Roger Ailes, Chairman of Fox News, gained prominence first as a speech coach for top executives and political leaders—with Ronald Reagan becoming his best-known client. To make his coaching tips available for the general public, Ailes wrote a book titled You Are the Message.
One of his chapters gives this counsel: “Lighten Up, You’re Wearing Everybody Out.” He asserts: “There’s nothing more tedious than a person who takes himself too seriously.”
Consider whether you need to lighten up when you speak to audiences. Think about these strategies.
First, lighten up your attitude about the potential consequences of the speech situation. Make an accurate—concentrate on that word accurate—assessment of the “worst case scenario” that might happen if you gave a speech that either bored, confused, or offended your audience. In your private thoughts, you might predict:
- getting fired from your current job
- not getting the promotion you wanted
- failing to close a sale
- suffering permanent embarrassment among your colleagues
- losing all confidence in your ability to persuade a group
- demolishing your reputation
Now think this through. How many times have you seen speakers endure reprisals like those? Name the speakers, the incidents, and the disastrous aftermath. What, you’re drawing a blank now? Probably so, because those dire repercussions happen quite rarely. For the most part, our constituents—even our clients—allow us a bad presentation occasionally without labeling us a failure. Usually, they will forget your rambling remarks quickly, as they move on to their own demanding responsibilities.
Second, lighten up when you enter the group you’re going to address. I’m sure you have seen speakers dart through the group, sit near the podium, and start flipping through their notes repeatedly. Often they will have a pen in hand, so they can underline or scribble their additions to their text or notes.
By contrast, the lightened up scene would have the speaker mingling with the crowd, introducing herself, sharing available refreshments in moderation, asking people their opinion about the speech topic, and catching names to use informally during the speech.
Third, lighten up your nonverbal message. Even while your host is introducing you, make eye contact with your audience—all sections of it. Throughout your presentation, smile regularly, indicating you are enjoying the occasion and your own material. Become mobile as well, walking away from the lectern to demonstrate that you are not tied to a script or a physical prop.
Fourth, lighten up your language. Stilted language makes you come across too formally. Substitute well-understood, commonplace words and phrases for those that seem obsolete, even mysterious:
- Replace “penultimate” with “next to last”
- Replace “fortuitous” with “lucky”
- Replace “optimal” with “ideal”
- Replace “peruse” with “read”
- Replace “surrogate” with “substitute”
- Replace “eschew” with “avoid”
What novelist Stephen King said about writing applies to speaking also: “Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes.”
Fifth, lighten up your content. Keep in mind that even though your audience might expect you to provide specific information, particularly at a board meeting or training session, you will keep them interested and involved through tasteful humor, folksy illustrations, biographical snippets about people they respect, relevant quotations, and your own personal experiences.
Sixth, lighten up your length. Let’s assume you give a weekly update in a departmental staff meeting, which usually has you speaking for twenty minutes. Next week, cut your presentation time to ten minutes by omitting nonessential matters. Try speaking in bullet points instead of lengthy paragraphs. Abbreviate your report for a few weeks in succession, and your colleagues will become more attentive. Although they may not comment about your shortened speeches, they will appreciate your respect for their already jammed schedules.
In summary: Contradictory as it might seem, your speaking will become much more appealing when you quit trying so hard. Lighten up, and you’ll become the speaker audiences want to hear again and again.