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Unleash the Successful Speaker Inside You

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This article has been excerpted from Persuasive Presentations for Business, available from Entrepreneur Press.

Can I be serious? How can I possibly make the claim that you--and remember, I haven't heard you speak--are actually a much better presenter than the world's top professional speakers?

It's because today's audiences increasingly value content over style, substance over , and value over technique. I have seen more professional speakers--many of whom are highly lauded by their peers and industry associations--than I care to remember. In almost every case, it struck me that most of these speakers, especially the ones who billed themselves as motivational, leadership or sales speakers, all basically gave the same presentation, or at least used these same elements in their talks:

  1. They went heavy on the platform technique--voice modulation, dramatic gestures, pauses and stories. Clearly they were entertainers first and subject matter experts second.
  2. Their talks were heavy on emotion and entertainment but light on content and basically boiled down to some cliché, hackneyed combination of persistence and positive thinking.
  3. They often told stories that are not real and not their own but were lifted from other speakers, usually without acknowledgment.
  4. One of their stories usually was real. This was some tragic event in their lives that they told in an overly dramatic fashion, often with tears or in a choked voice, designed to gain empathy from the .
  5. They lightened the mood with one or two humorous stories or jokes, more likely than not also lifted from other sources and unattributed.
  6. The objective of their talk was clearly to get rousing applause and a standing ovation from the audience, along with high marks on the evaluation sheet.

So why do I say that you're likely better than all of these highly-trained, dedicated, full-time professional speakers? It's my observation that audiences have grown weary of the clichéd, cornball "professional speaker," especially those speaking on general topics like motivation, salesmanship, leadership and success. Why?

In the good old days, there was a scarcity of information, and audiences were looking to be amused, motivated and entertained by their speakers. In ancient times, going to hear orators speak was a major form of entertainment, along with gladiator combat and plays. Starved for intellectual stimulation, people considered attending lectures a fun way to spend a pleasant afternoon or evening. In the 1800s, one of the most popular public speakers was the scientist Michael Faraday, whose most memorable lecture was titled "The Chemical History of a Candle." Faraday illustrated the chemical principles he covered in his talks with demonstrations, which were often sold out.

Today, we live in an information society, and we're already drowning in content. The speaker is competing with TV, computers, the internet, video games, movies and many other sources of information and entertainment. A lecture cannot compete with these when it comes to simple amusement. Therefore, today's speaker has to deliver something very specific to engage and win over his audience. In particular, he must deliver valuable and useful content: ideas, strategies, techniques and methods that solve a pressing problem that members of the audience are facing, or help them live their lives better or do their work more effectively.

In the old days, professional speakers were orators who had to learn some business basics to give at least the illusion of their talks containing substance. Today's new kind of speaker is primarily a subject matter expert first and a professional orator second. To paraphrase writer and speaker Dan Poynter, we need more talks given by subject matter experts, and fewer talks given by professional speakers. You are a subject matter expert in something, and your expertise in your topic is an advantage that few other speakers can match.

In the information age and the internet era, audiences increasingly value substance over style. They are looking to speakers for guidance, wisdom, fresh ideas and ways to improve their lives. They attend talks not for entertainment, but increasingly for help solving big problems; e.g., how to save enough money to retire or afford college tuition for the kids. You should offer your audiences both expert knowledge of your topic and a clear, engaging presentation style. Both are important. Without the style, you risk boring them, a big sin. But without the substance, you risk wasting their time, an even bigger sin.

It's your speaking ability that gets people to listen and not snooze, daydream or leave when you're addressing them from the platform. But it's your knowledge, expertise and experience that get them to come to your talk in the first place. Perhaps you're worried that subject matter mastery is lacking. You need not be concerned. And again, there are two reasons why you should not worry.

First is a principle that my friend, seminar leader Fred Gleeck, teaches that I call the "90/10 rule." Fred says: "It doesn't matter that you are not the world's top expert, or that some others may know more than you. You certainly know more about your topic than 90 percent of the people who hear you speak, and that's the group you're speaking for--and not those few experts, the 10 percent who know more than you do."

Even if some of those experts are in your audience, do not despair. Present a coherent, well-organized, informative talk, and they're likely to praise you for it; what you say will reconfirm what they already know and believe, so they'll agree with you, and pronounce you wise.

Second, even if others share fundamental knowledge of your topic, you've had experiences in your field that are unique. Things have happened to you that haven't happened to others. Relay those unique experiences and the lessons you learned from them in your talks, and others will value and learn from your successes and failures.

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