Monday, August 31, 2009

Demosthenes Had the Right Stuff

Getting really good at presenting your ideas in public can open doors for you. Let me give you an example. A guy named Demosthenes lived in the fourth century BC in Athens (a long time ago, before the Beatles, so to speak). Demosthenes was doubtlessly bright (maybe Athens U), but not necessarily a genius (MIT, Yale, or Stanford). In fact, he was an orphan waiting until he came of age to collect his sizeable inheritance (about half a million in today’s dollars). Unfortunately, the guardians of his estate had partied away all his money before he grew up. That didn’t seem quite right, so Demosthenes took them to court. Even though he was only twenty years old, and not trained in the law, Demosthenes made his own appeal to the jury (with a little help). He got back only a fraction of his inheritance, but in the process he tasted success. He knew the feeling of bringing other people around to see his point of view. He liked that feeling.

If it weren’t for a congenital speech impediment, Demosthenes might have gone into law or politics big time. But, it was a little distracting that every time he spoke in public people would snicker because he sounded like a rube. Being a lad with a modicum of self-respect, Demosthenes decided to do something about it. First, he took part of his inheritance and hired himself a speech teacher (one of the best). Secondly, he started practicing. To improve his breath control and volume, Demosthenes stood on the beach and spoke loudly enough to be heard above the roar of the surf. To improve his diction, he filled his mouth with stones and strove for clear enunciation.

As Demosthenes improved in skill and confidence he went after the men who cheated him, and others like them (a little revenge motive really adds to the drama here). First he became a speechwriter specializing in opening and closing statements for attorneys. It was a good business and he was good at it. Made some money. Then he moved into the public policy arena (a euphemism for politics). Over his lifetime, Demosthenes moved to the top of the heap. He was the most cogent voice in preserving Athens from Philip of Macedonia and his notorious son, Alexander the Great.

All of this good fortune came his way because Demosthenes took his public speaking instruction seriously (had to tip my hand sooner or later). What became of Demosthenes? In 322 BC, he had been so successful in his opposition to the Macedonians that Antipater (the regent for the baby King Alexander IV) put out a contract on Demosthenes. Rather than submit to imprisonment and ignominious death, Demosthenes poisoned himself. The story ends tragically, but that is irrelevant to our discussion here.

Learning Activity

Write a personal goal in your public speaking journal. Where do you really want to go? How can developing world-class presentation skills help you to get there?

For example: Keep the Macedonians out of Athens and toast the victory with a shot of strychnine.

© Frank Richardson, 2009.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Surfing the Adrenaline Rush

Dry mouth. Shaking knees. Quivering hands. Blank mind. We all know these to be part of speaking or performing. They are symptoms of our best ally and worst enemy, fear.

Fear of airing our ideas in front of an audience can't be banished, but it can be managed. The discomfort we feel as our moment at the podium approaches is the result of a flood of adrenaline in our bodies. It's the same flood that athletes experience just before the contest begins. Adrenaline gives us greater speed, greater strength, greater energy. It's our wonderful ally. Athletes consume that surfeit of adrenaline by action—running, jumping, throwing, slugging, yelling. Speaking doesn't allow that kind of action, though we may sometimes feel like running from the podium and the audience. Running away would equalize the adrenaline balance in our bodies, but it wouldn't serve our purpose.

Learning Activity

Action is key in dealing with adrenaline. Here are a proven steps for managing adrenaline. Practice these:

(1) Reduce the adrenaline-causing fear by positive self-talk. Remind yourself of successes. Tell yourself that the presentation is going to be a hit with listeners. Don't be timid. Banish doubts. Convince yourself. Positive self-talk really works.
(2) Speak often. The more you speak, the more familiar the surplus of adrenaline in your system will begin to feel.
(3) Act on the rush. Clench and relax the major muscles in your body. It won't be noticeable to listeners, but the physical action will absorb adrenaline.
(4) Acknowledge your excitement by striding briskly to the podium, moving around as much as the setting allows, gesturing with your arms and hands, breathing deeply, and speaking with vigor. Adrenaline-powered energy and enthusiasm will win over your listeners.

Adrenaline! Learn to love it.

© Frank Richardson, 2009.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Talk Your Way to Success

The really great thing about teaching at a university is meeting a new class for the first time. My Principles of Public Speaking course at Weber State University (Ogden, Utah) attracts clear-eyed, hard-charging young adults who are not afraid to dive into a pool of skills that will prepare them to talk their way to success—success in business, education, health care, technology, law enforcement, government, community service, and yes, success in their personal lives. What could be more exciting?

Our first task in talking our way to success is the realization that ideas are everything. We are all drawn to people with ideas. We might call them idea makers. Actually, there are few new ideas, but bright people find an infinite variety of ways to express and apply ideas to awaken their listeners and make the world better. They become our thought leaders.

Talking our way to success includes three basic skills, (1) presenting ideas clearly, (2) providing support that carries ideas into a listener's heart, mind, and confidence, and (3) drawing powerful conclusions that make a listener want to act on our ideas.

Sounds simple, right? It is . But, talking our way to success will demand our best efforts. Let's go.

Learning Activity

Get a little notebook that you can use as a public speaking journal. Make a list of the great ideas that shape and guide your life at present. You may have heard these from your parents, a teacher, a friend, someone else. They are ideas you think about often. Examples from students in our present public speaking course include:

"Go big or go home."

"If you see someone without a smile, give her one of yours."

"You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take."

"Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

And my favorite for families potty-training little guys: "If your barrel is short, stand closer to the target."

Add to your list as you think of other important ideas.

© Frank Richardson, 2009.