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Public Speaking: Learning from Experience by Philip Yaffe

Public Speaking: Learning from Experience by
Article Posted: 05/02/2013
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Articles Written: 92
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Public Speaking: Learning from Experience

Business,Public Speaking,Marketing
by Philip Yaffe

(The following is an edited transcript of the keynote speech that opened a Toastmasters international speech contest among contestants from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Toastmasters is a worldwide club dedicated to improving public speaking. The contest took place on 20 April 2013 in Tallinn, Estonia.)

When the keynote speaker for this event was announced, most of you were probably indifferent because you had never heard of me. For my part, I was shocked. There was a time in my life when the idea of standing up and speaking before a group of 100 people, or even 10 people would have filled me with great fear. There was even a time when just sitting around a table with a few friends and participating in a casual conversation filled me with fear. Then one day, it all changed. And yes, it did take only one day.

I would like to tell you about this marvelous event. And then relate some anecdotes about a number of interesting experiences that have helped lead me here today. I think each one of these anecdotes contains a useful tip or lesson which should help you improve your public speaking. One of them may even make a significant change in how you live your life.

Out of the Shell

People who know me now find it hard to believe, but until my early 20s I was painfully shy and introverted. I almost never opened my mouth for fear of being inarticulate or saying something stupid.

I did my studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, more commonly known by its initials UCLA. I was pursuing a degree in mathematics and physics. These are hardly academic disciplines hardly likely to draw a shy, introverted person out of his shell. One day it was announced that a major personality of worldwide renown was going to give a speech at the university. Since it was someone I recognized and greatly admired, I simply had to hear what he was going to say.

His speech was truly inspiring. Not because it was so good, but because it was so bad. I expected someone with his intelligence and level of accomplishments would be able to handle himself with greater skill and aplomb. After 5 minutes hardly anyone knew what he was talking about. And after 10 minutes no one really cared.

As I was walking out of the auditorium, I said to my self, “I can speak better than that!” And that is when everything changed. I did not immediately enroll in a public speaking course, which was not my objective. But I did start off with a significant advantage.

At that time, and probably still today, UCLA encourage students to engage in extra-curricular activities. These were voluntary activities unrelated to their academic specialties in order to expand their general cultural. I chose to join the student newspaper. I had no particular interest in writing in general, and certainly not journalism in particular, but apparently I had a talent for it. I quickly rose through the ranks and in my last year I was elected editor-in-chief.

To expand your general culture, you should know that in most American universities, the student newspaper is a daily publication. My newspaper, the Daily Bruin, published 16-20 pages every day of the week, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and had a circulation of 21,000.

Almost by definition, newspaper articles must be clear, concise, and to the point; otherwise, no one would read newspapers every day, day after day after day. Having mastered these skills on paper, I felt much more confident about expressing myself orally.

Unfortunately, I still felt that I didn’t have very much to say. For various reasons, as a child and teenage I almost never had what would be considered a proper vacation. In particular, my family never went away from home. As a result, I was 16 years old the first time I ever really left Los Angeles.

In 1965 as I approached graduation, the thought occurred to me: “I am about to receive a diploma from a prestigious university, but how can I consider myself a truly educated person if the only thing I know about the world is my own backyard?” So immediately after graduation, I became I became a Peace Corp volunteer teacher in Tanzania in East Africa.

My first posting was to a remote village in the middle of nowhere. I lived in what was virtually mud hut; had no electricity (I used kerosene lanterns); had to draw water from a well, then filter and boil it in order to have something to drink; saw leprosy; and personally contracted malaria and dysentery.

When I returned to Los Angeles in 1968, I finally felt that I did have something to talk about. After all, I had seen things and experienced things that my friends and acquaintances could barely even imagine. At the same time I realized that as much as I loved California and Los Angeles — and I did truly love them — I had developed a strong need to live in a multicultural environment. My backyard had just become too small for me. So In 1974 I got the scientific communication company I was working for in Los Angeles to transfer me to their office in Brussels, where I have been living ever since.

With this a background, I would now like to recount those anecdotes I mentioned earlier, which I hope you will find both instructive and entertaining.

Friends & Enemies

As part of my work as a scientific communication consultant, I used to attend a lot of medical congresses. At one of these congresses, I was assigned to be the moderator of a kind of roundtable with six high-level specialist doctors. Frankly, I was terrified. I had never done anything like this before.

As part of the procedure, each participant filled out an information sheet so I could introduce them to each other. When it came time to introduce the last participant, I realized that he had failed to fill in his medical specialty. I don’t know why, but I spontaneously said, “I suppose Dr. X must be a proctologist but is ashamed to admit it.” When I realized what I had said, I froze. I think I must have also turned blue. Surprisingly, everyone laughed, including Dr. X. A similar thing happened in a later session. I spontaneously made what seemed like a stupid remark about psychiatrists. Once again I froze and turned blue. And once again everyone laughed.

At that moment, I learned an invaluable lesson. When you speak in public, the audience is your friend, not your enemy. Even if it is not their free choice, they have made an effort to come to where you are to hear what you have to say, and perhaps to be entertained. So they want you to make the best of it. They want you to succeed. Because if you do, they do.

Thus, for at least the first few minutes, they are likely to be totally focused on you are. Make good use of this initial goodwill, because it is fragile and can rapidly dissipate. This is why it is so important to start a speech with a strong, compelling introduction. And then follow it with a clear, concise, well-organized body.

Ready, Aim, Fire

When I first joined Toastmasters in 2006, like almost everyone else I was terrified at the thought of doing my first table topic. In my club, you are not giving any warning of what topic you will asked to speak about. Frequently, there is not even a general theme. So it is really a test of how well you can think and speak on you feet.

Fortunately, I was asked to speak on a subject that I knew quite well. So I stood up, did my two minutes, then sat down again. In my club, in addition to being orally evaluated, everyone attending the meeting votes on whom they believe gave the best table topic. On this occasion I was voted the second best table topic speaker of the evening. The next time, the same thing happened; however, this time I was voted the first best table topic speaker of the evening. This went on for a two more meetings. Each time I got a topic I knew something about, and each time I was voted first or second best table topic speaker.

However, inevitably I got a topic I knew very little about, but I was still voted second best table topics speaker. The next time it happened, I was voted first best table topic speaker. What was happening?

I suddenly realized that on every occasion, whether I was familiar with the topic or not, I never knew what I wanted to say at the beginning. I doubt if anyone ever does. So I just started speaking without thinking much about what I was saying. Why? Because I was trying to figure out what I was going to say at the end. Thus, in the first part of the table topic I somewhat meandered, but after about the first 30-40 seconds I had pretty much decided what I wanted for a conclusion. So from then on I started heading straight for it.

You may have heard it said that the two most important parts of a speech are the introduction and conclusion. The conclusion is so important because if you have something strong and compelling to say at the end, people will tend to remember it. They will also tend to think that this is where you were leading them all along, even if it isn’t true.

Speaking of Precision

Later on in my Toastmasters career, at a meeting of the Dutch-English club one participant gave a prepared speech where he “umed” and “ahed”, and stumbled over almost every word. After the meeting I asked him why he had found expressing himself so difficult.

A native Dutch speaker, he had given a speech in English. He replied, "I am unsure of my English, so I was always looking for just the right words." In other words, the mot juste, as they say in French. This sounded like a credible explanation, except it was invalid.

As an author, I know that using just the right word is critical in writing. However, it is somewhat less important in speaking.

Readers and listeners differ in how they process information. With a printed text, if people don't understand something, they have the luxury of reading it again. However, if they hear something they don't understand, it's there, then it's gone. End of story.

This is not a bad thing, because it means that listeners are less critical than readers. They are looking to take away broad general ideas. Details in the speech serve to define and defend these general ideas. They are not to be memorized for later examination.

In short, while using exactly the right word is always recommended, in speaking there is no reason to become obsessive about it.

For any subject, there are usually several ways of saying the same thing. If you are always looking for the "best way" (assuming there is one), then you will invariably find yourself inserting "ums", "ahs", "you knows", and other useless, distracting noises.

For example: “After finishing the job, I went straight home.” “After finishing the job, I went immediately went home.” “After finishing the job, I immediately went back to my house.” These are three ways of saying the same thing, and none of them is likely to be any better than the others. So there is no reason to be concerned about it.

If something does come out of your mouth that you think you could have and should have said better, simply start your next sentence with, "To be more precise . . . ." or “to avoid any misunderstanding,” then say it better.

The moral of the story? In 99% of cases, sacrificing fluency for precision just isn’t worth it. So don’t do it.

The Fruit of Wisdom

As I mentioned earlier, I spent time in Tanzania living coping with lack of electricity, the need to filter and boil water in order to have something to drink, and other impediments you would probably prefer not to know about.

All of these things rapidly became routine, so I just didn't think about them. However, one thing I couldn't ignore. The region was suffering through the second year of a drought. This meant that there were no fresh fruits and vegetables. Even the meat markets had shut, which meant there was no meat either. I was stationed with three other volunteers. So basically we lived off rice, rice, and more rice, and practically nothing else. This went on for months.

One day we received a notice from the post office in the nearby town that a package had arrived for us. One of us, Bob, went into town to get it. It was a fairly big package sent to us by a friend in the regional capital. We had no idea what it was. When we opened it, our eyes lighted up and our mouths began to water. It contained a big, fresh, ripe pineapple. It probably weighed about 3 - 3.5 kilos, which was nothing unusual for Tanzania pineapples.

We were ravenously hungry for any kind of fresh fruit, but we didn't eat it immediately. Instead, we put it in the middle of the table. Then we all sniffed it; it smelled delicious. We walked around the table looking at it, admiring it. Then we sniffed it again. This must have gone on for at least a quarter of an hour, probably longer. We were literally afraid to cut it open for fear of being disappointed.

Finally, I said, "Okay, whose going to do it?" "Not I," said Bob. "Not I," said Alice. Ralph didn't say anything, so I was elected.

I took our big kitchen knife and first cut off the green, bushy top. I sniffed it; it smelled delicious. I then cut it down the center to reveal two halves of firm, fragrant, yellow flesh. I didn't slice it into pieces immediately, because some juice had leaked into the dish. I put a finger into the juice and brought it to my lips. Sweet, sweet, sweet! Then Bob, Alice and Ralph did the same thing, with the same reaction.

This went on for about 15 minutes before I was authorized to go to the final stage. I cut each half into fairly thick slices and passed one to each person. They first sniffed it and licked the juice off the surface. But they were still hesitant. "I cut it," I said. "Someone else is going to have to taste it."

The three looked at each other. Finally, Alice volunteered. She delicately brought a slice to her lips and cautiously took a bite. "Oh," she said. "Ooh. Ooooh!" She didn't need to say anything more. We knew what she meant. So we all did the same thing. "Oh. Ooh. Ooooh!" all around the table. Not wishing to be indelicate. But it was almost like a collective orgasm. We all agreed that we had never tasted anything so sweet, so delicious, so wonderful in our lives.

At that moment, I think we all learned an important life lesson. Good things that are too easily available lose their charm. I don't think there was anything special about this particular pineapple; Tanzanian pineapples were generally quite good. However, it was the lack of any fruit at all over several months that made this one so special.

Although it is not easy to do, I have taken the habit of sometimes purposely depriving myself of something I want for a day, a week, sometimes even a month because I know it will be so much better when I finally get it. Believe me, it works. Give it a try.

This experience with the Tanzanian pineapple occurred more than 40 years ago, yet I can still taste it. And each time I think about it, the memory becomes sweeter and more delicious. Oh. Ooh. Ooooh!

Debunking the 7% Rule

To wrap things up, I would like to spend a few minutes exploding what I call public speaking’s most pernicious myth.

How many here have heard the saying that communication is only 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal, i.e. body language and vocal variety? Please raise your hands. Thank you. ) I won’t ask how many of you actually believe this, because I don’t want to embarrass you.

The fact is, it is total nonsense. And I will show you why.

Aside from pure entertainment, the objective of most speeches is to convey information, or to promote or defend a point of view. Certainly, proper vocal variety and body language can aid the process. But by their very nature, these ancillary activities can essentially convey only emphasis or emotion. They can add very little content.

If your words are incapable of getting your message across, then no amount of gestures and tonal variations will do it for you. You are still obliged to carefully structure your information and look for "les mots justes" (the best words or phrases) to express what you want to say.

So just what does this "7%-93% Rule" really mean?

The origin of this inimical adage is a misinterpretation, like the adage "the exception that proves the rule". This is something else people say without examining it. If you believe that this is actually true, I will demonstrate at the end that it isn't. But first things first.

In the 1960s Professor Albert Mehrabian and colleagues at the UCLA conducted studies into human communication patterns. His research was pure science. It had nothing to do with giving speeches because he wanted to see if he could quantify the amount of emotional information that could be conveyed in a single word.

Subjects were asked to listen to a recording of a woman's voice saying the word “maybe” three different ways to convey 1) liking, 2) neutrality, and 3) disliking. They were also shown photos of the woman's face conveying the same three emotions. They were then asked to guess the emotions heard in the recorded voice, seen in the photos, and both together.

In the second study, subjects were asked to listen to nine recorded words, three meant to convey liking (honey, dear, thanks), three to convey neutrality (maybe, really, oh), and three to convey disliking (don’t, brute, terrible). Each word was pronounced three different ways. Once again, they were then asked to guess the emotions being heard in the recorded voices. Prof. Mehrabian then combined the statistical results of the two studies and came up with the now famous — and famously misused — rule that communication is only 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal. The non-verbal component was made up of body language (55%) and tone of voice (38%).

What his results actually showed was that for inconsistent or contradictory communications, body language and tonality may be more accurate indicators of meaning and emotions than the words themselves. However, because the research was pure science, he never intended the results for any particular application. And certainly not speeches, which should never be inconsistent or contradictory!

So what can we learn from this research to help us become better speakers?

Basically, nothing. We must still rely on what good orators have always known. A speech that is confused and disorganized is a poor speech, no matter how well it is delivered. Certainly, appropriate body language and vocal variety can make a good speech better. However, body language and vocal variety can never make a bad speech good.

The Toastmasters Competent Communicator Manual devotes its first four chapters to organizing the speech, getting to the point, and choosing powerful, persuasive words. Only in Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 does it concern itself with body language and vocal variety. This is why it is so important to always start off a speech with a strong, compelling introduction; followed by a clear, well-organized body; and to finish with a strong, compelling conclusion.

I don't know how to measure the relative importance of verbal to non-verbal in delivering speeches, or if it even can be measured. But I have no doubt that if it could be measured, the verbal (what you actually say) would dominate the non-verbal by a wide margin.

Now, what about that other oft-quoted misconception "the exception that proves the rule"?

If you reflect for a moment, you will realize that an exception can never prove a rule; it can only disprove it. For example, what happens when someone is decapitated, when his head is chopped off? He dies, right? And we know that this rule because at least once in history when someone's head was chopped off, he didn't die!

The problem with the adage is not so much one of logic, but language. In old English the term "prove" meant to test, not to confirm as it does today. So the adage really means: "It is the exception that tests the rule". If there is an exception, then there is no rule, or at least the rule is not total.

Given the evolution of the word “prove” native English speakers can perhaps be somewhat pardoned for continuing to mouth this nonsense. In some other languages, it is much worse. For example, the French actually say "the exception that confirms the rule" (l'exception qui confirme la règle), probably because it was mistranslated from English. This is unequivocal. It is clear, concise, and to the point. But it is still totally wrong.


Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s daily student newspaper.

He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974.

Books by this Author

• The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional

• The Gettysburg Collection: A comprehensive companion to The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional

• Actual English: English grammar as native speakers really use it

• Gentle French: French grammar as native speakers really use it

• What’d You Say? / Que Dites-Vous? Fun with homophones, proverbs, expressions, false friends, and other linguistic oddities in English and French

• The Little Book of BIG Mistakes

• Extraordinary Ordinary Things

• The Eighth Decade: Reflections on a Life

Books in “Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists” Series

(at May 2013)

• Astronomy & Cosmology: Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists

• Human Biology: Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists

Books in “The Essential Ten Percent” Series

(at May 2013)

• College-level Writing: The Essential Ten Percent

• Logical Thinking: The Essential Ten Percent

• Psychology: The Essential Ten Percent

• Public Speaking: The Essential Ten Percent

• The Human Body: The Essential Ten Percent

• Wise Humor: The Essential Ten Percent

• Word for Windows: The Essential Ten Percent

Related Articles - Toastmasters, public speaking, Tanzania, UCLA, Belgium, Estonia, Peace Corps, table topics, Mehrabian, University of California, student newspaper, myth, pineappl,

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