Public speaking is about exercising leadership and exuding trust. As a leader, your goal is to persuade other people to do what you want them to do – for your own ends, and more importantly, for their own good. But to get the audience on your side, it is essential that your audience members trust you – trust that you believe in your message, trust that you care about them, and trust that you will do what you say you will do.
One person who has exercised leadership and exuded trust is Georgia Congressman John Lewis. At the 2008 Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, Congressman Lewis spoke passionately about the African American struggle for equality and the importance of never giving up:
As a nation and a people we have come a great distance. For hundreds of years, there have been a people struggling and believing, pressing and praying, sacrificing and dying in hopes that they could bring this nation to this moment and beyond . . . When nothing else will do, you have to believe that it can be done. People told us that we wouldn't make it from Selma to Montgomery, that we wouldn't get a voting rights act passed, that we wouldn't get a civil rights act, but we didn't give up. You must never, ever give up. There may be some disappointments, some interruptions, some setbacks, but you keep pushing, you keep moving.
As Congressman Lewis explains, you must keep pushing forward if you want to achieve real change, no matter how difficult the roadblocks may appear.
This same philosophy applies to speaking in public. Public speaking can be scary, and most of us are not naturally at ease on stage. But if you believe that you have an important message to share, then it is time to step up. You must set aside any fear you have, even fear of being in the spotlight, because public speaking is not really about being in the spotlight. On the contrary, it is about self-sacrifice. It is about using your voice to say something that really matters.
Everyone has a message to share. You may want to convince your fellow community members why you would make the best candidate for mayor, encourage students at a local university to vote in an upcoming election, or raise money for a nonprofit organization that serves pediatric cancer patients and their families. Public speaking is not something you can afford to do once in a while; it is a critical skill that you can use to champion a cause you care deeply about.
In order to mobilize and inspire your audience, you must do more than share a message; you must champion a cause. To champion a cause effectively, you need to address the following three key questions:
• Why is the cause important?
• What can others do to help?
• Why is it important to act right now?
When Senator Hillary Clinton decided to suspend her presidential campaign, she had to convince millions of followers to support Barack Obama – a man who was once her chief democratic rival in the 2008 presidential campaign. By addressing these three questions in a speech that she delivered to supporters in the nation's capital, Senator Clinton championed the importance of electing Senator Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States:
I entered this race because I have an old-fashioned conviction that public service is about helping people solve their problems and live their dreams. I've had every opportunity and blessing in my own life, and I want the same for all Americans. And until that day comes, you'll always find me on the front lines of democracy, fighting for the future. The way to continue our fight now, to accomplish the goals for which we stand is to take our energy, our passion, our strength, and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama, the next President of the United States. Today, as I suspend my campaign, I congratulate him on the victory he has won and the extraordinary race he has run. I endorse him and throw my full support behind him. And I ask all of you to join me in working as hard for Barack Obama as you have for me . . .
We may have started on separate journeys, but today our paths have merged. And we're all heading toward the same destination, united and more ready than ever to win in November and to turn our country around, because so much is at stake. We all want an economy that sustains the American dream, the opportunity to work hard and have that work rewarded, to save for college, a home and retirement, to afford that gas and those groceries, and still have a little left over at the end of the month, an economy that lifts all of our people and ensures that our prosperity is broadly distributed and shared . . . We cannot let this moment slip away. We have come too far and accomplished too much.
Senator Clinton provides clear answers to each of the three key questions:
She explains why the cause is important: “We all want an economy that sustains the American dream, the opportunity to work hard and have that work rewarded, to save for college, a home and retirement, to afford that gas and those groceries, and still have a little left over at the end of the month . . .”
She articulates what others can do to help: “The way to continue our fight now, to accomplish the goals for which we stand is to take our energy, our passion, our strength, and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama, the next President of the United States.”
And she emphasizes why it is important to act right now: “We cannot let this moment slip away. We have come too far and accomplished too much.”
As Senator Clinton knows from her years in politics, answering these three key questions is just a start. Part of being a leader is getting your audience to trust you by supporting a cause that energizes you and motivates you to speak out. But you can't simply tell your audience that you are passionate – you have to demonstrate that you are passionate. And how do you know if you are passionate, versus, say, driven? Randy Komisar explains this distinction in his book, The Monk and the Riddle:
Passion pulls you toward something you cannot resist. Drive pushes you toward something you feel compelled or obligated to do. If you know nothing about yourself, you can't tell the difference. Once you gain a modicum of self-knowledge, you can express your passion. But it isn't just the desire to achieve some goal or payoff, and it's not about quotas or bonuses or cashing out. It's not about jumping through someone else's hoops. That's drive.
You will earn your audience's trust if you are passionate about your cause. If the magnetic effect a cause has on you is palpable, your audience is more likely to find your cause compelling.
There may be times when you have to speak about difficult subjects – say, an election primary loss or a budgetary shortfall. However, you will still be able to champion your cause effectively if you passionately convey why the cause is important, what others can do to help, and why it is important to act right now.
Steven D. Cohen is an award-winning speaker who teaches professional public speaking at Harvard University, delivers interactive public speaking seminars at academic conferences and corporate events, and helps high potential leaders improve their public speaking skills. An expert on speech delivery, Steven writes about the music of speech and the use of musical images to enhance vocal delivery. Steven earned a Master in Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School, a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration, summa cum laude, from the University of Florida, and an Advanced Toastmaster designation from Toastmasters International. Steven invites you to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.