The Secrets of The Best Public Speakers

Expert advice on how celebrities and politicians manage to deliver smooth and seemingly spontaneous performances.

The audience grows giddy with anticipation in a brightly lit studio at Rockefeller Center. They’ve come to see Dr. Oz, the Emmy-winning surgeon, work his magic for the camera. Before taping begins, the show’s resident comedian, Richie Byrne, takes the stage. He rattles off G-rated jokes for 20 minutes, bantering easily with the audience.

Then he shifts the focus—literally.

Studio cameras spin around, and Mr. Byrne asks audience members to help by making a surprised look. ‘On the count of three...one, two, three!’ People mug for the cameras, lenses zooming toward expressive faces. Then he asks for a disgusted look. ‘On the count of three....’

Weeks later when the show airs, these pre-recorded reactions appear spliced in at key moments, like when Dr. Oz asks a guest to pick up a human liver. Home viewers assume the audience reactions are impromptu. But that's just part of the myth of spontaneity of a good public performance.

American culture places a premium on the ability to speak confidently before a crowd. Career counselors will tell you it’s a sure path to professional success. Compelling speakers can achieve positions of power and wealth.

But what seems off the cuff is usually planned, rehearsed and edited. News anchors and politicians read from teleprompters. Producers edit interviews to remove filler words and long pauses.

How big is the gap between myth and reality?

Think about "ums" for a moment. Speech coaches tell clients to eliminate filler words that impede the flow of speech. If you watch President Obama deliver a planned speech, you won’t hear a single "um," thanks to the teleprompter. But listen to him speak in press conference, and you’ll hear plenty. In fact, a study in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research counted 44 "ums" in the first five minutes of extemporaneous remarks. (Yes, people study this stuff.)

This isn’t to say speakers shouldn’t draw inspiration from TV personalities. Quite the contrary: There’s much to learn from media professionals, particularly when it comes to rehearsal.

The Importance of Rehearsal

Novices sometimes skip rehearsal because they worry about sounding over-prepared and canned. Similarly, business execs and politicians avoid rehearsing in front of staff, because they don’t want to look foolish. However, public speaking experts usually advise people to rehearse more, not less, if they want to sound spontaneous.

According to Nick Morgan, a speech consultant and author of Give Your Speech, Change the World, "What happens when you don’t rehearse is you show up with body language that is dominant for your mood." If the mood is nervousness, that’s what you transmit to the audience. "Our body language tends to give us away," says Morgan. "It reveals ‘Hey, I’m doing this for the first time.’"

Jane Praeger, who teaches storytelling in Columbia University’s Strategic Communications programs, adds, "In order to sound spontaneous, you have to be prepared." She likens it to the way actors rehearse their scripts for more natural delivery. "It’s the preparation that allows you to be spontaneous," says Praeger.

That’s the paradox.


Reclaiming Natural Expressiveness

In everyday conversation, we alter facial expressions, hand gestures, vocal pitch and pacing to get our point across. These variations make us interesting and human. But stage fright stifles expressiveness, creating distance between a speaker and audience. Our voice becomes monotone, our stance rigid. With adequate practice, speakers can reclaim their natural expressiveness and close the gap.

Actors know this. They rehearse technical aspects for weeks in order to appear unscripted.

"Ideally rehearsal frees your mind to be as improvisational in the moment as possible," says James Vincent Meredith, an ensemble actor with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. "Successful actors are able to empty their minds of everything except the immediate moment and yet have the ‘muscle memory’ to remember lines and blocking."

For public speakers, it’s the content and body language that must be committed to "muscle memory." Connecting with an audience means feeling comfortable enough to be expressive.

Meredith adds, "You only get that strength—that ability to go off the path—when you know where the path is."

According to Robert Lehrman, former speechwriter to Al Gore and author of The Political Speechwriter’s Companion, "If you want to sound spontaneous you need to prepare a lot." He adds, "It sounds counterintuitive—‘You mean prepare intensively so it sounds like I haven't prepared?’—but it works."

Most experts counsel a kind of "internalization" of content, rather than memorizing your entire speech.

Praeger tells students to practice by memorizing only the opening and closing of a speech and writing bullet points on index cards. "Rehearse in your head in the shower or walking, swimming or jogging," she says.

Similarly, Lehrman advises, "Don’t write out the text, because that makes it hard to resist the temptation to memorize and use language that’s too literary." He suggests beginning with detailed outlines then "switching to no more than a few lines, so you can be both colloquial and looking up all the time." Those who speak repeatedly on the same subject can create a stump speech tailored to specific audiences.

"Think of it like a planned conversation," says Morgan. "You know where the conversation’s going…but you’re loose enough in the moment to make it up a little bit as you go along." He adds, "You want to have 80 percent of it prepared and allow 20 percent to be spontaneous."

With adequate rehearsal, public speakers can reduce filler words, improve eye contact and vocal variety, and be present in the moment. "You can do all the things Obama does with a teleprompter with one speech that you’re working carefully on," says Lehrman. That’s the key to charisma.

Back in studio 6A, Dr. Oz appears cool and collected as he greets the audience. Magnificently coiffed, he reads his lines from the teleprompter with rehearsed composure, stopping only once for a re-take.

The myth of spontaneity is in full swing.

Jesse Scinto is a lecturer in Columbia University’s Strategic Communications programs. He teaches media, public speaking and persuasion.

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12 Comments

  • graham_fair

    I've been speaking publicly for years. One of the key barriers is that people are self-conscious about idiosyncrasies and tiny mistakes they might make. Here's my own tip: Nobody knows what your mistakes look like. Nobody is sitting in the audience examining your behaviour, they're mostly tuning out of your face and listening to your message. Make your mistakes, nobody will notice anyway. Just say what you need to say, talk about things you are passionate about, use your own words. And... when you get a chance... stand at the podium before you have to speak. Find a window of time to see what it looks like so you know what to expect. You know the view from the audience seats, but you need to be familiar with the speaker's view so you don't find it unexpected. Good luck.

  • Thurman E. Scott

    No one has your DNA. No one else has lived your life. Make your mark. The Ten Session Intensive at The Actors Theatre Workshop is designed for. people from a wide range of backgrounds: non-actors, beginning actors, and professional actors. All students study directly with award-winning actor. and director, Thurman E. Scott.

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  • Thurman E. Scott

    No one has your DNA. No one else has lived your life.
    Make your mark.

    The Ten Session Intensive at The Actors Theatre Workshop is designed for people from a wide range of backgrounds: non-actors, beginning actors, and professional actors.

    All students study directly with award-winning actor and director, Thurman E. Scott.

    Apply now at: http://www.actorstheatreworkshop.com/sac/new_sac.html.

  • David Smith

    I used to dread giving a presentation or instruction. Then I started a store to have conversations with customers. Now my conversations are my preparation and I just show up for presentations that now go far better than any prepared presentation I ever gave.

  • Joanne Ferencsik Vitali

    One of the best articles I've come across. I teach communications at the Wharton school to MBAs and also to managers and it sad how most really believe that it's some natural talent that some people ( not them!) have instead of the truth that it's mostly practice.

  • Speakers who look the most natural and spontaneous are among the most effective and charismatic, for sure. (If only the audience knew how long it can take to become that spontaneous!)

    Here’s a neat trick for when you want to keep that engaging spontaneity going, even when you’re answering audience questions: http://j.mp/stop-qa-hypnosis

  • This article doesn't take into account natural performers, such as myself, that are always on, and therefore don't need any rehearsal to extemporize on a variety of subjects, whether or not it's in their area of expertise.

  • zschmiez

    That would be crossing the line to acting. If you dont know what you are talking about, then you are acting, not a subject matter expert.

    Probably better to pass on the opportunity to entertain rather than educate.