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A Novice's Guide to Speaking in Public: Step 1: Think about Your Language and Keep It Simple

Michael Lawrence Faulkner starts with some basic tips of public speaking, such as dress simply, use power verbs, and smile when you speak.
This chapter is from the book
  • Language is archives of history.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many people speak without clear intention; they simply blurt out whatever comes to mind. If you use the right words, speak with intention, and allow your mind and your actions to take on new purpose, you can speak with power and then act with power and influence. You can influence the lives of many people who listen to you. When you stand up before an audience of any size you have a unique opportunity and a significant leadership responsibility.

Communication is perhaps the most important human function in which we engage. Scientific evidence suggests that we don’t trust our instincts driven by our amygdala (which some refer to as our animal brain). As much as we are capable, we have trouble absorbing nonverbal human communications adequately. We communicate verbally and nonverbally; however, if you think about it, we don’t do it well. That might be because we aren’t trained well or didn’t listen to our teachers.

For the moment, forget about verbal communications and focus only on nonverbal communications or what we call body language. We know from empirical research that an overwhelming amount of human communications (as much as 97%) is conveyed by nonverbal cues.

Much of this body language is found in various facial expressions. Dr. Paul Ekman (1989) spent years studying facial cues and discovered 190 muscles in the nose and eye region of humans. Many of these muscles respond involuntarily and are keys to whether a person is telling the truth or lying. Ekman, professor emeritus in psychology at the University of California—San Francisco, is best known for furthering our understanding of nonverbal behavior, encompassing facial expressions and gestures. The American Psychological Association named Ekman one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, and TIME Magazine (2009) hailed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world (Paul Ekman Group, http://www.paulekman.com/paul-ekman).

Think about how our acculturation teaches us to deny our amygdala-driven instincts (such as, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it”; “Don’t judge a book by its cover”; “Don’t jump to conclusions”; “Look before you leap”; “Act in haste, repent at your leisure”; “We should have a committee meeting to talk it over first”; and so on).

In spite of the knowledge of how much communication is transferred by nonverbal cues, our schools offer little education or training to improve human nonverbal perceptions. Instead, we are trained and encouraged by our upbringing and formal education to ignore or deny the existence of our intuition. We are told we must be practical, analytical, and thoughtful. All this has simply led us to ignore how the vast amount of communication actually takes place—through nonverbal communications.

Research by Dr. Ekman, his associate Wallace V. Friesen, and others has shown that in spite of wide cultural differences in language and cultural norms, 11 facial nonverbal expressions are recognized around the world. In the 1990s, Dr. Ekman proposed a list of these basic emotions, including a range of positive and negative emotions that are not all encoded in facial muscles.

The emotions are amusement, contempt, contentment, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, pride in achievement, relief, satisfaction, sensory pleasure, and shame (Ekman, 1989, 143-164).

Some of the muscle movements described by Dr. Ekman are so subtle that only a trained expert can detect movement. However, most of these facial muscle movements and especially the subtle ones can actually be observed and felt by the amygdala of people even if these people did not consciously perceive the movement. The amygdala is the almond shaped organ of the brain or what some refer to as the animal or reptile brain. Long before humans developed our thinking brain—the cerebral cortex—our amygdala functioned as our emotional radar and provided the fight-or-flight emotion.

Fortunately for our species, we chose flight early on in a hostile environment where we were outgunned by bigger, faster, and fiercer predators. We were low on the food chain, but we had the advantage of having the amygdala, which allowed our species the time to survive and evolve.

We know that man communicated with other men for thousands of years prior to the invention of human language. Long before human verbal language, people found mates, raised families, hunted together, joined in early tribal communities, and selected leaders, and yet there was virtually no innovation, hardly any art or crafts, no real trade or commerce, and a relatively short life span. Then along came language, and everything changed.

Your speech or presentation begins with your audience making what we refer to as a micro snap judgment of you even before you utter a sound. This is called by many the first impression.

The first impression starts the moment you appear by standing up or walking to the speaking spot (podium, position from which you will make your speech or presentation). This initial or first impression is critical for two reasons. First, it is critical because so much of the audience’s opinion of you and what you are about to say is going to take place in micro seconds. Each audience member’s amygdala is registering an instant opinion of you (and you have not yet said a word). The second reason it is important is you have almost total control over this initial impression. We cover this in greater detail in later chapters, but the way you are dressed and groomed, the way you carry yourself, and the manner in which you show your poise and grace as you walk to the spot to where you deliver your speech or presentation, gives you great influence over this first impression.

Think Simple

The first step to getting through your next speech or presentation is to STOP! Take a breath and begin to think this through as a simple plan. Simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. It means it does not have to consume you. All important activities and endeavors should begin with planning, and written plans are the best. I am not suggesting a speaker or presenter should begin with a formal Microsoft Office Business Plan template. Many successful enterprises and innovations began life on the back of an envelope or, like the ubiquitous ATM machine, on the corner of an envelope. The first step, however, should be to plan out the strategy and the next steps and write them down or type them out.

Committing a plan to paper provides one with the opportunity to create simple, clear action steps. The simpler the thinking the easier it is to adjust when changes need to be made.

Your plan, like most plans, will probably not face a smooth path, but forming it and writing it down makes it a commitment you can carry through with regardless of the obstacles. Most people, and this includes business owners, don’t write down even the simplest of business plans. The two most frequently given reasons:

  1. No time to do it.
  2. Don’t know how to write one.

Committing to the simplest of plans eliminates the excuse of no time. A simple plan should take no more than 20 minutes.

Another benefit of keeping the thinking simple is most answers to the problems we encounter and most solutions to the problems we face are the simplest answers and solutions rather than the complex ones we so often think will be best. In academics we often make reference to Ockham’s Razor. In a great over simplification it means the simplest explanation is usually the right one.

The next excuse, not knowing how, is eliminated by the following simple template.

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