Saturday, January 9, 2010

A politician's pointers on public speaking

Much of the time, I like to describe Washington, DC, as a "small town with a lot of hot air," to reflect my town's ability to deliver more-rhetoric-per-square-foot than almost anywhere else. But in this article, former Congressman Lee Hamilton, does a great job describing why--in his view--public speaking's a critical skill for anyone who seeks a career in public service or elected office:
Members of Congress need to be good at a lot of things if they want to be effective, but chief among them is the ability to communicate....When I say "communication" I mean it in the broadest sense: formal and informal; one-on-one and before a mass audience; in writing, in speeches and in discussion; with small, friendly groups of admirers and in front of larger, not-always-friendly crowds; on television, on the radio, on the Web, and in print; in the formal setting of the House or Senate floor and sitting at a formica-topped luncheonette table over coffee and doughnuts.

Among the pointers Hamilton offers:

  • Learn to speak off-the-cuff: While politicians do deliver prepared speeches, "more often they have to speak off the cuff, weighing the import of their words even as they say them....for lots of us it's a skill we learn with practice, and it's invaluable to a politician."
  • Be flexible and prepared for topic changes: "More than a few times, I've prepared for a public appearance only to have my speech become irrelevant when some national issue became the only topic people were interested in discussing."
  • Give thought to how you are presenting your points: "Speak clearly: don't slur your words, don't let your voice fade - you'd be amazed how many people have difficulty hearing."
  • Bring energy and passion to your speaking: "If you don't believe what you're saying, your audience won't either."
  • Let your speaking fit the medium: "You'll be much more convincing on television if you speak conversationally than if you come across as angry or impassioned; but before a crowd, speaking conversationally will just put the audience to sleep."
  • Listen to your audience--they might teach you something: "Being a good politician means being a good conversationalist, not simply scoring a few rhetorical points and then going home."

How to do all that? Hamilton recommends practice as the only way to learn these skills and to become comfortable with your public speaking. Can't argue with that one.

Related posts: See all our posts on public speaking by women in politics

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