Raising Your Voice

The first in an occasional series on effective public speaking.

When business leaders are asked what characteristics they are looking for in potential employees, one of the most frequent responses is the ability to communicate effectively. When Americans are asked to list the things that they fear the most, the most popular answers are always snakes, the dark, high places and speaking in public. Obviously, there is a disconnect here.

Throughout my quarter-century career in the public and private sector, I have had the privilege of writing hundreds of speeches for political leaders, and giving hundreds more myself. On several occasions, I have even given a speech about writing a speech. The bottom line is that while I do confess to hating snakes, I have no fear of public speaking. If a few simple principles are kept in mind, there is no reason why anyone should be afraid of public speaking.

If the most important principle in real estate is location, location, location, the most important principle in effective public speaking is preparation, preparation, preparation.

Preparation calms the pre-speech butterflies that invariably reside in the stomach of the most accomplished speakers. Preparation is also proof that you, the speaker, respect your audience. I have always believed that if people are giving up their valuable time to hear someone speak, then the speaker owes them the courtesy of learning something about them.

For example, when I was writing speeches for Bob and Elizabeth Dole, both of them were frequently asked to deliver a college or university commencement address. Before I wrote a word of the speech, I would do everything possible to learn something about the college and the graduating class.

What were the traditions of the university? Was there a shared experience that bonded the students together? Were there any graduates with an especially inspiring story? I then would weave the information into the speech.

A good example of the value of preparation occurred in 1989, when I was writing speeches for Mrs. Dole during her tenure as Secretary of Labor. President George H.W. Bush tasked Mrs. Dole with leading a mission to Poland to assist that nation’s leaders as they made the transition from communism to democracy.

As Mrs. Dole and I studied the schedule for the trip, we noticed there were a number of state banquets. Common sense told us that members of the American delegation might be called upon to offer a toast during these dinners. So before she left for Warsaw, Mrs. Dole and I studied up on Polish history.

Our studies paid off when Mrs. Dole was asked to speak at the opening dinner of the journey. She stood and shared one of the stories we had found in our research: The story of Casimir Pulaski, a Polish soldier who left his homeland to assist America in the Revolutionary War. In doing so, he paid the ultimate price and was killed in battle. “It is now America’s turn,” Mrs. Dole said after relating Pulaski’s story, “to repay the debt we owe to Casimir Pulaski, and to come to Poland’s assistance.”

As Mrs. Dole related to me when she returned from the trip, when she was done with her toast, several Polish leaders were visibly moved to tears, and throughout the trip, they repeated again and again how much her words meant to them.

Bottom line: A little preparation made a world of difference.