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Bad at public speaking? The trick is to distill your message to these 15 words, says speech trainer

(Photo: Getty Images | Klaus Vedfelt)

Very few of us are naturally eloquent. But in an age of disconnection — working from home, connecting with the world through a laptop camera — the ability to communicate clearly and effectively has never been more important.

My journey in public speaking started in 2010, after I discovered that 74% of Americans suffer from speech anxiety. My research led me to the Ancient Greeks, who invented speech training, to the present day, when I joined Toastmasters, the world's largest organization devoted to teaching the art of public speaking.

What did I learn? Being a great public speaker has nothing to do with your personality, with overcoming shyness or learning to act confident. It's a technical skill that nearly anyone can acquire, just like cooking.  

A simple formula

Whether you're preparing for a TEDx talk on leadership or getting ready to tell your boss why you deserve a raise, you must first define two things:

  • Your audience: Who are they? How do they view the world or the situation? What do they already know about you and your topic? What will they benefit from listening to you talk?
  • Your purpose: Why are you speaking to them? What do you want them to know? Why is it important? What are you trying to get them to do?

Then, it's time to distill your message. An effective method is to use this simple, 15-word sentence: As a result of my [talk], they will understand [this], and respond by [doing that].

Here are a few examples:

  • As a result of my presentation about our company's analytics platform, they will understand how we can help them boost sales, and respond by hiring us to consult on their portfolios.
  • As a result of my explanation for why we will grow by 21% next year, they will understand how valuable I am to the company, and respond by giving me a raise.
  • As a result of my Q4 sales presentation, they will understand why we need to focus more on developing younger customers, and respond by approving the budget to grow our research team.

Tips for preparing your speech

1. Memorize your introduction and conclusion. Brain freeze occurs most commonly during those awful seconds when you first face a crowd.

If a slide, statistic, joke, or anecdote doesn't serve your goal, cut it.

2. It's not about you. Every decision you make must demonstrate that you're talking for your audience's benefit, not yours. (Just think how it feels to listen to someone prattling away about something that you don't care about.)

3. Do everything you can to help them hear and understand you. People are bad at listening. Use short words, sentences and paragraphs to express your ideas; physical, concrete and vivid images that appeal to the senses; and active verb choices in place of abstract or passive language.

4. Don't drown your audience in data. If your talk relies on heavy data, be sure to explain what that data means — on a human level. People want to know how you think, feel, and believe. That's why you're in the same room (or on Zoom) with them, instead of sending the data by email.

Do everything you can to help them hear and understand you. People are bad at listening.

5. Eliminate anything that doesn't clearly support your purpose. If a slide, statistic, joke, or anecdote doesn't serve your goal, cut it.

6. Record yourself or practice in front of real people — or both, if you can. This will be painful. Believe me, I understand. But it's better to hate yourself before your speech, rather than during (and probably for a long time after) your speech.

John Bowe is a speech trainer, award-winning journalist, and author of "I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection." He has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, McSweeney's, This American Life, and many others. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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*This is an adapted excerpt from "I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection" © 2020 by John Bowe. Published by Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Used with permission.

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