The Secrets of The Best Public Speakers

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

The Secrets of The Best Public Speakers
[Image: Wikimedia Commons]

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.