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Careers

Speaking Made Easy

If you merely spout conventional wisdom, your audience will be bored, won't learn much and will soon forget what you said.

Giving a talk, even if it's just a three-minute report, is a key moment in your career. It can catapult you from just another employee to a star. I've given hundreds of successful speeches, read extensively on the art of public speaking and helped many clients prepare for talks. Here's what I've learned.

Have no fear. Perhaps most important, be brave. If you merely spout conventional wisdom, your audience will be bored, won't learn much and will soon forget what you said. The best talks include assertions likely to raise some eyebrows. Over their careers, brave speakers make a bigger difference in the world, are more respected and enjoy more self-respect than mealy-mouthed speakers who say only what the audience is comfortable hearing.

If I'm giving a talk on job searching, I might say that networking is overrated and discuss more effective approaches. In a speech on workplace issues, I might argue that men are often treated unfairly in today's workplace and propose remedies. In a talk on education, I might contend that higher education doesn't deserve its august status and present a blueprint for its improvement. I have been criticized for such speeches, but I've given my audiences fresh ideas rather than the same-old, same-old.

So, time to prepare. Here's a template that works in many situations: Start with a quick description of an interaction you just had with an audience member or a shared experience, such as the rainstorm you all had to brave to make the meeting. Please, no canned jokes -- they make your audience see you as an entertainer putting on an act rather than someone trying to communicate important information while revealing your true self.

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Next, state one to five main points you will make. For each major point, tell an illustrative story. Don't be afraid of using a few statistics. Then summarize, reiterating your major points. End with an inspiring story and a call to action. As the old saying goes, tell 'em what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell 'em what you told them.

Good speeches require good stories. The best ones evoke emotion and offer a lesson. I often tell the story of how my father survived the Holocaust, after which he ended up in the Bronx without a penny to his name -- not a word of English, no family, no money, only the scars of the tortures. Yet he never complained. When I asked him why, he said, "The Nazis took six years from my life. I won't give them one minute more. Martin, never look back. Always look forward." The happiest, most productive people live by my father's philosophy.

If you're a pro, you may not need to rehearse. But if you've written a script, read it aloud two or three times and then put it away. Few speeches are worse than those that sound canned, let alone those that are read verbatim. Or, with just your outline in front of you, deliver the speech into a tape recorder. Listen to it, noting what you like and don't like. Keep doing it until you feel good. Or deliver the talk to someone you trust and incorporate feedback.

You're on. Even the best speech must be heard, so come early and check out the sound system. If possible, chat with audience members before your talk. That makes listeners more receptive and makes you calmer. Plus, you may pick up an anecdote for the start of your talk. During your speech, turn your attention to one person at a time, each one for a few seconds, and try to make your points heartfelt. Don't worry if you fumble. What counts is the overall impression. And don't talk too long. You know your allotted time. Don't exceed it.

Public speaking is hard, but following these simple guidelines should make your task easier.

I don't think I even used my three minutes.