How to be a passionate speaker

Many people will tell you that passion is everything in presentations and communications in general.  “Just be yourself – be passionate,” they say.  There are two problems with that advice.  What if you’re not passionate about the subject?  And what if “being yourself” means being shy, or geeky, or just plain terrified?

Giving a speech or a presentation is not a natural act.  Fighting, eating, breathing, making love – these are natural acts.  To give a successful speech, you have to stand up in front of a crowd and achieve a nice balance of extroverted energy and heartfelt honesty.  If you don’t do those things easily, you have to work at them.  That’s most people. 

More than that, there are a couple of things that have to happen first between a speaker and an audience, before everyone can get down to being energetic and heartfelt. 

First, we have to be open with one another.  Nothing meaningful can happen between people if we’re not open.  Communication is not possible when our hackles are up and our systems are shut down. 

Second, we have to connect.  That means cutting through the crap, the distractions, the issues that everyone is always dealing with.  The speaker has to get the attention of the audience, and the audience has to give its attention to the speaker. 

Once those two essential steps have taken place, we can take the third.  The third step in the layered process of communicating authentically and charismatically is being passionate – showing your heart.

It’s the reason, in the end, that we communicate, and it’s where charisma begins to enter the picture in a meaningful way. It’s the opportunity we all crave to know and be known by someone else. It’s the only meaningful evidence, in the long run, that we were ever alive on the planet. And it’s the chance to form a bond that endures beyond the moment.

Showing your heart to someone is neither trivial nor easy.  Trust must be firmly established, and the way to do that is through openness and connection. 

Being passionate has a verbal and a nonverbal component.  I’ll talk about the verbal or content in the first couple of posts, and the nonverbal in subsequent posts. 

How do you effectively communicate passion through your content? Recognize that all the verbal expressions of emotion are not as strong as the nonverbal ones, and if the two are at odds, the person you’re communicating with will believe the nonverbal always.  That said, there are some ways to express passion through content.

The first, and simplest, technique is to label the emotion. And yet this technique is one that people deny themselves all the time, because of our reluctance to talk about negative or strong emotions. Is it easy to look at a loved one and say, “ I’m angry with you”? How about going into your boss’s office and saying, “Boss, I’m really frustrated because you have systematically under-funded and understaffed this initiative, and you know my career depends on its success”?  And what about telling an old friend that he’s let you down by not showing up at a performance that really mattered to you?

People go through years of therapy and read countless books on how to accomplish this simple yet powerful technique – all to overcome a societal taboo against expressing oneself.  We are uncomfortable with negative emotions and worry that the expression of strong emotions will make us look out of control.

And yet labeling an honest emotion puts the issue squarely in front of the audience. No evasion is possible after a speech that accomplishes this difficult feat. That’s both the opportunity and the danger of labeling emotions. Once done, you have to deal with the issues that arise if you have any integrity at all.

And it’s the same in more intimate conversations. Once a problem has been honestly and directly put in front of all parties, they must address it.

Another equally simple yet profound technique to show passion in your verbal expression is to tell an uncomfortable truth.  It’s important to distinguish telling the truth from labeling the emotion. Certainly there can be overlap, but to tell an uncomfortable truth can often mean keeping your emotions in check.

The passion that shows up in these instances is courage.  The classic instance of truth telling in this mode is whistle-blowing. From the cigarette industry to Enron, WorldCom, and the Federal Aviation Administration, whistle-blowers put their careers, their family’s safety, and indeed their own lives on the line.

Since the natural reaction of the institution that is being taken to task is to stonewall first and deny the credibility of the whistle-blower second, it is essential for the individual to appear not to be superficially emotional.  We measure the power of their belief, ironically, by how much they appear to be holding back.

We may generalize this technique to include many other instances when verbal restraint can be a more powerful indicator of depth of feeling than excess. When a parent gives a toast at a son or daughter’s wedding, we get one kind of reading on how the parent feels if he or she weeps uncontrollably and another if instead we see someone who holds back the tears. The first performance is forgivable but vaguely embarrassing. The second is dignified, heart-wrenching, and an unforgettable way to demonstrate passion in verbal expression.

Of course, the restraint in the verbal component has to be accompanied by a similar set of nonverbal cues of restraint with deep feeling behind the facade. It is essential for the two conversations to be aligned for communication to be effective, authentic, and charismatic.

I’ll be talking about passion in communication at the Public Words Speaker Forum 2010, next week in Boston.  Join us if you can!

Comments

  1. says

    Your suggestion of verbal restraint is powerful.. it reminds me of it’s sister strategy – the pregnant pause. Silence is an incredible thought provoker. Enjoyed your post.

  2. says

    This is great advice Nick and I totally understand where you come from when you say ‘label the emotion’. As a manager, it’s often very difficult to help someone with an opportunity or problem when they’re not clear about how they’re feeling about it. When we’re clear about how we’re feeling, we behave assertively and take responsibility for resolving the situation, and it provides the best information for an effective solution.

  3. says

    Hi, Simon — thanks for your comment. I appreciate the plea for clarity, especially in emotion. The opposite wastes a lot of energy and time!
    And Judy — thanks for your comment about the pause. I did a whole blog on that some time ago. The pause is the most under-appreciated and powerful tool in the public speaker’s toolbox.

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