After we finished dissecting the NHL playoffs, Paddy asked, “What would you say is the key to a successful speaking experience?”
“That,” I said, “is a very easy question to answer. The key to any successful speaking experience, whether it’s just forty-five seconds making a point at a meeting or a forty-five minute formal presentation, is to be speaking on the right topic; which is to say you have to know what you’re talking about.”
“And knowing you,” Paddy offered, “you probably have a formula for choosing the right topic.”
“Indeed I do,” I assured him. “I call it the FEW formula.”
And why is that?” he preempted me before I could go on.
“I suppose I could say it’s because so few people use it,” I punned, “but it really means that you have to know your topic well, care about it, and want to talk about it.”
“And where does the acronym come from?” Paddy asked.
“This was Dale Carnegie’s approach to public speaking,” I explained. “The way Mr. Carnegie put it was that you have to earn the right to talk about your topic, feel strongly about it, and want to talk about it. So, I just took the f, e and w from feel, earn, and want; hence, few.”
“And it really works?” Paddy managed to start four consecutive questions with the word ‘and.’
“I’m sure you’ve seen it work.” I suggested. “It might have been a business presentation where the presenter clearly knew the subject well, was fired up about it, and whose enthusiasm spread to the audience. Maybe it was a fire and brimstone sermon at church. Or perhaps it was at a neighbourhood meeting where one of your neighbours, not known as an accomplished orator, nevertheless convinced everyone that speed bumps were needed on your street. Think back about every really effective speech you’ve ever heard and I’ll bet you’ll discover that all the speakers knew their topic inside out, felt strongly about it, and eagerly wanted to get their message across.”
“Well,” Paddy observed, “that was quite a little speech you just made yourself.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “and it fit the formula perfectly. I feel strongly about it; I’ve earned the right to talk about it because I’ve been teaching public speaking for over fifty years; and I want to make my point to my audience, which right now happens to be you.”
“I certainly agree that you have to know what you’re talking about,” Paddy acknowledged. “It’d be pretty hard to give a successful talk on something you don’t know anything about.”
“It goes beyond that,” I expanded. “If you know your topic well, distractions, interruptions, or losing your train of thought won’t throw you off. If you really care about your topic, you’ll be concentrating on it and won’t worry about how you look and sound during your delivery. If you really want to get your message across, you’ll do so with feeling and enthusiasm, and because enthusiasm is as contagious as the measles, your audience will catch your mood.”
“How do you know when you’ve, as you say, earned the right to talk about a subject?” was Paddy’s next question.
“A reasonable rule of thumb,” I replied, “is if you know more about the topic than most of the people in your audience. If most of your listeners know as much or more about the topic than you do, there isn’t much you can accomplish.”
As Paddy was sipping his coffee I went on. “Because you’re going to be speaking on a topic that everyone in the audience is interested in, or presumably they wouldn’t be there, it’s possible a few people may know as much about it as you do. That doesn’t matter. They’ll still be interested in what you have to say because they’ll be curious about your experiences and how those experiences affect your views.”
“What happens,” Paddy challenged, “if you’ve earned the right to talk about something but it doesn’t really excite you any more, yet for some reason you have to give the talk?”
“In that case,” I told him, “you have to become an actor, and act as if you still really care about it. If you start your presentation as if this topic is the most important thing in the world to you, an amazing transformation takes place. After a moment or two you’ll start to feel the way you’re acting, and the ‘feel strongly’ criterion is met.”
“That’s your old ‘act enthusiastic and you’ll be enthusiastic’ philosophy you love so much isn’t it?” Paddy proffered.
“It is,” I agreed, “but it’s not mine. It was a psychologist by the name of William James who first suggested that feeling can follow action, not just vice versa. So, it’s true that if you truly act enthusiastic you’ll become enthusiastic.”
“I can buy that, I guess,” Paddy almost agreed. “But what if you simply don’t want to give the talk, for example if you’d have to travel a long distance at an inappropriate time?”
“In those circumstances,” I said, “you have to rationalize wanting to give the talk. Accept whatever reason exists for your being asked to take on the task, such as pleasing a close friend or repaying a favour. Finding a way to rationalize wanting to give the talk meets the third criterion.”
“It can’t be as easy to act and to rationalize as you suggest,” Paddy challenged as he got up from the table.
“It is,” I assured him, “if you have the right topic.”