Speaker in Focus – Cesar Chavez (1927-1993)


Cesar Chavez from Biography.com

It has been some time since I made a public speaking post. Some of my past ones focused on great speakers (such as Lincoln and Churchill) and how their oratory could help aspiring speakers, teachers, and ministers to become more effective.  Today I will bring our focus onto the trade unionist and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez.

Cesar Chavez was born to a labouring family in the Southwest of the United States. His family faced racism, and economic exploitation and lost their farm to unscrupulous businessmen.  He left school after the eighth grade, and joined his mother as a migrant farm worker.  Despite this harsh start to life he became a union organiser, political activist, and powerful orator.

Chavez’s speeches were direct, and in the language of the people.  This latter point is important.  It was not only that he spoke in Spanish and English as his audience dictated, but that he used the idioms and images which his hearers understood. He was once asked why his audiences admired him so much.  Smiling he responded, “because the feeling is mutual.”

In his speeches and leadership style more generally, he promoted education and self-improvement, but not as ends in themselves. Rather, he called on people to be better human beings and connected with them in aspiration.

He said “Real education should consist of drawing the goodness and the best out of our own students. What better books can there be than the book of humanity?”  And, “Students must have initiative; they should not be mere imitators. They must learn to think and act for themselves – and be free.”

The words he used had power.  He called on others to use their words powerfully as well. “Our language is the reflection of ourselves. A language is an exact reflection of the character and growth of its speakers.”  Your identity is in your words!  Whether English, Spanish, in the end it is the choice of your words that reflect your nature.

So what can we learn from Chavez? First speak to your audience, adjust and mould to their needs and expectations. Speak not just to make “your” point, but to help your hearers to find their voice as well.  Thirdly, let your words be true reflections of who you are.


Speaking Beyond Fear and Doubt


Of Oratory

Of General Application

The fear of public speaking is a much commented upon topic.  Some studies suggest that it is in the top five social anxieties, and at least one puts it above the fear of death. Yet, most of us are comfortable sharing our views with our own “dear and near.” But why should it be so?  Is it the conviction that friends and family “have your back” or the assumption that their affection for you will override any faux pas?  If this is the case then we are building our security through familiarity.  Fair enough.

But if we see this as security, how much more can we take comfort in anonymity?  An audience is often addressed only once. And is it likely that a group of people who have gathered to hear you will bear you any ill will?  Why then did they bother to come?  Audiences have spent time, and sometimes money to come.  They too have your back, they have a vested interest.  They want you to succeed.

If what you say is safe with friends, then saying it to others is also safe.  If your message is worth sharing, it is equally valuable to any hearers. Roger Love has rightly observed that, “All speaking is public speaking, whether it’s to one person or a thousand.”

Of Christian Application

So far I have been “speaking” to anyone who has apprehension about addressing others, and especially those who dread speaking to strangers.  But to those who are aspiring pastors or other Christian “labouers in the field,” the point is even more fervently made to you.  You have been entrusted with “the words of life.”  How much more should you feel bold with your message, which in deed is not “yours” at all but that of “He who has sent you?”

Look at the call of Moses,

So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’Then what shall I tell them?”  God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you’ (Exodus 3: 10-14)”

Moses was sent (as are we)! But even with his more profound “call to serve” than any of us can hope for, he nonetheless responded,

“Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord?  Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say (Exodus 4:10-12).”

His hesitation was countered by God.  And this message is not just for pastors and evangelists. Remember always that “go ye” means “go me.”

Take heart as you speak.  Make the message pure and relevant, and it will be heard.  If it is not spoken, it cannot be heard.  If it cannot be heard, it cannot be listened to. If it isn’t listened to, it cannot be heeded. And remember that at least of you listeners is among your “near and dear.” So near and dear that He laid His life down for you.


Learning from Sir Ian McKellen


Ian McKellen as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings/Hobbit franchise

Sir Ian came to the college to speak to our students today. His presentation was excellent, and provided a wonderful example of the speaker’s art.

He began with rapport building.  This was accomplished in two ways.  First as the student body was divided into two venues with him addressing the larger audience directly, and the others watching on live feed in the other hall, he made a point of going and seeing the smaller group in person before starting his main speech.  Secondly, he began his presentation with a purposeful scanning of his speaking space (which doubles as our exams venue), and then admonished study and revision, before stepping forward to the mic and announcing in his best Gandalf voice “Or You Shall Not Pass.”

Rapport built, he laid out his main message (human dignity and anti-bullying), making clear references to his theme, while interlacing it with personal anecdotes (which each had emotional appeal); and with rhetorical but direct questioning of his auditors’ own experiences.  As each point for consideration was made, he suggested how the audience both individually and collectively could make a difference if they applied the message.

This reinforcement of the theme with the personalised appeal strengthened his message as the audience was given a sense of responsibility and ownership.  He made the message their (our) own.

So what can we learn from Sir Ian?  Number one connect with your audience.  Secondly, make your message clear, and present it in a step by step developmental manner.  Thirdly, make the audience feel a responsibility or ownership of the message.
It was truly a treat, as both an educator and as a public speaker to see a master craftsman at work.


How Fast Do You Speak: Long Drawl or Motor-Mouth?


Are you a motor-mouth when your speak? Do you speak with a slow deliberate pace? There are several things that influence your speaking rate.  These include nervousness, tiredness, word choice, and the weightiness of your topic, and even where you come from.

We all start with our natural speaking speed.  This is the general conversation rate that we are used to.  This may be influenced by regional dialects, or personal speech impediments (such as slurs and stutters).  Most English speakers average around 160 words per minute.

However, when it comes to public speaking stress tends to make people rush their presentation.  When you are nervous it increases not only your heart rate, but your word rate as well.  If you feel yourself starting to rabbit on, it is time to take a pause, a breath, and to chill before continuing.

Fatigue on the other hand will tend to make you speak slower. It also tends to induce more mistakes in either pronunciation, or the losing of place.  These can slow you down even more.

Big words and big ideas also will slow down your rate.  Longer or more complex words tend to be approached haltingly, especially if they are not part of your day to day vocabulary.  The use of unfamiliar, or multisyllabic words really should be limited in order to maintain a natural flow.  The same is true of complex constructions using multiple sub-clauses.  While such phrases give a more precision to your speech they do tend to slow down your speaking rate.  Don’t get me wrong, informative, and technical presentations sometimes need these, but remember they will affect your timings.

Remember too that there are external factors which may impact your timing.  These include applause, laughter, and even coughing.  These environmental factors may cause pauses, so need to be factored into you calculations.

So are you an Al Gore (133 wpm in a TED talk) or a “Motormouth” John Moschitta (586 wpm for The Guinness Book of World Records)?


Tips for Public Speakers (Mark Twain Style)

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Mark Twain [Samuel Clemens 1835 – 1910] was man of experience, he had been a soldier (and deserter), journalist, and traveller.  He dabbled in technology, and he was an outstanding public speaker. His knack was for bringing his experiences and insights together and presenting them in an “unpolished” natural way.

Herein lies one of his first speaking “tips” practice to seem unpractised.  Kraid Ashbaugh has said that Twain’s diction and public presentation was cultivated to seem natural.  He worked at being familiar and turning catchy “home spun” phrases.

This was seen in his Missouri drawl as well.  He practiced and accentuated his image of the homely local wit.  He used his regional accent as an asset, rather than trying to cover it up to become “staged articulate.”

In his humorous speeches, he focused on getting the audience to laugh at itself.  He did this in a simple unthreatening way which endeared rather than alienated.  He famously gave a speech in German in Vienna entitled, “The Horrors of the German Language.”

So what can we get from Sam C?  First speak about the things you know.  Use your experiences and interests as the basis of what you share.

Secondly, be or at least seem natural.  Don’t be too formal (unless you are the formal type), but be yourself.  Audiences prefer the “real.”

Use your weaknesses as strengths.  If nervous, go with it.  If your voice is unusual, maximise it.  It can make you memorable.

Have fun with having fun.  It’s okay to point out the humour in things including in yourself, and your listeners.


A Speaker in Focus: Abraham Lincoln


Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865) was one of the great speakers of the Nineteenth Century.  This self-educated man was an avid reader, a lawyer, and eventually president of the United States. While humble in his background he offers modern orators much to consider and emulate.

His speaking voice is said to have been unimpressive. One account noted, “Lincoln’s voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant; [and his appearance was no better as] his general look, his form, his pose, the color of his flesh, wrinkled and dry, his sensitiveness, and his momentary diffidence, everything seemed to be against him, but he soon recovered.”(William H. Herndon.) Lincoln more than compensated for this with his appeal to the interests and aspirations of his auditors. He was quick to insert anecdotes, “homesy” witticisms, and tales with a twist. It was style over presentation.

Lincoln was in his formal addresses often concise and to the point, but when winning an audience over, or trying to make a key point – took his audience on a verbal journey. He was also a master of using tools such as alliteration, turn of phrase, and rhythm to draw his hearers in.

So what can we take from this gangly country boy who would come to lead a nation? 1. Speak to your audience, 2. Punctuate your addresses with stories to illustrate your points, 3. Be brief (with the boring bits), 4. Use words that give colour.

As a side in developing these – read.  Reading widely opens a wealth of material to your repertoire.


Using Journalism Tools in Public Speaking


How do you grab them from the beginning? Maybe by trying a “Nut Graph.” A nut graph (or graf) is an editorial tool used in journalism. It starts a sentence or paragraph that tells what your story is about (a kind of summary), but then builds with elaboration, counter arguments, and twists which bring your full message into focus.

Your introduction is the hook. The audience is immediately thinking, “This story, presentation, or address ‘is for me.’” This is called the “lead.” In traditional news reporting it tries to answer the who, what, where, why, and when briefly and succinctly. In a speech, it need not contain all these elements, but it still needs to capture you listeners’ expectations of relevance.

Remember to tease and entice. The lead is not the whole of your magic. So don’t give away the ending to your story in the nut graph. Then as you develop it, think what points your listeners will want to know next. Be sure to address these points. It might be useful to outline these yourself in the preparation stage for your speech.

In doing this though, remember flow, don’t over burden the content. Make the message yours, but in a way that they are teased into thinking, it’s “theirs.”

Finally, have fun. If you are enjoying it, it gives your audience a good reason to keep listening.

The Nut: Lead, hook, develop and entertain.


Connect, Don’t Offend!

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One of the (in my opinion) sad commentaries on our society is the free disregard of conventions of politeness used in comedy.  Many leading stand-up acts are filled with the gratuitous use of profanity.  Sexual swear words abound, and while they elicit a laugh, in many cases this comes from the shock value, and often it is more a nervous laughter than a joyful one.

Even Billy Connolly, whose act include such quips as “I felt as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit,” has noted, “I’ve always been fascinated by the difference between the jokes you can tell your friends but you can’t tell to an audience. There’s a fine line you have to tread because you don’t know who is out there in the auditorium. A lot of people are too easily offended.”

Speakers (including comedians) are in the business of entertainment.  If you are offending, you have limited your entertaining.  This is even more pronounced for informational and business communications.  “To inform and entertain” should be the watchwords.

Many have observed that audiences generally only retain three or four points from a presentation.  Do you want that to be an off-coloured joke, or a main selling point of your proposal or product line? Israelmore Ayivor has said, “Be polite in your speeches. Good information rudely communicated will make no positive difference.” How correct he is!

I am not saying you shouldn’t use humour, nor am I saying you need to present yourself as some sort of mid-Victorian prude.  What I am saying is show respect.  Know your audience. Value them, and they will value your message.


[A side note: While my public speaking posts are focused on oratory (including preaching and business presentations), many of the principles apply to the written word as well.]


The Magic of Words

Image result for words

Humans are endowed with imagination, and this has aided us in the symbolic medium of language.  We can communicate beyond the easily apparent.  We can describe a far-off land, or even better – abstract concepts.

An experiment I try with every first year class is to ask them to show me “one.”  I am then usually presented with an assortment of single fingers, pens, and books.  To which I respond, that is a finger, pen, etc. Some then turn to writing the figure “1,” to which I respond, “Then show me five.”  To this I am offered a “5.”  I in turn say, “There is only one symbol there.”  The end comes with the realisation that one or five are merely concepts.  You can see “one.”  One pencil, yes; “one,” no.

So it is that our language captures the concepts and constructions of our imaginations.  It is indeed a kind of magic.  I can tell you of a peaceful lagoon, with waters that glisten with the lustre of crumpled foil, that has been smoothed out.  The blue is that of a robin’s egg, and the sand a coral white.  Many of you will be able to share this invisible image with me.

There is the wizardry.  We as adepts in our own tongues can create “reality” from nothing!

How absolutely powerful is the creation account of the Judeo-Christian scriptures?  For we in our use of language are “in the image of God.”  God said in Genesis “Let there be . . .” and it was so.  In John’s gospel we similarly see, “In the beginning was The Word . . .” and nothing that was made was made without Him.  God created with words, and so do we.  [Don’t get me wrong, and think I am equating creation with “magic,” I am merely illustrating the power of words, and any verbal creation of ours must by necessity pale to true physical creation].

We then, as agents of this verbal power should create with good intention.  The words we use to paint a sunset, can also be used to bring darkness on the soul of the one we criticise.  With great power verbal magicians, comes great responsibility.



Sell Attention!

Throughout our school careers and beyond, many of us have been exhorted to “pay attention.” As leaders and speakers, however, it is our task to “sell attention.” Your audiences’ time and concentration needs to be earned, not just assumed.

So how do we “sell attention?”

One way to draw your hearers’ attention is by using mini or micro changes to our presentation. This can easily be done by the use of silence (as we have noted in previous posts) as they capture the idea that “something is happening,” or is about to.
Mixing up delivery style is also an attention grabber. Throwing in a short story or anecdote to illustrate a point, not only enriches your content, but it works as a hook to people’s interest, as we are “wired” to respond to stories.

You can also break up the “monotony” (figuratively speaking) of a longer presentation by not only sectioning it into bite sized subtopics, but by making the subtopics clear. This can be done by flagging the transitions. Remember in doing this, however, that markers such as “firstly,” “secondly,” etc. can become boring as well. More imaginative approaches include illustrative examples, “Gandhi’s approach to this was . . . . “Followed by “And then there was the time when John Kennedy . . . .”

The use of visual aids or short videos can also add a spark, and even a short clip, or a single prop can draw a hearer back to your main message.

So when selling attention, go for the little changes in pace, style, and inflection. Mix this up with clear transitions, and enhancing examples, and they will be clamouring to “pay attention.”



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