“If all my talents and powers were to be taken from me by some inscrutable Providence, and I had my choice of keeping but one, I would unhesitatingly ask to be allowed to keep the power of speaking, for through it I would quickly recover all the rest.” – Daniel Webster

Language expert Wilfred Funk was one of the first to study highly successful men and women to determine what they have in common. What he discovered was that they all have the ability to communicate clearly and effectively. Since then, many studies have shown the same thing. In fact, members of the “speaking” professions – lawyers, politicians, professional speakers, salespeople, and entertainers – are among the highest paid. There appears to be a high correlation between word power and earning power. The ability to speak, to persuade, and to keep an audience’s attention is well rewarded.

What about you? Have you been sabotaging your own success because you feel that speaking in front of a group is something you would rather die than do? If so, it is time to do yourself a favor and learn the skills that can change your life. There is no better time than the new year to develop the confidence to speak up.

Speaking well is considered the number one reason for career advancement. And – no doubt about it – this is an essential business skill. Every time you meet with a client or make a presentation, your company image is affected – for better or worse. From the standpoint of public relations, your business can have no better vehicle than a well-spoken representative.

If you think about it, you’ll see that your most important business – and personal – transactions involve face-to-face communications. To mention just a few: asking for and receiving a pay raise … making a winning proposal … promoting your new service with a speech … and persuading others to back a cause you feel passionate about.

Communication is a complex subject. We communicate more than simply with the words we use. We communicate as much by how we say something as by what we say. We communicate through voice inflection, tone, facial expressions, body stance, and even by the way we breathe. But perhaps the most important aspect of effective communication is having the self-confidence that comes from practice.

I once consulted with a small engineering firm that was on the short list for a contract to design a project for the city of Grants Pass, Oregon. Five firms were making proposals, among them two extremely large and successful companies. Now, I know about as much about engineering as I do about nuclear physics. Nonetheless, I had my client restructure their approach, improve their visuals, and practice … practice … practice their presentation. And, yes, they were awarded the contract.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed: “All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.”

Woodrow Wilson, for instance, started out as a political science professor. He had a reserved manner and a stilted speaking style – not characteristics that make friends and influence people. Recognizing that, he deliberately and systematically set a goal for himself to become a skillful orator. And it worked. His success was so evident that when he delivered his inaugural address as the 28th President of the United States, it was said “not since Lincoln has there been a president so wonderfully gifted in the art of expression.”

Biographer Joseph Tumulty wrote that by the end of Wilson’s life, he “was like a great organist playing upon the heart emotions of thousands of people who were held spell-bound by what he said.”

The ability to speak is one of your greatest gifts. Doing it well can transform your life. You can present yourself and your ideas hesitantly … or you can be purposeful, direct, and confident. It’s up to you.

Think, for a moment, of Socrates, Daniel Webster, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, Will Rogers, Martin Luther King, and Oprah. All of them master communicators. These diverse individuals from different times and places made history with their words. They moved others in their time, and they still move us today.

No one is born with the ability to be an expert communicator. But it’s well worth the effort to develop it. Being able to speak with confidence – in any situation – can be one of the most exciting and rewarding skills you will ever have. A deep sense of satisfaction, even exhilaration, comes with knowing you have expressed yourself effectively.

Anyone (yes, even you) can deliver a presentation that will captivate an audience. But it does take preparation, planning … and, of course, practice. Here are some ideas to help you begin to become a master of the spoken word:

Become aware of how you sound. Record yourself … then listen to it as if you were listening to a stranger. What advice or suggestions would you give this person?

Start a file of short stories that you find appealing. Tell these stories to yourself in the shower … then to a few people … then to a few more people … and then to larger groups.

Go to lectures and seminars to hear other speakers. What worked for them? What didn’t?

Beg, borrow, or buy tapes of speakers such as Earl Nightingale, Zig Zigler, and Brian Tracy. Listen to them over and over again.

Consider joining a Toastmasters group where you can practice weekly.

Volunteer to speak at every opportunity.

If you want to make the most progress, and make it fast, get professional advice and coaching.

[Ed. Note: Virginia Avery is a communications specialist who trains and coaches businesspeople to make more profitable presentations. Virginia@AveryPresentations.com]