What My Speech Coach Taught Me About Success

I love writing ETR. And the larger its readership gets (420,000 now and counting), the better I like it. A growing audience means more income opportunities for the staff and a bigger theater to air my thoughts. Writing for a large group is exciting — but speaking to one fills me with dread. Like most people, I hate to speak in public. But I have to do so about four times a year. Until recently, my way of dealing with this dilemma has been to: Keep it out of my mind for as long as possible. When it’s almost too late — usually the day before — jot down my ideas on index cards. Stay up late the night before doing something unimportant (such as working crossword puzzles or watching bad movies).

Then, 10 minutes before I’m due to go on, review my cards and decide to talk about something else entirely. This sounds like a recipe for disaster. (And it certainly feels that way to me.) Yet I always manage to “score” among the better speakers. I think that’s because in recent years I’ve made it a policy to talk only about subjects I know well. Being an expert in your topic gives you a definite advantage, in terms of both content and confidence. And I do have a few “tricks” to help my performance.

For example: I memorize the first and last lines of my speech to make sure I begin and finish strong. I try to engage the audience by asking them questions, asking for hand counts, getting them to stand up once in a while, etc. I maintain my enthusiasm by making recommendations I really believe in and care about. That said, I’m never happy with my speeches. And I’ve never taken that coveted first prize in speaking — a keynote address to a dead silent audience followed by a standing ovation.

Once a year for many years, I’ve spoken at the American Writers & Artists Institute conference. About a month after each year’s festivities, the folks who run the conference send out “report cards” on all the presentations. Being a tad competitive, I can’t help but notice where my grade falls in the pecking order. Ever since Bob Bly has been speaking there, it’s never been higher than second. This has caused me no small amount of anguish. Each year, I promise to do a better job than I did before — and yet, I cannot beat the inimitable Mr. Bly. I like Bob and enjoy his speeches, but I’ve never been able to figure out what he does that I don’t. I asked him once and he said, “You are the best speaker I know.”

Like any good performer, Bob wasn’t about to give out his trade secrets. So I did the next best thing. I hired a professional. Virginia Avery has been teaching people to speak longer than I’ve been speaking (though she’s younger than I am) and was quick to point out a few of the things I was doing wrong: Using too many non-words (like “uh” and “well” and “ahhh”). Standing in front of the podium too long, with my head down. Calling it a “podium” when, in fact, it’s a “lectern.” (See “Word to the Wise,” below.)

But the most important mistake I was making was a very fundamental one: I was making speeches without having clear objectives in mind. When Virginia first made this criticism I was taken aback. After all, I was talking about subjects I know very well. I felt confident that I knew exactly what my objectives were. “Tell me,” she said, “after listening to your ‘Automatic Wealth’ speech (the speech I’m presently working on for a March conference), what specific action do you want your audience to take?” “What specific action?” I stammered. “Yes,” she said. “And while you are at it, tell me why they are attending the conference and what they want to get from your speech.” “Well,” I said . . . and paused. “Well, indeed,” was Virginia’s answer.

It’s a very simple concept — the same idea I promote when I talk to executives about business meetings. “Before you go into the meeting,” I always say, “be sure you know what specific benefit you intend to get from it.” In fact, by knowing beforehand the result you want to achieve, any task you enter into is easier to deal with. I started thinking about what I meant to achieve in my past speeches. To recount every interesting fact I know? To impress the audience with how clever I am? To get the biggest laugh? To get a higher grade than Bob Bly? None of these was a worthy objective. If my speech was going to do the audience any good, it would have to teach them something useful or persuade them to do something beneficial . . . or both.

In other words, my objective needed to be about the audience, not about me. When this thought hit me, I realized it was exactly the message I’ve been drumming into the heads of apprentice copywriters for years. “Writing good copy is not about you,” I like to say. “It’s about your reader. The sooner you can take yourself out of the picture and focus on doing good for your reader, the quicker you’ll be a good copywriter.” This is an essential insight that is true of virtually every social skill, too. You’ve got to forget yourself — or, as JPS used to say, you’ve got to “transcend the ego.”

And so that’s what I’ve been trying to do — figure out how my “Automatic Wealth” speech can benefit my audience at that upcoming conference in March. What, exactly, do I want to tell them? And what, exactly, do I want them to do? I haven’t come to any final conclusions yet. But I do know that I want them to come away from that speech realizing that they will probably never get rich following most of the financial advice they read in newspapers or see on TV.

More specifically, I want them to realize that they probably won’t get wealthy by simply (1) investing in hot stocks, (2) scrimping and saving, (3) angling for tax breaks, or (4) reading how-to-get-rich books. What I’d like to see — in terms of action taken — is for them to try out the six-part system that my new book “Automatic Wealth” is based on. You can see how this kind of thinking works. Start with your objective: the action you want taken. Then, figure out how you can convince the people (or person) you’re talking to to take that action by making it substantially beneficial for them to do so.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]