, you have earned the right to know it, and you’re ready for the room, whatever the outcome.
What physical acts lift you up and keep you in that state? Athletes smack and smash into each other. In their state, it feels good.
Find your own private experimental space, and:
Imagine—You’re on in less than 5 minutes. You need that high-alert state with a calm core, now. You want to be the center of a storm.
Let your body do what it needs to do—until you and that nervous body are one being. Clap. Jog in place. Trust the level where this feels good, and learn to go there by refining what worked.
Each time you hit this state, claim the reward: consummate it with a smashing delivery of (for example) a song, a poem or some magnificent language that makes you feel alive.
There are more ways to know when your Grounding rituals work. Nothing improves your speech more than experience and experiment.
Create a question that needs answering where you are. Do the homework and offer your peers a talk about the findings. Afterward, invite tough feedback on two fronts: How well did your message itself get through? And what were the strong and weak aspects?
Experiment with these Anchors in all your different speaking situations: dinner table, workplace and with peers.
Observe—and each time, connect the Grounding-actions used with your best results. What worked for you: slapping hands to your sides? A few jumping-jacks? The whole process guides you to the best few.
Above all, welcome that wild horse. Rise to the riding of it. Summon and deliberately match (release and allow) its powers—It’s You. Jump on, hang on and let it carry you through that talk. You mean business.
Homework. Practice Aloud. Switch On. Breathe. Ground. With these first 5 Performance Anchors, we move toward guiding our raw living powers to our goals.
Let’s backtrack for one moment. If you take the floor as a jumpy and unsettled presence, work again through the first Anchors to avoid this first impression. Deal for real with them, or they sap away power.
If you settle down into your best style after the first few minutes—having realized that nobody threw anything at your head—realize that A) There’s a need for more Breathing and Grounding beforehand; and, B) You want to know more about what creates your best.
What are you feeling by the time you hit your best? Consider yourself lead singer in a band: it’s got to be your best from the first. From here on, that is the level where you need to start speaking every time.
Identify what kinds of Grounding bring you to that state, and apply them. The reward for all this “pre-game” is that in every different speaking circumstance, you have your own sure Anchors for success.
Middle Stance, Middle Voice, Middle Face
These Anchors are three simple norms—of body, sound, and demeanor—which you establish in your own way, and then from which you depart and return throughout a talk. Begin from these basics, and then the ways you play upon them become the basis of your art and style.
Middle Stance is a strong relaxed posture with feet slightly apart, arms still and loose at your sides. Begin from here, and you wipe the whole expressive slate clean for yourself and the audience.
It only takes a moment if you wish. Then, if you have Grounded yourself properly, every change of footing and gesture that you make, to vary this “blank slate” of a norm, is one of two things.
It’s either A) natural and unconscious to you, but still appropriate to what you mean; or, B) a deliberate and artful element of meaning, emphasis and expression.
Plato and Cicero created catalogues of moves and gestures that evoke certain meanings or emotions with the body. “Hands out on the air” often amplifies a question or a plea. A few strides toward one part of the audience add drama (if appropriate to meaning) on all sides. Arms akimbo can declare a decisive point: a look up, exasperation.
Start to notice and keep a list of moves and gestures you find especially effective—in dance and sculpture, painting, film and theatre, performance, talks and more.
Try them where they might match your meanings. For example, in the margin of your outline for a talk’s points, make a note to try one deliberate gesture with each main point. All that’s unique to you will make them yours. At the same time, you raise the odds of connecting with different people in an audience who know a like physical language, and with those who key most on visual messages.
Middle Voice is your own comfortable middle range or normal tone of voice—loud and clear enough to be heard by every person where you speak. Push it out from your lower diaphragm, with purpose-anew, for each new sentence. Soon, it’s second nature.
In formal circumstances, this means a volume like a lawyer’s in a court. In closer settings, it means a bit louder than normal, too. The common-sense standard is that everyone can hear each confident word.
Middle Voice works in the same way as Middle Stance. You establish a “normal” basic tone, and then depart and return to create effects that enrich your talk with levels of meaning.
By all means (again)—Breathe, and Begin each sentence “high” in your range, to end it “low.” Make each new sentence flow gently downward in tone, like a waterfall with three levels. Start high to add energy: it refreshes a listener’s attention. Along the middle, take your time and unfold those first-rate details. Finally, descend in tone and bring the whole meaning home—as if you’ve arrived at the waterfall’s deep pool.
Higher tones conjure suspense, or signal a key question. Descending tones create momentum, authority, gravity: they guide us along a process or to a solid conclusion. They can also set up irony and anti-climax.
Middle Voice reveals how many voices you have, and can acquire. We’ll see more of how these three Anchors take great speaking toward music, and more—toward a 3-dimensional symphony.
Middle Face links you powerfully to the Neutrals. Never forget: the Neutrals are watching. Neutrals are the major share of almost every audience. (We’ll see why.) Neutrals as such are the people most free to decide where truth is among many speakers.
If your face shows a sour, snide look of ridicule as you listen to others or invite them to speak, you tell the Neutrals that you aren’t one. If you quote from or talk to others with mockery, the Neutrals see and resent your attempt to bias them with your face, tone and treatment. What you try to inflict on someone else tells about you.
Whatever happens in a talk, discussion, debate or argument, your face and demeanor express the same equanimity. You present your best self: a person calm and balanced, seasoned, wide-awake, feeling good—pleasantly professional. Focused for work, and flustered by nothing.
We’ll return (Chapters 2 & 4) to the Neutrals as powerful speaking guides. Henceforth: Always present allies, opponents and the audience with the same Middle Face and demeanor—and most of all, if someone attacks you on personal grounds.
Breeze past it (and see Combat Skills in Chapter 5). Return to the point that matters to the Neutrals. You never go wrong that way, because it’s public service. It also drops the indignity back onto its speaker, without your lifting a finger.
Eye Contact for Everyone
This Performance Anchor is as crucial as the others. It helps you every time you apply a simple principle, based (like those above) in a kind of golden mean.
Too much or too little Eye Contact disturbs your connection with listeners. The golden mean is the same if you have one listener or millions. The easy, reliable and effective approach is to make Eye Contact a constant cycle through your speaking event.
First, one-on-one talks and interviews. Begin each sentence with eyes (in your Middle Face) connected. Toward the middle of each (or, every other) sentence, as your voice descends, let your eyes blink and roam downward, rather than up or “around”—as if working through a rich reflection. At last with your conclusion, re-establish eye contact: it adds confident emphasis. It says you’re ready to go on and open right there to a question or response.
Walk into a larger speaking situation, and you have one goal for Eye Contact: Start to finish, let not one single person be left out of the event. Again, the Neutrals are watching.
Locate the person at each extreme position of the audience. Create a visual cycle or sweep that includes every single person present: side to side, and front to back. Each repeated connection sustains their attention and interest, and links you to the Neutrals.
Henceforth, you sweep every point (each pair of eyes) between those extremes. Connect your Middle Face as you can with each person for about 2 seconds: then move smoothly to the next through your cycle. Whether this means moving just your eyes, your head and/or your whole body, do what it takes to sustain this rhythm all the way.
We need to work flexibly with the fact that some peoples and cultures prefer less direct Eye Contact in speaking. Yet in most cases, the world expects it—clear and bold. Rise to it.
Can you show what you’re talking about, so others can judge it for themselves? If so, you’ve earned the right to look people first and often in the eye and deliver. Do not be afraid to “scare” them just a little, with the confidence you earned by your Homework and Practice.
After all, they’re doing it to you! It’s your invitation forward.
Let’s see how well you command getting ready for your best. What are the 9 Basic Performance Anchors you just read about?
See how well (in every sense) you can explain each Anchor—aloud, and/or with a listener or recorder.
Each time you get ready to speak, check in with and apply these 9 Performance Anchors in the order shown. And you will stand out with the best in every group without seeming to try.
If you need a bit of fear, consider: These are “only” the speaking standards of tough competitors and would-be peers ahead of you.
We close with the Basic Anchor that enables the most progress with them all, in the least time—if you invest some.
The Power(s) of The Pause
We learn to drive slowly. First we earn real command over each element: then we bring them together to produce a smooth ride, neither timid nor reckless. With experience, the basics become second nature. We grow seasoned, and then cruise at our own speed to our destinations.
Slow, It, Down.
Keep Your Lips Together till you’re truly ready to go on. Pause. Breathe, Ground, and ponder in silence. Then resume.
Yes, our world hates to wait. But when you pause, and then deliver exactly the right words, people are grateful for the substance. They appreciate the very rare speaker who shows trust in their patience and respect for their attention-span.
When substance arrives, people forget the wait. Indeed, they come to enjoy the next interval of suspense before something worthwhile.
A Silent Pause is A) Safety from careless errors; B) Time to breathe and gather what’s next; C) a subtle confident challenge to your listeners; and, D) a part of 3-dimensional rhythm and impact (Chapter 3).
Slow, It, Down. When you Practice Aloud, add in Silent Pauses (and Breaths). At first, you may sound stiff or pompous. That will change for the better. The point is to regain control—until you command each word, phrase and nuance along the downward tone of each sentence.
Silent Pauses help the most with all these anchors and improvements. Pauses grace and enrich speech. Dead-air noise and pure speed never will.
But people speak fast! If you pause, they think you’ve stopped, or they just interrupt. Yes—and so we return to the core of speaking issues, as exampled at the beginning by the student with the musical name. For you have to stand in the shoes of your own speaking-space and style. Let no one move you from your best. When they interrupt, let them—and then, carefully (without notice of interruption, not even with “as I was saying…”) return to your last full sentence. Because you paused, listened and then still got it right, they’ll remember it—and get the hint that talking with you is worth waiting for.
Or, they won’t. And that’s where speaking well may start to separate you. You’ll look for the pleasures and results of new levels of speaking and listening, and leave old dead-ends behind.
With a Check-List of these essentials for every speaking-situation coming your way, you gain in the confidence that unlocks your real powers. This is what you must conquer just to cut it in this never-fiercer world of job-competition. And I wish the poet well who is also in you.