Recently I’ve been helping a number of clients improve their communication skills. Particularly their speaking skills before an audience.
During these coaching sessions I tell them about a noted black preacher from a generation gone by. He was not only eloquent. He was also known for his profound ability to move an audience.
When asked the secret of his powerful speaking style, he replied, "First, I study myself full. Second, I think myself clear. Next I pray myself hot. And then I just let go."
What an interesting formula! Clear. Precise. Simple. And how succinctly it sums up the craft of great speech-making.
When we are preparing to make a speech, we are often so preoccupied with the actual delivery that we don’t pay sufficient attention to the preliminary preparation that this little formula embraces. According to the formula, our starting point is to study ourselves full.
Throughout history great speakers have been great students. They were learning constantly, reading incessantly, always wanting to know more about the world around them. Think of Abraham Lincoln. Or Winston Churchill. Or in the ancient world, great orators like Cicero or Demosthenes.
Through their broad, inquisitive approach to life, they were always studying themselves full. And when it came time to make a specific speech, they carried their study further. They mastered the topic before them. When they spoke, it was readily apparent that their command of the subject went far beyond the content of the speech.
Great speech-makers have also been known for getting their point across in language that everyone can easily and quickly grasp. This is a product of the second element of the formula, thinking yourself clear.
Thinking yourself clear is a process of synthesizing all that you know about the subject, then extracting from this synthesis a series of concise principles that form the crux of your message.
The great hazard of studying ourselves full is that we soon forget what it was like not to know. The subject becomes so familiar to us that we cannot easily remember how alien (and perhaps confusing) the concepts and terminology seemed at first.
Great speakers excel at casting their speech in terms that are so simple and clear that even audience members new to the subject catch the gist and import of the speaker’s words effortlessly.
The third element of the formula — praying yourself hot — speaks to the need to bring energy and passion to a speech. You may not be a person of prayer, in which case praying yourself hot would seem irrelevant. Nevertheless, your preparation needs to include some method of bringing your own excitement about your topic to a boil.
People are drawn to speakers who are passionate about their message. The British philosopher David Hume, a skeptic when it came to religion, was stopped by a friend as he hurried through the streets of London one evening. When asked where he was going, Hume replied that he was headed to a nearby church to hear one of England’s best-known preachers of the day.
"Why would you do that?" the friend inquired. "You don’t even believe."
"I know," Hume responded, "but he does."
Hume’s answer illustrates the truth behind the counsel given to a young man by a wise mentor several decades his senior. Wanting to be a great speaker, the young man asked how best to attract a large audience. The old man answered, "If you want to draw a crowd, set yourself ablaze. People will come from far and wide to watch you burn."
So develop your own technique for setting yourself ablaze. Then, having mastered the topic, having cast it in clear, precise principles, and having stoked your enthusiasm to the point that it brings passion to your message, there’s nothing left but to "let go."
Clients often ask me the secret of speaking without notes, or at least minimal notes. I ask them, "How many notes do you need to tell someone about the birth of your first child?" They typically laugh at the question.
I then follow by saying, "When you feel deeply about a topic that you know well and when you have clarity about which elements of the material are most important, you don’t need to rely on notes. You just speak from the overflow that wells up inside you." Or in the words of the black preacher, you "just let go."