I’m going to develop a series of public speaking principles in the next few blog posts that are a summation of what I’ve learned about this fiendishly difficult art and science over three decades of practice, coaching, learning from others, and research, especially neuroscience. Here are the first seven.
1.A speech should be about one idea and one only. Most speakers try to present too much information in an effort to anticipate all objections and cover all bases. They don’t want to be seen as missing something. But burying an audience is not the most effective way to enlighten it. Find your one idea, and eliminate any detail that doesn’t support it.
2.A successful speech leaves room for the audience to participate. A smart author leaves her main characters a little fuzzy around the edges in order to allow the reader to imagine herself in the character’s life. Too much specificity will alienate listeners as well as readers. Ask yourself, what can I expect from the audience, and let them do that work.
3.What you don’t say is as important as what you say. It’s up to the speaker to frame the speech, and that means carving out a topic in a way that eliminates as much as it includes. Indeed, the art of successful framing is to narrow your topic so much that you can cover it in the time allotted but not so much that the audience feels constricted.
4.The speaker cannot simply assert, however, any foundational aspect of her argument that is a matter of debate without acknowledging the sleight of hand. Asserting that which you intend to prove is what’s known as a circular argument – and that’s not a good thing. If you’re putting forward a point of view, be honest about what you’re claiming.
5.Everything you do say is subject to the standards of proof that prevail in your field of knowledge. An artist can make claims about the nature of the universe that a physicist cannot; this dichotomy does not affect the truth value of either field. And this has to be the case, or all the poets in the world would be struck dumb.
6.Emotional truth is as important in public speaking as intellectual truth. A speech is fundamentally an act of persuasion, and persuasion begins in the unconscious parts of the mind, in the emotional centers of the brain. We change our minds, or are persuaded of something new, because we are moved to believe it. Only after that emotional shift has taken place do we turn on the logic engines in order to build a superstructure of reasoning to support our emotional decision-making.
7.Speakers can reaffirm what the audience already believes or take them on a journey to a new belief. The former are entertainers and motivational speakers. The latter are true teachers. Both kinds of speakers have their places and purposes, but the teachers are needed if society is to move past its current impasses to new syntheses. Progress is led by the teachers, not the entertainers.