Want to Give Good Speeches? Practice Is Key

Adults often find they must give presentations at work or at church. A class can help polish skills.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Kirk Kirkpatrick dramatically recites lines from a Walter Wintle poem as he hands out copies of it to students in his public-speaking class.

The poem's message about overcoming defeat seems almost secondary to the way he delivers it. "Emotion is important to your speaking," he tells them. "It'll get your audience to listen to you - and if they don't listen to you, it won't matter what you've got to say."

Learning to get their message across is the reason these 19 men and women are spending their Monday evenings in a classroom on the campus of Emory University in Decatur, Ga.

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Some have real-world presentations scheduled in the weeks ahead, most have had to speak before groups in the past, a few have never dared to utter word one before an audience. But to varying degrees, all share the same desire: to tame the impulse to run whenever the opportunity to speak publicly arises.

They also share with a growing number of Americans the realization that effective communication has become a requisite in today's world. Few are the jobs or community activities that never require speaking up at meetings, making a presentation, running a training session, or participating in a negotiation. As Emma Murad, who is deciding between pursuing graduate studies and taking a sales job, puts it, "Whatever I do, the things I learn in this class will help me."

In the US alone, more than 50,000 men and women signed up for the 12-week Dale Carnegie public-speaking course last year. 130,000 people have joined Toastmasters International clubs, and countless others attend evening classes in public speaking.

And they are not all fast-track corporate executives. The students in Mr. Kirkpatrick's course range from recent college graduates to the almost-retired.

Adrian Douglass is a successful doctor who does not need public-speaking skills in his profession, but "I'm becoming more active in my church," he says. He still cringes remembering a Christmas meeting when he stood up before the congregation and froze.

A graduate of an earlier class, Myrtle Miller, reports that her evaluations as a teacher of nursing at Dekalb College in Clarkston, Ga., "skyrocketed" after taking the course. "I have added humor, the kids like the way I express my beliefs - I couldn't have done that before."

There are, of course, limits to what a six-week class can teach, and not all classes are identical. Each professional has a pet organizational technique. Kirkpatrick favors "the key-word outline," whereby each letter of a word represents a point in the speech.

Other professionals teach the diamond outline, in which the speech begins with a narrow point, expands with examples and arguments, then narrows down to a succinct conclusion.

While such tips can be gleaned from self-help books or cassettes, some lessons can only be learned in front of a live audience.

"When you start, you've got two problems," says Kirkpatrick, who has been teaching public speaking for more than 20 years and has written four books on the subject. "One is your material, the other is stage fright." He tells beginners in his class to speak on anything they know - they can relate last year's summer vacation, practice a prepared speech, try a stand-up comedy routine, or simply introduce themselves and their motive for being in the class.

This allows Kirkpatrick to concentrate on helping them overcome stage fright, which he calls "the biggest problem."

In his book, "How to Speak Like a Pro," Leon Fletcher outlines steps to overcoming stage fright. One is to realize that others get it too, including US presidents and Hollywood stars. Another is to realize that people come across more confident than they actually feel. Also, repeated appearances bring an increasing sense of ease about speaking.

For many, a public-speaking course provides the ideal vehicle to accomplish this. "After two or three classes," says Karen Tillery, an account-management representative at Wachovia Bank, "I felt pretty much comfortable that everyone was in the same boat."

When they graduate from his class, Kirkpatrick recommends students join public-speaking groups, so they get more comfortable and can concentrate on ways to make their message - and themselves - stand out. "When you stop thinking of this as a chore," Kirkpatrick tells them, "you're going to start thinking of it as a performance."

Tips For Talks

* Watch your ahs and ums. The best antidote to these and other stalling techniques is to know your talk inside out.

* Memorize your speech. It will free you up to move about, maintain eye contact, and add emphasis with gestures.

* When using notes, stand squarely behind the podium and glance at them only as needed. Remember to make eye contact with the audience.

* If you draw a blank, repeat the last sentence spoken, take a brief pause, or glance at your notes to get back on track. If you garble a word or your voice wavers, do not apologize or announce that you are nervous. Concentrate instead on communicating your message.

* If your time is cut short, shorten your speech rather than rushing your delivery.

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