• Alyssa Barton

Speak Up With Confidence: Audiobook Review

Valenti, Jack. (2002). Speak Up With Confidence: How to Prepare, Learn, and Deliver Effective Speeches. HighBridge Company, an imprint of Workman Publishing Company, New York, NY.

The importance of speaking well cannot be overstated. Whether you are speaking to friends, family, colleagues, your boss, a prospective boss during an interview, a panel critiquing your dissertation, a police officer questioning you at a checkpoint, a jury in a courtroom, a classroom, the United Nations, a panel of local electeds, thousands of faceless voices over the radio, or a ballroom full of 300 guests at an annual gala event: you must be able to speak clearly, thoughtfully, and convincingly in order to achieve your purpose.

Moreover, it’s very satisfying to know when you’ve given a great speech. “There are few experiences you will savor with as exquisite an aftertaste than the successfully delivery of a good speech to a responsive audience.” (Chapter 3).

During my 1st annual review in my current position, I received two pieces of constructive criticism, one of which was that I could work on my public speaking skills. With that in mind I listened to this audio-book, Speak Up With Confidence, to learn how to better prepare and practice giving public comments and speaking in front of an audience. My three main takeaways from this book:

  1. Preparation is everything! * (as I’ve found with most of my work)

  2. When it comes to speech, preparation requires actual practice standing up and speaking in front of a mirror, recording yourself speaking and playing it back (video is optimal!), and lots of repetition

  3. To give a great speech you must establish a connection with the audience, a rapport. In order to do so you must make frequent eye-contact. You also must become an conscious actor – that is, you must dynamically present your speech or presentation in a way that is both engaging and compelling, while avoiding excessive or awkward movements.

  4. While you must, in a sense, put on an “act”, you must also be believable and genuine.

Below you’ll find some notes from several key chapters in this audiobook. I recommend listening to this book rather than reading it, because, after all, the point is effective speech giving – not effective writing!

Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book, I listened to the audiobook. Listening to the author’s crisply and clearly articulated vocabulary impressed me with the author’s oratory skills – skills that I’m seeking, and which lead me to recommend the book.

Chapter 2: Preparation

The most important task I can perform at work, and the most essential step that I take in many processes I engage in, is preparation. I think that’s why I found Valenti’s advice about preparation to hit home.

There are three methods of speaking: from a complete prepared text, or from notes, or from memory.

To prepare your complete speech text:

  • Break the text into short paragraphs, skipping a line between paragraphs

  • Read it over and over again until it’s almost committed to memory

  • If you have trouble with a word, replace it with a more comfortable word. Avoid words with hissing sounds, or vowel and consonant juxtapositions that are ungainly or “cause your tongue to become slovenly.”

Jack Valenti founded an advertising agency in the 50’s, and later worked on the Kennedy – Johnson presidential campaign. He served as a liaison between John F. Kennedy’s staff and the media during that fateful 1963 visit to Houston, Texas, and thereafter served as the head of Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech-writing staff. He left the service of President Johnson in 1966 to work as the President of the Motion Picture Association of America. His expertise in communication is clearly demonstrated by the concise and clear speech he uses – despite his slight lisp and soft Texas accent - throughout his audiobook.

Valenti repeatedly emphasizes the importance of repetition as the best form of preparation for a speech. He says, “your mind is like a camera, it can photograph chunks of prose.” He advocates the method of rote memorization, paragraph by paragraph.

Valenti also admonishes the reader again and again that the key to a good speech is eye contact. When it comes to preparation for eye contact, he coaches you to practice speaking aloud from a written text, letting your eyes wander on in the sentence ahead of your tongue, so that at the end of each sentence you can pick your eyes up off the page still speaking to the audience from memory. In the written text, you can use underlining, capitals, dashes, and you can circle words, to flag where you wish to provide emphasis by use of force or volume, or pause, and to note how the rhythm and cadence of your speech should flow. He says that “rhythm, like the fluid movements of a great dancer or superb athlete, is essential to the graceful exposition of a line, a thought, a theme.”

Eye Contact!

To nail your eye contact and the rhythm of your speech, practice speaking into a tape recorder, in front of a mirror, while timing yourself. Note the amount of time you’re looking in the mirror vs. on the page. You should at least get to the point where you have made eye contact with your audience at least 50% of the time – but the more time spent looking at your audience, the better!

To demonstrate the essential connection established between the audience and speaker by eye contact, Valenti tells great stories of performances and speeches where the speakers failed in their task by burying their eyes in their notes. Doing so is not participatory, not engaging.

For me, I would also note that it’s not just eye contact that is essential, but the ability to clearly see the full face of the person speaking.

I recently grabbed lunch with a higher-ranking colleague. While we spoke, she sat across from me with elbows on the table, arms up in a pyramid and hands clasped together at the top – but due to our positions, her clasped hands covered my view of her mouth and nose! This caused me to feel an uncomfortable and strange, disconnected feeling. I could see her eyes, and I could tell when she was smiling and making other facial expressions – but I couldn’t see her mouth forming words. The visual barrier felt like an aural and a mental barrier: I had trouble understanding her without intense concentration because I found her hands to be a distraction and limiting element to the conversation.

This is further evidence that speaking well involves acting and an awareness of your body in the world. The part of you that is in view of the speaker will be noticed and so your body language and movements should lend to your performance, helping you achieve the goal of your communication rather than distracting or confusing. Valenti gets into this a bit later when discussing the archetypal speaker that doesn't realize that everyone can see when his hand starts wandering around, distracting the audience by scratching at an itch. Personally, I have a bad habit of bouncing back and forth on my feet when I'm standing and speaking, and I can also bob my head too much if I'm not thoroughly prepared and cognizant. These issues were first identified during Moot Court in law school when I was videotaped presenting oral argument. If you can practice on videotape, you'll get the best possible feedback: evidence of exactly what you're doing right and wrong!

Also covered in Chapter 2 is a discussion of the importance of logistics. Valenti instructs that you should know where you’re going to deliver your speech, the size of the room and how many people will be in your audience. You should know if you’ll have a microphone, and what kind, and always ask for a lectern so you’ll have something to rest your notes on or to use as a prop. You should understand the interests of your audience, are they a cohesive group, and what brings them to see your speech. Knowledge of all of these details will help you master the room.

You should acquaint yourself with the format of the event, whether there is a moderator or not, the order of speakers, whether someone will introduce you and whom, and whether you’ll be on a panel. You should also thoroughly understand your topic. You should know the amount of time you have to speak and keep your speech shorter – don’t ever go longer! This is good form, and a strategy to keep folks interested and grateful if you end early. Know whether there will be a Q&A session with the audience at the end of your talk, and how that will function. With Q&A, don't get into the position of having to cut off the question period – have the moderator or a coordinator announce the last question, so that you avoid being the “bad guy."

Valenti also takes time to walk through the ins and outs of speaking after a meal or happy hour. He notes: “After dinner speaking is the toughest obstacle course to traverse successfully.” Keep it to 15 minutes or less and you’ll appear merciful, satiated and tired folks will be grateful. After a meal and, potentially, drinking alcohol, an audience may feel like hostages praying for release. Listeners' patience and interest decreases for each successive speaker after a meal, so take caution.

Chapter 3: Length

Valenti coaches that compact is better, and that 20 minutes is a good rule for the absolute maximum time for a speech. Know that one 8 ½ x 11 inch double spaced page of written text takes about 2 minutes to speak – but practice and time yourself, as you may be faster or slower. “Always leave at the height of a party. Meaning, wherever you are, stop talking when your listeners expect and want you to keep going.”

To summarize a few rules on timing and length outlined by the author:

  1. If you’re speaking after dinner at a large gathering with several hundred people, and you’re one of several after–dinner speakers, keep it under 5 minutes. The shorter, the better. Other speakers may follow your bad example, terrorizing the audience.

  2. If you’re speaking to a college class or are the only speaker at a forum convened for the sole purpose of hearing you, extend to 20 – 30 min. If the coordinator gives you 45 minutes, keep it short anyway and allow time for Q&A.

  3. Don’t ever go beyond quitting time/cutoff.

  4. If you’re speaking at to a technical or business setting, or some other type of sophisticated convention, keep what you’re going to say compact and to the point. This also applies when speaking to the press.

  5. Specifically for the press: TV networks look for quick soundbites that are meaningful and spoken colorfully, usually under a minute. Come up with brief but compact sentence or two that creatively packs in your "therefore" - the main point you want to make - to increase the likelihood that you might be quoted.

Chapter 4: Delivery

In this chapter, the author returns to the topic of eye contact. He says, “the prime element in constructing rapport is eye contact.” One tactic to establish this rapport with the audience is to allow your eyes to rove around the audience and then stop, making eye contact with people one at a time throughout your speech. That way, at the end of your talk you know you’ll have at least connected with those few individuals that your eyes have “made friends” with – a “figurative handshake.”

In addition, audiences tend to be more hospitable to speakers speaking what they perceive to be their own thoughts – rather than a prepared text by someone else. “Believability is more easily attained when you appear to be thinking for yourself, rather than mouthing words,” as from a full prepared text you’re reading from. That’s why speaking from notes – or memory - is preferred. While speaking without notes is the most powerful form of communication and most suitable medium for persuasion, Valenti cautions that it’s also the most risky form of speech. He suggests not to trust to inspiration unless you’re a consummate professional, but if you can do it, and do it right, it will be extremely powerful.

Chapter 5: Humor

This chapter is an interesting one for its humorous stories – and that’s the point of the chapter. The art of incorporating humor into a speech. The author cautions that humor can be treacherous if you don’t use it correctly, so to only use it carefully and with practice. But, well timed and pointed humor can make a speech that would otherwise be mundane, memorable. “Drawing humor from the moment is a fine art” – the best type of humor is drawn from your environment and the circumstances around you. The ability to think on your feet is therefore a critical one to hone and develop.

However, Valenti also keeps track of quotes, prose, and juicy bits of text for later use. This can provide a resource for quotes or humor inserted into speeches, when appropriate. This is something I have also done since college: back in the day, I started a word document entitled “Random Stuff” where I document funny, memorable or important conversations, quotes from books, movies, or other sources, and beautiful passages from literature I want to remember. This type of practice, akin to an “idea garden” can be very useful for writers as well as speakers. The "Random Stuff" doc provides fodder for inspiration and new written works, and can provide material for speeches as well. Today, that document is hundreds of pages long. I love adding to it and revisiting it regularly!

Another issue Valenti revisits connection with humor is believability. As mentioned before, believability is a critical component of being a great communicator. It is essential for your written and verbal communications. The author emphasizes that it is especially integral for communicating on television.

You must be a believable, genuine messenger or your message won’t be taken seriously. You must therefore be honest, and also accurate: the press will be ruthless if you are not. Valenti goes in to much detail regarding dealing with the press and his experiences with Presidential press statements and speeches, but I'll draw to a close now.

To Wrap Up:

Know that you may be nervous – even very nervous! - but if you know what you want to say and the ideas you want to get across, and if you know the outline of what you want to say, you’ll do fine. Imagine yourself having conversations with individual participants in the audience while speaking to help you cultivate connections through eye-contact.

The above encapsulates the core takeaways I pulled from this recording, though I could go on. There are many other tidbits regarding word choice and vocabulary, cadence, presentation, and preparation. If you can't take a live workshop or receive coaching, or attend a Toastmasters to work on your public speaking skills, you should read or listen to the book for more details about how to captivate your audience and deliver a killer speech.

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