We’ve all heard the old statistic that more people fear public speaking than grim death. Jerry Seinfeld even had a bit about it–that means if you’re at a funeral, the person in the casket is better off than the one giving the eulogy!
As someone who’s written and given dozens, maybe even hundreds of speeches over the course of my life, I get it. The first time you step up to that podium and clear your throat, those butterflies in your stomach get a little extra “flighty.” Sometimes, your mind goes blank. You worry about making too little eye contact, then too much.
It can be a nerve-wracking, wit-fraying ordeal!
The only thing more powerful than that gut-twisting fear is, unfortunately, the rush of adrenaline and endorphins that comes with really nailing a particular speech, looking around the audience, seeing that everyone has broad smiles on their faces, then feeling the room shake as the crowd launches into a thunderous standing ovation.
It can be downright addicting.
That’s why I want to help you experience that same kind of rush, by helping you become a better public speaker. No, that knot in your stomach will never completely go away, but I can help turn it into kind of a Pavlovian response–you’ll feel it, but your body and mind will absolutely know that it’s just a signal of the massive reward that’s waiting for you at the end of the speech.
In future pieces, I’ll cover other aspects of telling speeches, including real “nuts-and-bolts”-type stuff (“Where do I put my hands?” “How can I stop swaying?” “How do I avoid boring an audience to tears?”).
Before I get into any of that, though, I want to touch on the three pillars that classical orators identified as the most important aspects giving a riveting, inspiring, persuasive speech.
The first pillar is what they referred to as ethos. Ethos is the way in which we manifest good character in the eyes of the audience. The basic idea is “if you trust me, you’ll trust my cause.”
What this means in practical terms is that you need to get your audience to like you. If your audience doesn’t like you, how are they possibly going to agree with your message?
Ethos depends both on the words you speak and the manner in which you speak them. In short, your speech and your delivery.
“Oh? Is that all?”
I know–easier said than done!
As far as your speech goes, big picture, the rule is “don’t be a phony.” Audiences have very sensitive, built-in B.S. detectors–they’ll turn on you as soon as they think you’re a liar.
To avoid this, speak about things that either:
1) You’re passionate about
2) You’re especially well-informed about, or
3) You have personal experience with.
Ideally, you’d be giving a speech about all three. Unfortunately, you rarely have that luxury.
Instead, focus on which of these three aspects resonates with you most. Sure, you’ll probably use some personal anecdotes no matter what the topic is, but if you’re giving a “how-to” talk, these anecdotes should be used sparingly to demonstrate specific pitfalls or helpful tips. Yeah, they can be done humorously, but not at the expense of keeping your audience’s attention.
Speaking of humor, it can be a great way to build ethos, provided you know the joke will work, and you know how to deliver it.
Knowing how to deliver a joke–what kind of inflection, tone, even facial expression to use–can be a vital skill to increase ethos. To build it, I’d suggest watching and listening to as many successful stand-up comedians you can. Watch old episodes of Seinfeld. Watch stand-up specials on Netflix. Practice imitating these guys to your friends; “Hey did you see the new Jim Jeffries special on Netflix? Yeah, he has this great bit, that’s like…” You get the picture.
Until you’re comfortable using humor, there’s no shame in staying away from it. Remember, building ethos is all about building trust–you can do that without using humor. Humor may make things easier by relaxing the audience, but there are plenty of “serious” speakers who engender a lot of ethos.
Delivery-wise, to get the audience to like you, you should try to become more confident and relaxed at the podium. I know–seems like a contradiction, right? It really isn’t–the key to marrying the two is preparation, preparation, and more preparation. The more you prepare, the more confident you’ll be in your speech, and the more it’ll show in your delivery.
Don’t laugh at your own jokes. Instead, smile with your eyes. If you start grinning with a big, broad smile at everything, a lot of folks will think you’re a creep or a moron–that’s pretty much the opposite of ethos.
Instead, convey that same smile either by widening (broad smile) or narrowing (sly smile) your eyes.
Channel any nervous energy into productive energy–if that means you’re more comfortable walking around the stage with a wireless mike and using hand-gestures, then go for it. Granted, the speech you’ll want to give will likely change quite a bit, but that’s better than getting up and feeling like you’re chained to the podium, shaking nervously until the audience thinks you’re a weirdo.
These are just a few of the tricks you can use to build ethos in your speeches and presentations. At the end of the day, it comes down to connecting with the audience however you can. Empathize with their problems. Let them know that you understand what they’re going through, or are otherwise in on some “secrets” or other “inside knowledge,” even stuff that the audience doesn’t expect.
A good example of this is what comedian Pete Holmes used to do when touring college campuses as a young stand-up. Right before going on-stage, he’d ask a student a bunch of simple questions: “What’s the dive bar that everyone goes to on Wednesday nights? What’s the worst restaurant in town?” Stuff like that. Then he’d use those answers to riff on some pretty basic jokes. The audience ate it up–they thought “wow, this guy did his research–he’s in on the joke!” He got them on his side early–instant ethos!
So the next time you’re giving a speech or presentation, think about what you can do to get the audience on your side. Don’t lie or otherwise be a phony–instead, figure out what will truly resonate with people, and build it into your speech. Try to show them that “you’re on their side” early, and pretty soon, you’ll find more people in the audience smiling and nodding with agreement right up until you say “thank you.”
D.J. Gelner is a freelance writer, speechwriter, and communications expert based in St. Louis. Want to REALLY punch up your speeches? Give him a call at 314-541-3405 or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.