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How to Prepare and Deliver Your Talks

Updated: Nov 2, 2018

Here are 8 principles that will help immensely in preparing your talks:

I. Make brief notes of the interesting things you want to mention.

II. Don’t write out your talks.

Why? Because if you do, you will use written language instead of easy, conversational language; and when you stand up to talk, you will probably find yourself trying to remember what you wrote. That will keep you from speaking naturally and with sparkle.

III. Never, never, never memorize a talk word for word.

If you memorize your talk, you are almost sure to forget it; and the audience will probably be glad, for nobody wants to listen to a canned speech. Even if you don’t forget it, it will sound memorized. You will have a faraway look in your eyes and a faraway ring in your voice. You won’t sound like a human being trying to tell us something.

If, in a longer talk, you are afraid you will forget what you want to say, then make some brief notes and hold them in your hand and glance at them occasionally. That is what I usually do.

IV. Fill your talk with illustrations and examples.

By far the easiest way to make a talk interesting is to fill it with examples. To illustrate what I mean, let’s take this booklet you are reading now. Approximately half of those pages are devoted to illustration. First, there is the illustration of Gay Kellogg’s talk about the suffering she endured as a child. Next, the illustration of the speaker on “What, If Anything, Is Wrong with Religion?” Next, the example of the woman who tried to talk on Mussolini’s invasion of

Ethiopia. That is followed by the story of the four college students in a speaking contest over the radio—and so on. My biggest problem in writing a book or preparing a speech is not to get ideas, but to get illustrations to make those ideas clear, vivid, and unforgettable. The old Roman philosophers used to say, “Exemplum docet” (the example teaches). And how right they were!

For example, let me show you the value of an illustration. Years ago, a congressman made a stormy speech accusing the government of wasting our money by printing useless pamphlets. He illustrated what he meant by saying the government had printed a pamphlet on “The Love Life of the Bullfrog.” I would have forgotten that speech years ago if it hadn’t been for that one specific illustration, “The Love Life of the Bullfrog.” I may forget a million other facts as the decades pass, but I’ll never forget his charge that the government wastes our money by printing and giving away pamphlets such as “The Love Life of the Bullfrog!”

Exemplum docet. Not only does the example teach, but it is about the only thing that does teach. I have heard brilliant speeches which I promptly forgot because there were no examples to make them stick in my memory.

V. Know far more about your subject that you can use.

Ida Tarbell, one of America’s most distinguished writers, told me that years ago, while in London, she received a cable from S.S. McClure, the founder of McClure’s Magazine, asking her to write a two-page article on the Atlantic Cable. Miss Tarbell interviewed the London manager of the Atlantic Cable and got all the information necessary to write her five-hundred

word article. But she didn’t stop there. She went to the British Museum library and read magazine articles and books about the Atlantic Cable, and the biography of Cyrus West Field, the man who laid the Atlantic Cable. She studied cross sections of cables on display in the British Museum, and then visited a factory on the outskirts of London and saw cables being manufactured. “When I finally wrote those two typewritten pages on the Atlantic Cable,” Miss Tarbell said, as she told me the story, “I had enough material to write a small book about it. But that vast amount of material which I had and did not use enabled me to write what I did write with confidence and clarity and interest. It gave me reserve power.” Ida Tarbell had learned through years of experience that she had to earn the right to write over five hundred words about the Atlantic Cable. The same principle goes for speaking.

Make yourself something of an authority on your subject. Develop that priceless asset known as reserve power.

VI. Rehearse your talk by conversing with your friends.

Will Rogers prepared his famous Sunday night radio talks by trying them out as conversation on the people he met during the week. If, for example, he wanted to speak on the gold standard, he would wisecrack about it in conversation during the week. He would then discover which of his jokes went over, which remarks elicited people’s interest. That is an infinitely better way to rehearse a talk than to try it out with gestures in front of a mirror.

VII. Instead of worrying about your delivery, find ways of improving it.

Much harmful, misleading nonsense has been written about delivery of a speech. The truth is that when you face an audience, you should forget all about voice, breathing, gestures, posture, emphasis. Forget everything except what you are saying. What listeners want, as Hamlet’s mother said, is “more matter, with less art.” Do what a cat does when trying to catch a mouse. It doesn’t look around and say: “I wonder how my tail looks, and I wonder if I am standing right, and how is my facial expression?” Oh, no. That cat is so intent on catching a mouse for dinner that it couldn’t stand wrong or look wrong if it tried— and neither can you if you are so vitally interested in your audience and in what you are saying that you forget yourself.

Don’t imagine that expressing your ideas and emotions before an audience is something that requires years of technical training such as you have to devote to mastering music or painting. Anybody can make a splendid talk at home when angry. For example, if

somebody hauled off and knocked you down this instant, you would get up and make a superb talk. Your gestures, your posture, your facial expression would be perfect because they would be the expressions of genuine anger. And remember, you don’t have to learn to express your emotions. You could express your emotions superbly when you were six months

old. Ask any mother.

Watch a group of children at play. What fine expression! What perfect emphasis, gestures, posture, communication! Jesus said: “Except ye become as little

children, ye cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Yes, and unless you become as natural and spontaneous and free as little children at play, you cannot enter the realm of good expression.

VIII. Don’t imitate others; be yourself.

I first came to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I aspired to be an

actor. I had what I thought was a brilliant idea, a shortcut to success. My campaign to achieve

excellence was so simple, so foolproof, that I was unable to comprehend why thousands of

ambitious people hadn’t already discovered it. It was this: I would study the famous actors of that day—John Drew, E. H. Sothern, Walter Hampden and Otis Skinner. Then I would imitate the best points of each one of them and make myself into a shining, triumphant combination of all of them.

How silly! How tragic! I had to waste years of my life imitating other people before it penetrated my thick Missouri skull that I had to be myself, and that I couldn’t possibly be anyone else.

To illustrate what I mean: A number of years ago, I set out to write the best book on public speaking for business people that had ever been written. I had the same foolish idea about writing this book that I had formerly had about acting: I was going to borrow the ideas of many other writers and put them all in one book—a book that would have everything. So I got scores of books on public speaking and spent a year incorporating their

ideas in my manuscript. But it finally dawned on me once again that I was playing the fool. This hodgepodge of other people’s ideas that I had written was so synthetic, so dull that no business people would ever stumble through it. So I tossed a year’s work into the wastebasket, and started all over again. This time I said to myself: “You’ve got to be Dale Carnegie, with all his faults and limitations. You can’t possibly be anybody else.” So I quit trying to be a combination of other people, and rolled up my sleeves and did what I should have done in the first place: I wrote a textbook on public speaking out of my own experiences and observations and convictions.

Why don’t you profit by my stupid waste of time?

Don’t try to imitate others.

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