They say an expert is someone who learns more and more about less and less until finally he knows everything about nothing. I’m not sure if that’s true, but many of the senior executives I speak with come away from encounters with experts feeling they’ve been told a lot but still understand nothing.
One of the most common issues that I am asked to address in my coaching sessions is how to communicate complex and difficult information to a lay audience. My coaching clients, who include engineers, scientists, and lawyers, sometimes understand on their own that they take too long to express their ideas, and are frustrated by it. More often, they’ve been counseled by others that they must be more concise and clear. As one senior person in a high-tech company told me when he hired me to coach his staff: “I ask people what time it is, and they tell me how to build a watch.”
The real issue is not in making your listeners understand—it’s how to help them get it efficiently.
I resisted buying Confessions of A Public Speaker because I know how unglamorous the life of a speaker can be, and I didn’t think I could learn much from it.
I was wrong. Berkun grabbed my interest right away with Chapter 1: “I can’t see you naked” in which he demolishes that old bit of speaking advice and reassures the reader that you don’t need to be perfect to be successful.
In Chapters 5 and 6 he grabbed my respect when he stressed what I consider to be the two most important principles of successful speaking: clear thinking and practice. While these may be obvious, and as Berkun says: “…old ideas said well have surprising power in a world where everyone obsesses about what’s new.” Here are some of the old ideas said well:
“All good public speaking is based on good private thinking.” (p. 57)
“The more effort you put into the clarity of your points, pharmacy the easier everything else about public speaking becomes.” (p. 68)
“If you’re too lazy to practice, expect your audience to be too lazy to follow.” (p. 86)
“No matter how much you hate or love this book, you’re unlikely to be a good public speaker.” (He wisely saved this one for p. 140—his point is that it takes a ton of practice.)
As you can see from that last point, this book pulls no punches, and that’s what makes it a good read. In addition to these big ideas, there are also many useful tips for speaking in tough rooms, what to do when things go wrong, dealing with nerves, etc.
One caveat: keep in mind that CAPS focuses on public speaking, as opposed to internal presentations. There is a lot of good sense that will help you in any speaking situation, but you won’t find much about organizing your points for persuasive intent or about preparing for Q&A. What you will find is an entertaining and useful book.
Brevity is one of the most critical attributes of practical eloquence, because you’re dealing with ever-shrinking attention spans and the discipline of distilling your message to its essence will greatly clarify your thinking.
Here’s one of the best examples of brief eloquence that I’ve come across.
When General Ira Eaker led the first contingents of the 8th Air Force to England in 1942, try hopes were running high for America to add its muscle to the war against Nazi Germany. So, when he was asked to speak at a luncheon, the audience was poised to hang on his every word. Here’s his speech, in its entirety:
“We won’t do much talking until we’ve done more fighting. After we’ve gone, we hope you’ll be glad we came.”
He sat down amid thunderous applause.
If you have any other examples of brief but powerful messages, please share them.
Sometimes a lifetime of achievement can be decisively affected by your performance during several crucial minutes.
Twenty-one people spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Boston on July 27, 2004, including such well-known names as Edward Kennedy and Jesse Jackson. One speaker was a virtually unknown candidate for the Senate in Illinois, and his performance that night radically changed the trajectory of his career. Barack Obama seized his moment to stand out above the crowd and used it as a springboard to the most powerful job in the world.