What we talk about when we talk about talking

Alan Stevens, author of The Exceptional Speaker, offered pointers on how to deliver exceptional speeches to a room full of tongue-tied 26ers at last month’s Wordstock.

Be an observer and start carrying a notebook, suggests Stevens, who has written seven books and been speaking to large audiences for over forty years. Jot down anecdotes as they occur. “Stories are the essence of creating great speeches,” says the London-based media coach. “People love to hear stories.” Generalise the specific. “I encourage people to have authenticity when they speak.”

Stevens shared some tips from his two mentors, the late Magnum photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and British broadcaster Alistair Cooke. From the French photographer, Stevens learned that after mastering a skill, one must “seize the moment.” Cartier-Bresson was famous for his black and white images, capturing a scene, never cropping a picture. Relating this to public speaking, Stevens explains that by jotting down anecdotes in a notebook, a person is “capturing his genius all the time.” Stevens even brings waterproof pens to the shower. “Creative thoughts come at the most inappropriate moments.”

And from Cooke, Stevens learned the power of words. “You can create a much better image with words (than by PowerPoint).” Stevens remembers how Cooke explained and encapsulated America to his British listeners in Letters from America, a weekly 15-minute radio series that ran for 58 years. Cooke was only yards away from Robert F. Kennedy in a hotel kitchen when the US senator was shot dead by Sirhan Sirhan. Stevens says he has a complete image in his head of the assassination scene thanks to Cooke’s descriptive broadcast (available online in BBC archives).

Stevens predicts Barack Obama – “a very good speaker” now – will improve a lot once he’s left office and the giant autocue behind. “For the moment (Obama) is more of a great performer, “ says Stevens. But once the president’s second term has finished, “That’s when he’ll be able to really go for it.”

Not all high performers are gifted orators. “I work with a lot of very nervous CEOs,” notes Stevens, the most extreme case being a known politician who would walk onto the podium, panic and forget his name. So Stevens advised the politician to write his name on his hand. More typical cases involve people becoming hyper on stage, going 100 mph for the first five minutes and then drawing a big blank. Stevens tells them to try and remember the last word they said and expand on that or buy time with ‘Where was I?”

While experiencing nerves is fine, people must learn to harness the nerves. “You have to have the butterflies, but they have to fly in formation.” To calm nerves Stevens recommends specific calming techniques, visualisation and the use of aromatherapy oils.

And final tip: when crafting a speech, come up with one point to communicate. The speech must then always refer back to that single point. [end]

Elena Bowes


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