Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Speak Up!

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By Dennis McCloskey

If you have ever been asked to stand before an audience and “say a few words”, you might be familiar with the feeling I get when I’m called upon to perform one of the most difficult acts known to humankind: public speaking!

If you’re at all like me (and most of the rest of the human race), you get nervous before you speak in public. My muscles get tight; the blood drains from my face; my heart pounds like a beating drum; my mouth goes dry; I forget what I’m going to say; I tremble slightly; and I start by saying how happy I am to be there when I’d rather be home cleaning out the kitty litter box. I admit: I’m a scaredy cat when it comes to making speeches!

But if you’re a writer, there’s no getting around the fact that you will, at some time or other, be called upon to leave your writing cave and talk in public about your work. Because of your occupation, you might even be picked on to speak at a wedding, funeral, anniversary, or retirement dinner. I have been asked to humiliate myself at each of the aforementioned events and while I have had some successes, a few speaking engagements have been abject failures.

The experts say that the phenomenon of “stage fright” is merely being afraid of the possibility of humiliation as a result of criticism or failure. If I have learned anything from my past speaking disasters, it is to regard the next speech as a Boy Scout would: Be Prepared. I should have been better prepared when I was asked to address a convention of hotel owners, many years ago, at a fashionable Toronto hotel. Part of my role that evening was to read a description of a door prize in detail and then announce the winner. I called the winner’s name, and as the man walked toward the stage, I realized the prize was nowhere insight. Turns out, it was in the trunk of a car in the hotel’s parking lot. As I explained this blunder, the president of the hospitality association yelled out for all to hear; “What is this? Amateur night?”

From that blotched speaking engagement (not entirely my fault) I learned to be better prepared for any and all eventualities. So, when I was asked to speak at my dear mother-in-law’s funeral, I spoke to the minister beforehand and asked how close I should stand to the microphone. “Don’t worry about the mike; it picks up everything,” he assured me. I did not test it before the service began, but I delivered one of the best researched, best written, and best spoken eulogies, ever (in my humble opinion.) As I spoke from the altar of the large church, I could see that people were listening intently; some were even sitting forward in their pew. At the reception following the service, my sister took me aside and informed me that the microphone did not work and no one heard a word I said!

Notwithstanding missing door prizes and malfunctioning microphones, one tactic I have borrowed--to improve my public speaking habits--is to learn from others. I once listened to, and learned from, a very powerful sermon delivered by Norman Vincent Peale in the “Little Church Around the Corner” at One East 29th Street in New York City. He talked forcibly and memorably about “Forgiveness: It’s Water Under the Bridge.” And last week, I had the pleasure of listening to a Sunday sermon at a Mass led by Fr. John S. Murray, pastor at Our Lady Star of the Sea in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. It is the third time I have heard this Roman Catholic priest speak, and last Sunday I went prepared: I had a pen and notepad and jotted down some of his remarks, and yes, even a few of his jokes. I love the Irish lilt to his voice, and any priest who can quote in his sermon the poems of T.S. Elliot; remark on two women trying on dresses in an Orlando department store; and mention the New Year’s Resolution of Fat Boy’s Restaurant (“Eat More Ribs”), is a speaker who will get my rapt attention every time. The 2nd time I heard Fr. Murray speak without reading from a script, I told him that he is one of the great orators of our time. Last Sunday, I was even more convinced that he is every bit as good as the likes of the late, great, cigar-chomping, silver-tongued, rhetorician: Winston Churchill.

Not every speaker I learn from has an iconic Churchillian quality about them. Some of the best public speakers I have heard are female. I was part of an audience last year at a seminar held at the Mississauga Conference Centre. One of the speakers was Linda Paccanaro, an insurance company vice-president. I was one of a hundred in the room but I swear she spoke to me and to me alone. She talked in an unhurried, soft, and confident tone that made her listeners aware that she knew exactly what she was talking about. Her eyes swept the room and she treated her audience with respect just as they were enraptured by her and her message. I can’t tell you exactly what that message was because I was more interested in her delivery; her expressions; the use of her hands; a smile; a touch of humour at the right time and place. I spoke to her afterwards and she told me how nervous she was before her presentation. It sure didn’t show! A real pro!

There are many ways to improve one’s speaking skills, including joining Toastmasters, but the master of them all was Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Develop Self-Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking.” Carnegie advised speakers to take a bold stand even though they may be quaking inside. “Stride forth bravely, stop, stand still, and act as if you loved it.” Millions of people around the world have honed their public speaking skills by taking the Dale Carnegie Course, and one of their brightest and best students (in my humble and biased opinion) is Valen Cover, the subject of my 2008 biography “My Favorite American.” Valen took the course in October 2007 and promptly won four major speaking awards during the 12-week course, including the Highest Award of Achievement that is presented to the participant who, in the opinion of other classmates, best exemplifies the standards, qualities, and principals on which the program is based.

Valen has put her Carnegie principles to good use by speaking about the book and her life story to numerous community groups and organizations since the book’s publication in July 2008. Last year she was invited to Baltimore to deliver an inspirational speech to Dale Carnegie Regional Managers whose job it is to inspire and motivate others to take their courses! The Carnegie managers were so impressed, they offered her a scholarship to their High Impact Presentations Leadership Course. She completed the course late last year. When I decided to write a book about her life-altering life story, I had no idea that she loves speaking in front of an audience and is an articulate and eloquent public speaker...with nerves of steel. Bonus!


Great post and very evocative for me. There isn't a time when I think about Dale Carnegie (after taking How to Win Friends and Influence People back in the early 80's) that I'm not reminded of our instructor's opening advice: "If you come in here with a personality of a watermelon, you will leave here with a personality of a watermelon."

I'm not sure if this was helpful or not -- I suppose you could become a more confident slice of watermelon when you are in front of a group :)

It was a great course, and it does change your life. Unfortunately I don't mind saying anything in public now -- although that may also have something to do with age (and it's bound to get worse!)

Katherine Hobbs

Great post Dennis!

Speaking in front of two people, a group or a huge crowd. . .it seems as though a person either loves it or hates it! Well I love it! I’m not sure where I get it from. I can say loving to speak to an audience is not hereditary, because neither of my parents enjoy doing it. I believe it is the rush of adrenaline ahead of time, knowing that all eyes are fixated on me and that I am being given the chance to share my thoughts and that my words could possibly have an everlasting impact on others. That is what drives me!

Some of the most simple, yet extremely valuable lessons I have learned when speaking to a group are:

1. Know your audience. This is key! You have to find a way to relate to the group that you are speaking to in order for them to get your message!
2. Start preparing your speech with the ending. May sound silly, but if you think of a powerful ending and work your way backwards when preparing, you will be golden. Think about it…they are going to remember the last things that you say more than the beginning of your speech!
3. Do not begin with Hi my name is…and it is so great to be here…It is likely that there was someone that gave a brief introduction before you began speaking, so the group already knows your name and why you are there. So, when the floor is all yours, jump right into your speech and lock their attention right from the beginning.
4. Passion – if you are not passionate about what you are saying then nobody will listen. You may give the same type of speech 50 times, but every time you deliver the speech, you should turn it up a couple notches and get into it. Emphasize words, don’t rush it, pause after important words that you want to sink in. Go over the top, because what seems over the top to us will be engaging for the audience.
5. Eye contact – make eye contact with everyone you are speaking to at least one time during your presentation. Make them feel important!
6. HAVE FUN! – This is the most important thing! If you are not having fun then your audience won’t be either!

These are just some things I have learned along the way! Good luck and hope you enjoyed reading some of my thoughts!

Valen Cover
Subject of "My Favorite American"

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dennis McCloskey

Dennis McCloskey is a journalist and editor and the author of numerous books. Several hundred of his human interest and business articles have appeared in over sixty-five newspapers, magazines and corporate newsletters in Canada, the US and Europe. His latest book, My Favorite American, is published by General Store Publishing House.

Go to Dennis McCloskey ’s Author Page