Every summer you can find advertisements for basketball or football camps where big-name stars instruct young people dreaming of athletic greatness. I wonder how much actual learning takes place when an all-star quarterback, who spends most of his time reading and outmaneuvering sophisticated defenses, tries to coach a junior-higher who's still trying to figure out how to grip the ball with hands that aren't quite big enough.
Sometimes people learn more, not from the superstars who have long since learned to perform the basics without conscious thought, but from those who are only slightly further down the road and have recently shared the same struggles.
Often, I suspect, a similar effect happens to those who want to achieve superstar poise and eloquence on the platform. The key is focusing not on the dazzling techniques but on the fundamentals. Improvement comes from concentrating on the basics until we can perform them without conscious thought. We need to focus on the basics and to find pleasure in the step-by-step advance.
Here is a fundamental area that I find speakers may overlook as they try to improve.
Establishing a friendly atmosphere
To a large degree, the atmosphere we establish will determine how effective our speech is going to be. Atmosphere is created by both our verbal and nonverbal messages.
I hear a lot of speakers, for instance, who are pretty sloppy in their opening comments. Perhaps it's because they haven't thought about them, but the mood they create right from the start makes it tough to benefit from the rest of the talk. Most of us know you don't want to start on a negative note such as "I hope you all will excuse my voice this morning. I've had a cold all week." Or "I really appreciate you all coming on a miserable, rainy day like today. What kind of impression do these introductions make on the listeners? Probably not a good one. You're not starting from their need. You're starting from your need. And that's not the way to fill people with anticipation This is why I enjoy starting with something like "This has been a wonderful week"—people want to know why it's been wonderful. They've had a lousy week. But there are few weeks for which you can't think up just some way it has been good. If only "I haven't been sued a single time this week." And people laugh. And then you can say, "No, really. It's been a fine week. I talked to some friends on the phone, and I was just reminded of the marvelous gift of friendship." This builds a friendly atmosphere. It conveys a feeling anybody can identify with. People may say to themselves, "Yes, I talked to some friends this week, too. And sometimes I forget how good that is."
There are other ways, but the important thing is to avoid opening negatively or from self-interest or insecurity. I want to communicate openness, so that they know that I'm here to serve. This setting of the atmosphere, of course, begins before I speak my first word. We can show warmth by our demeanor on the platform. I try to pick out certain people and smile at them. This not only affirms those people, but it also shows the whole group I'm glad to be there. People need to know how you feel before you start to speak. They want to know whether you're friendly or worried or mad. For me, the most difficult discipline in speaking is going in with the proper attitude. If I do not want to speak, it is so difficult for me to speak well.
Attitude control is essential. I must go up there with a friendly attitude, with a genuine desire to help those people, to give them something they'll find beneficial. It also helps to notice how people are sitting and to gauge the emotional climate of the congregation. This affects how you need to come across.
Recently I spoke at a Presbyterian church in Memphis. The 8 a.m. service was about half full. People were sitting in ones and twos and threes. I needed to communicate with them individually. The 11 a.m. service was packed which meant I needed to communicate to them en masse.
What's the difference? When people are scattered in a sparsely populated sanctuary, they feel exposed. They can't hide. In a jammed auditorium, people think they're hidden, anonymous, and therefore as you speak, you can detect a more open response.
So in the 8 a.m. service I knew I had to be more personal, speaking as if we were standing face to face having a conversation. In my opening comments, I used the approach I would if I'd just shaken hands with someone. "You know I'm a Baptist. You also know I'm a social climber, since I'm talking to Presbyterians." I laughed, and they gave me a courteous laugh. You don't expect a big laugh out of a sparse audience any more than you would from someone you're just getting acquainted with.
Then I said a few more personal things, just as if we were still shaking hands. "You know, I was born less than a hundred miles from this place. The town has been kind enough not to put up a sign disclaiming it, even though they haven't put up a sign claiming it." That kind of light humor fits a small audience. I wouldn't tell a story that requires a big audience in that situation. I just needed to introduce myself with a warm, friendly little greeting.
At 11 A.M., however, with the place packed and with the magnificent choir behind me, I started by turning to the choir and saying, "I wanted to be a singer, not a businessman. And I had everything except talent." That's a crowd joke. I wouldn't have said that to just a few people. But the choir laughed, and the whole church laughed. Then I went ahead and said, "When I found out I couldn't be a singer, I went into religious music, leading singing." They, of course, caught the innuendo, and they laughed freely with me, and I was ready to proceed with my remarks. But that kind of humor requires a large audience.
So whether you're a rookie or a seasoned speaker it's important to begin by establishing a friendly atmosphere.
Being heard is much more than just preparing a speech. And most importantly, it is much more than wanting to be heard --- it is communicating that what you have to say is for the benefit of the audience and you are exceedingly happy to be with them to share.