Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Even famous speakers are made, not born: 4 examples

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. President Bill Clinton. Lady Bird Johnson, a First Lady of the United States. Susan Cain, TED speaker. All seasoned, famous speakers who've reached millions with their oratory--the kind you'd call a "natural born speaker."

But this quartet of famous speakers were all made, not born, that way. They started out as reluctant or over-enthusiastic speakers, had trouble getting a word out or even more difficulty reining themselves in--or remembering what they really wanted to say. And (you knew this was coming) they all turned around their speaking fortunes with practice and coaching. As you progress as a speaker, take comfort in how far these famous speakers had to come to be big successes:
  1. When Winston Churchill first got started in politics, his speaking got decidedly mixed reviews, according to Richard Toye's fascinating speaker history, The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill's World War II Speeches. Fellow parliamentarians thought "his speaking style seemed not majestically impressive but overblown and hackneyed." Churchill lost his way trying to deliver a speech in Parliament from memory, with partial notes: "he had written out only the first sentence of his closing sentence--and could not remember the end of it. After 'several prolonged pauses' he ended lamely and sat down." After that, he used a full text. He also threw himself into the writing of his speeches, trying out key phrases on colleagues before using them in speeches, and re-using or re-tooling the best ones. By the time he got to his great speeches during World War II, some of his most famous lines were, in fact, well-practiced--a good thing for someone who discovered early that he was not a spontaneous speaker.
  2. Lady Bird Johnson sabotaged herself right out of her first big speaking gig. When she learned that being first in her high school class meant giving the valedictory speech, she prayed to get smallpox. She avoided the illness, but managed to come in third. She probably would have avoided speaking altogether had her husband not run for vice president on John F. Kennedy's ticket in 1960. Kennedy's wife had been scheduled to give dozens of campaign speeches, but was sidelined with a difficult pregnancy--so on went Lady Bird. By the time she became First Lady of the United States herself, all that practice meant Johnson was able to handle the toughest of crowds. With snarling listeners furious at her husband's signing of new civil rights legislation, she listened to the epithets, then said, "This is a country of many viewpoints. I respect your right to express your own. Now is my turn to express mine." Poised doesn't begin to describe this shy speaker once she found her voice.
  3. Long before Bill Clinton became president, he was tapped to nominate the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, at the party's national convention in 1988. It's a signal honor that can make a politician's career, and a coveted speaking opportunity...and, as recounted in When Bill Clinton died on stage, he blew it in every way possible: Too technical and wonky, more than double the time allotted, and you can hear the crowd talking right over him. When he said, "And in conclusion...." he got a standing ovation. His hometown newspaper declared his political career over the next day. What followed next was a long and serious effort to seek speaker coaching and to practice, hard work that resulted in the adept speaker we see today. Clinton speaks openly about what coaching has done for him as a speaker since that awful night.
  4. New York Times bestselling author and TED speaker Susan Cain is just the kind of person she wrote about in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. So she joined a Toastmasters club to practice for a book tour and what became her TED talk, and it paid off: The talk is among the most-watched on with more than 8 million views and counting. Equally impressive is the full year she devoted to preparing for these big speaking tasks. If you've read Cain's book, you won't be surprised by that, since introverts "think first, then speak" while extroverts "think out loud"--one has to prepare, the other can often wing it. She's a great example of how that preparation pays off.
All of these famous speakers figured out for themselves the 7 secret advantages of the speaker who practices. Now, how about you, eloquent women?