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Some uncommon tips for highly effective public speaking

by V.J. Singal

The opening moments of a speech are unquestionably pivotal in determining its success. If, for some reason, a speaker loses the attention, interest, trust, or admiration of audience members during that critical point, it will be extremely difficult to regain it later on. With that in mind, here are some uncommon tips that focus specifically on assuring a strong, high-impact opening.

  • Not allowing the opening to be disemboweled by inauspicious timing.
    This is best illustrated by the story of what happened to Linda Alvarado, one of America's most eminent women business owners and an eloquent speaker, when she addressed a huge gathering here in Houston's gargantuan George R. Brown Convention Center. As per the agenda, the audience should have been halfway through their meal by the time she got up to speak. But the kitchen was having "the slows" that day and food service was way behind. So, just as Ms. Alvarado began her speech, the doors of the cavernous hall burst open, as if on cue, disgorging an armada of resplendent tray-carrying waiters to the delight of the starving guests. You can imagine the rest. Ms. Alvarado's well-crafted opening lines fell on the ears of a populace that was more concerned about getting the attention of their waiter! Sadly, her speech opening instantly vaporized, becoming indistinguishable from the vapors rising from the steaming chicken breasts that were being served that day.

    Lesson: NEVER begin speaking just as food is being served or if some other distraction is taking place in the room.

  • Opening with a convincing display of verve!
    Climb that dais with an athletic bounce. (Or, if there is no elevated platform, then approach the lectern with energy.) Why? Because an opening display of sprightliness has an infectious effect on the audience. Your vigor will help vitalize everyone else in the room.

  • Employing a single, slow visual sweep to stroke everyone in the room!
    As you begin uttering your very first words, visually sweep the entire group of listeners while also maintaining a smile. This gesture gives every audience member a personal sense of recognition from you. It also conveys to everyone that you are happy to be in his or her presence. Yes, it feels awkward--even difficult--at first. However, with some practice, you can master it.

  • Bewaring of topic conceit!
    Don't get so hung up on the importance of your topic that you believe everyone else in the world is also equally seized about it. Unless you are absolutely sure that your chosen subject tops everyone else's priority list as well, take a few moments to elucidate on why it should expressly concern them. Taking the audience for granted--because it is captive--can be devastating. Let me tell of the disaster that befell the president of one of America's three largest oil companies when he spoke at a well-attended business luncheon at Houston's swank J.W. Marriott a few years ago:

    Each of us in the audience was under the impression that the guest would be speaking on how to strengthen small business enterprises. Instead, he decided to speak on one of his pet projects--improving the quality of air in Houston. You can imagine what happened: No sooner had he begun, most of the small business owners--over 75% of the audience--began dozing off, and those representing other oil companies smirked while watching the image of their rival firm's chieftain fall like a rock. Of course, at the end of his 20-minute speech, the speaker devoted a minute or so to cogently dwell on why clean air should be of concern to everyone. If only he had done it at the very beginning!

  • Using the introducer to whet the audience's appetite.
    Have the person introducing you say something about you or your speech that helps build anticipation and whets people's curiosity. This will not only help ensure that your opening gets their undivided attention, but it will, in effect, subdue any ongoing distractions in the room. One caveat: Do NOT let the "anticipation-building passage" in the introduction border on undue hype or overpromise, nor let it dissipate the thunder of your opening.

Finally, if you haven't already, also visit my "uncommon tips" for highly effective presentations. They too are critical for high-impact public speaking. And please feel free to contact me for elaboration on any of the above suggestions.

V. J. has won numerous public speaking contests as well as speech evaluation contests over the past 10+ years. He has also successfully coached numerous top executives and other high-achieving professionals. For more about him, click here.

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Some success stories

by V.J. Singal

Out of the many clients with whom I have worked one-on-one, I have selected three who represent very dissimilar occupations and backgrounds to illustrate a few of the unique situations that communicators face, and how coaching helped create highly positive results.

(Note: The names have been changed to preserve client confidentiality.)

  • A senior executive with Waste Management

    Jim, a relative newcomer to the company, had been asked to give two crucial presentations--one to about 65 senior managers and up, the other to over 1500 employees--at Waste Management's upcoming shindig in Las Vegas. Aware that he typically came across as a somewhat uninspiring presenter, Jim was eager to make a strong impression upon the people in attendance, most of whom were going to see him in action for the first time.

    My challenge: In the 2 to 3 weeks still remaining before the Vegas conference, to help Jim rapidly acquire a broad range of verbal and non-verbal techniques that would sharply elevate the quality of his presentations and other important communications. Also, to inject specific wording and gestures to appropriately invigorate the most vital parts of those two upcoming presentations. The overarching objective was to ensure that Jim's actual portfolio of leadership qualities, including decisiveness, surefootedness, humor, ability to galvanize employees, etc. etc., were on full display at Vegas.

    Final result: The improvement in Jim's presentation style was so apparent and dramatic that some of his buddies approached him afterwards and remarked, "Hey Jim, looks like you got some training!" I was also informed that a few employees even called his executive secretary here in Houston to say they had just seen a "transformed" Jim.

  • A "soccer mom"

    Janice, a homemaker in her mid-30s whose afternoons were usually spent ferrying her three kids to and from all sorts of activities, had learned that her alma mater, St. Mary's in San Antonio, was going to induct her into its Athletics Hall of Fame on the occasion of that university's upcoming sesquicentennial. Excited, she wanted her 4- to 6-minute acceptance speech to be anything but the pedestrian and unmemorable orations usually given at such events, which is why she had searched for companies like mine in The Yellow Pages. In particular, she wanted to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to publicly cite the specific values, principles, and habits that had been inculcated in her during the course of her "fulfilling" life by those who had impacted her the most, i.e. her parents, her sports coaches, and her husband.

    My challenge: To help with the content, structure, and language so that (i) each expression of gratitude sounded sincere and heartfelt, and (ii) the overall speech was stirring and one-of-a-kind, yet without sounding so fancy that it would seem incongruous and unnatural to her personality.

    Final result: Shortly after the event, Janice's mother-in-law called me directly from the place of ceremony in San Antonio to tell me, breathlessly, about how numerous members of the audience had come by their table to say that, of all the speakers that morning--including not only the other Hall of Fame inductees but also the university's top brass--Janice's speech was decidedly the best and that they had been deeply moved by it.

  • A software engineer of Chinese origin

    The manager heading the Houston branch of a New Jersey-based provider of decision support systems for process industries had called me to say they wanted to improve the communication effectiveness of one of their software engineers. This employee was of Chinese origin but had been living in Houston for over a decade and knew English quite well. Having never worked one-on-one with a first-generation Chinese immigrant, I decided to interview this person, Mike, before accepting the assignment. At that point, I determined the problem to be twofold: (i) He was difficult to understand because of his heavy accent combined with his style of enunciation, and (ii) he came across as uncommunicative, detached, stiff, even a "nerd" -- quite the opposite of what he really was.

    My challenge: To provide Mike with some simple tools and techniques so that (i) his words could be understood by most everyone, and (ii) he could "connect" with the typical professional he encounters both within and outside his firm. Overall objective: for Mike to come across as personable, be easier to banter with, and to create a very favorable first impression.

    Final result: After a few sessions, Mike's boss called to tell me what was perhaps the sweetest music I had heard in quite some time--that Mike's fellow employees, as well as clients, had told him (the boss) that they noticed a distinct change in Mike's communication style, and that Mike suddenly seemed more open, warm and friendly, endearing . . . somebody with whom they could now "talk to" with ease.

© 2020 V.J. Singal
No part of this may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the author.