Speaking to Express Not Impress

Fred Smith insightfully instructs in the art of public speaking

By Fred Smith

Demagogues and con men sound like messiahs. They lack the integrity of reality. I suspect the speaker who bellows like someone voting the proxy of an absentee God. Occasionally when I'm sentenced to hear a shouting, stomping, pounding, strutting speaker, I repeat what he has just said in a normal voice to myself and realize how little he has actually said. Respect others' intellectual integrity by speaking person to person.

Humor is one of the great tools of humanness. Laugh at yourself, not to show how great you are but how human you are. Pomposity fears humor. It's like taking a needle into a balloon factory. The snowball against the top hat will forever be humorous as the metaphor of equality and humanness.

I have a personal test for my own humanness: does my family believe what I'm saying? Steve Brown, President of Key Life, and I we were discussing spiritual material and he said, in a calm voice, "the truth is, Fred, I believe this stuff." He does, and when you hear him you feel his humanness communicating the divine.

There are a few basic techniques which make listening and assimilating easy. The most important of these is "fire in the voice." Fire is contagious, easy to identify, hard to describe, it is a proper combination of enthusiasm and conviction, enthusiasm about the subject and a conviction that requires expression. Fire commands listener attention. When the fire is gone, so is the audience.

Fire is an outward expression of an inward warmth. It must be alive, not neon, never synthetic. You who were fortunate enough to hear the young Howard Butt, Jr, preach remember the amazing fire he had in his voice, it commanded your attention. Fire makes the voice alive.

Another quality is rhythm. Rhythm is cadence. There should be highs and lows, peaks and valleys, changes in volume and the words and tone so they never become sonorous. Be particularly careful when repeating familiar material that you maintain a fresh rhythm; old material without fresh rhythm sounds like a broken record.

It is difficult to read a speech with effective rhythm. Recently I was listening to the pastor of a church who had labored hard to write a sermon and was trying to deliver it as if he were not reading it, but it was obvious that he was reading. The words flowed over me like water out of a hose pipe with no nozzle on it, the water was there but there was no intensity, no power. Rhythm helps to place the emphasis at the right places.

Pace is important, the pace of both ideas and words. The larger the crowd, the slower the pace needs to be. In the same way, the heavier the idea is, the slower the pace. Pace largely determines the ability to receive, pitch the ball at the speed they can catch it comfortably. Familiar material can be presented more quickly. The less familiar to the hearer, the more time there must be for assimilation. Generally, emotional material can be given faster, for you are creating a feeling, not a rational response. Listen to an auctioneer as he pours out words to inundate you, to make you go higher and higher.

The tone of the voice should convey sincerity. A positive tone creates a positive environment, just as a negative creates a negative impression.

Clear enunciation is a must. Where there is an accent, extra precaution has to be made that people understand, and when you see any frowns on their faces, repeat. Words must be heard to comprehend.

Avoid affectations, such as too much polish or dramatics. A seminary brogue labels you as a preacher who can be tuned out. A theatrical voice makes people think of you as an actor and your message as presentation. Remember, an effective communication is a personal relation, not a performance.

Be sure your volume is appropriate to the subject and the size of the crowd, be sure everyone can hear and keep your voice above that inaudible mumble level.

Use only natural gestures, gestures that agree with your words. Some great communicators use few or no gestures, while others use many. Some even own a large vocabulary of gestures which could almost convey their thoughts without words. Use what you have. Unnatural gestures detract from the communication. Add only those that become natural to you. Uncoordinated gestures are a distraction.

Select words appropriate to the subject. Small subjects don't need big words; general ideas don't require great precision. Holy thoughts are best conveyed in reverent phrases, not slang. Unless you are trying to shock, there should never be conflict between the subject and the words used to express it.

With skillful use of techniques we are simply trying to get harmony of presentation that will accent content. Techniques never substitute for content, nor proper attitude. But the speaker who respects his audience better communicates the message with well-honed skills.