Princeton University, President Wilson and the Art of Public Speaking



“What is the object of oratory?  Its object is persuasion and conviction…”

                       - Woodrow Wilson, The Princetonian, 1877

Princeton and public speaking have a long, storied history together.  Princeton was also home to a public speaking expert and a student of the art of public speaking.  This expert also happened to be a President.

In Princeton, the fingerprints of President Woodrow Wilson are evident everywhere. President Wilson is known for many successes.  One success that is near and dear is his dedication and respect for the art of public speaking.  President Wilson certainly qualifies as a public speaking expert.

Woodrow Wilson is not often one of the first figures that come to mind when remembering legendary orators of the past.  He should be.  The dedication and attention he gave to developing his communication skills from an early age may not make it into many public speaking books.  It should.

Dr. Anders Ericsson is an oft quoted expert on the study of…expertise.  While the hours necessary to become accomplished have been challenged, the core of Ericsson’s study suggests that a certain level of dedicated, regular practice of a particular skill will allow an individual to gain a certain level of acumen in that skill.

This is certainly true with oratory, and the legions of great orators of the past all certainly held true to the theme of this study, centuries before it was ever released.  Sir Winston Churchill, Demosthenes and Abraham Lincoln are well known for their individual preparation, practice and dedication devoted to public speaking.

President Wilson made becoming a powerful, persuasive, effective communicator one of his top priorities as a student at Princeton University and as a young professor at Cornell, Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan and Princeton.  This skill set served Wilson well as he went on to become President of Princeton University, Governor of New Jersey and ultimately the President of the United States.

There are two great books about Woodrow Wilson, Wilson, by Andrew Berg, and Woodrow Wilson and the Lost World of the Oratorical Statesman by Robert Kraig (out of print.)  Both spend time discussing Wilson’s penchant for study of public speaking and his dedication to improving his oratorical skills.

The challenges a young Woodrow Wilson had to face as a communicator were significant.  He was not a “natural.”  He was dyslexic, had attention issues, and did not exude confidence.  But he had a tremendous role model who was both a notable orator and a model of how powerful the spoken word was – his father.  Joseph Wilson was a minister and professor, noted for his oratorical ability.

Young Woodrow Wilson’s interest in oratory and rhetoric were not satiated by course offerings, so he sought out information on his own.  He studied greats.  He practiced. And practiced.  And practiced.  He took advantage of every opportunity.  This self-education paid off.

President Wilson has left us with many powerful orations.  President Wilson’s diction, inflection, volume and rate are notable in the following clip – the only audio that I believe exists of Wilson speaking – a campaign address from 1912.

President Wilson’s contributions to Princeton, New Jersey and the United States are many. So are his contributions to oratory and public speaking. None are more important than the necessity of practice and preparation.

If you are a Princeton student or a member of the University community, please come and join the wonderful student organization Speak with Style on Thursday’s at 4:30 pm in Frist Room 307.

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Public Speaking Expert: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The next legend in a series on public speaking experts is one of the greatest orators ever, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is a legendary orator.   We are lucky enough to have video clips of Dr. King to view, study and learn from.

Dr. King inspired, and continues to inspire people with the power of his speech and the power of his actions. His speeches should be staples on playlists and iPods as his speeches are inspirational even on dark days. He is unquestionably a public speaking expert.

This clip is the conclusion of Dr. King’s final speech, given at Mason Temple in Memphis on April 3rd — he was assassinated the next day.

Listen carefully to the language and word choice. He was speaking in support of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis.  The sheer energy that this clip contains is unbelievable. One can feel the power through the short clip on Youtube — imagine the energy that must have been in the room that day in Memphis!

On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  The 17 minute address is an amazing oratorical display. Here are 7 lessons:

1. Cadence – Dr. King control of cadence is simply amazing; no words are lost and key pauses exist throughout the entire address. Cadence is so important to every presenter- one technique to learn cadence that I employ often – read great speeches along with the soundtrack of the person delivering it.

2. Rhythm – Great speeches have great cadence, and great rhythm.  This speech had both.

3. Inflection – There is no question at any point in this speech which words are stressed; there should be no confusion in the audience with regard to the point you are trying to make.

4. Eye Contact – Dr. King reads quite a bit of the speech, but when he reaches this crucial section, his eyes never wander – they look right at the 200,000 people watching him

5. Rhetorical Tools – Dr. King’s use of Anaphora – repeating of a sequence of words at the beginning of sentences, or clauses to add emphasis – “I have a dream…; I have a dream…”; another great example – Churchill’s “We Shall Fight” speech.  Anaphora is one example of what are countless valuable rhetorical devices available to all presenters.

6. Passion – Is there any question Dr. King felt every single word as he delivered it?  While your presentation may not be on a subject as important to you, there needs to be something that you feel strongly about in or around the subject matter – find it.

7. Practice – It is rumored that Dr. King went off script at the end of this address, however it is also rumored he practiced the vast majority of this address extensively prior to delivering it.  Chances are, you are probably not as oratorically gifted as MLK; if he had to practice, you have to practice.

Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”

- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.



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Public Speaking for Entrepreneurs – 3 Tips for a Successful Pitch

Public speaking for entrepreneurs?  Absolutely!  The reality is that a presentation, a pitch or “casual” conversations about your company all qualify as examples of public speaking.  When I ask entrepreneurs about public speaking, I often hear “I don’t have to give speeches.”

There are 3 universal ideas every entrepreneur should remember while pitching their startup:

1) You are Presenting for Your Audience, not Yourself

It doesn’t matter if you’re presenting before a group of angel investors or on the floor of a private equity investor’s boardroom — your presentation is not about you, it’s about the people you are presenting to.  Think about what matters to them, rather than what matters to you.

2) Focus Your Pitch

What are you trying to accomplish? What are you asking for? Gaining the interest/investment of equity groups?  Looking for capital?  Watch one of the myriad programs targeted at entrepreneurs (think Shark Tank) to get ideas of what focus does (or does not) look like.  Far too many presentations have no focus, fail to answer the central questions, and receive an undesired response.  Wonder why?

3) Reading Verbatim IS NOT Fundamental

There is one situation where reading is not fundamental, and that is when you are presenting. When you read verbatim, you show the audience that you display very little, if any, ownership of the words written. This makes connecting with the audience almost impossible.

Invest the time in practice and preparation. Even the best ideas fall flat if they cannot be communicated effectively.

It is understandable that you are nervous, have a lot of information to convey, and have written it down in order to ensure that you are able to introduce every concept you feel is necessary. But reading directly off of a script, or even worse, a PPT will not allow potential investors to see how passionate and confident you are about your company, your fund, or your idea.

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Public Speaking Experts – Demosthenes

Public speaking expert is a title that carries tremendous weight.  Demosthenes, public speaking expert of the 4th century BC, is one of the legendary Greek orators. Some of his most famous (and my favorite) addresses of his relate to his opposition to King Phillip II of Macedon. Although he passed away in 322 BC, Demosthenes is relevant to 21st century orators because of his dedication to practice and preparation.

Demosthenes’ dream was to be a great orator, but he had speech impediments.  He was ridiculed early and often for his deficiencies, but he never quit.   Here are just a few of the things he is rumored to have done to attain his goal:

Corrected his defective elocution by speaking with pebbles in his mouth.

Prepared himself to overcome noise by speaking in stormy weather on the seashore.

Recited verses while running to improve his breathing and cadence.

Passed two or three months in an underground cave, practicing his oratory. While there, he would shave half of his head to prevent himself from leaving the cave.

Hung a sword just above shoulder level, so that when his shoulder rose to create an awkward physical posture, the sword would prick him, triggering him to lower it.

While I would never advocate living in a cave or practicing with pebbles in your mouth to improve oratorical skill, there are modern equivalents of Demosthenes’ methods that everyone can use to improve.  Here are a few:

1) Write it Out – I always write out every speech I will deliver.  I then edit it and re-write it.  I do this four of five times. It is at this point that I begin the process of shortening the speech to bullet points, then shortening the bullet points until there is nothing left to eliminate. All that’s left are key words and key phrases. You don’t have to confine yourself in a cave to do this! Find a quiet place and just write.

2) Videotape yourself – I have a studio that I use, although before I used my garage.  Set up a video camera, adjust the settings, and begin.  This is an extremely effective way to get a feel for not only messaging and verbal delivery, but also paralanguage, expressions, and gestures. No need for a hanging sword.

3) Record Your Voice – I often complement the use of a video camera with the use of a Dictaphone so that I can focus entirely on my verbal delivery. This way, you can improve your verbal fluency without putting pebbles in your mouth.

4) Practice in Front of People – In addition to solitary preparation, it’s essential to practice in front of an actual person. My wife is my biggest fan and sharpest critic.  For nine years I have practiced every speech or presentation I have ever delivered in front of her multiple times, and she always gives me very astute commentary.  This works with co-workers, siblings, and anyone else who you trust and whose opinion you respect.

5) Exercise and Deliver – This is a Demosthenes method that still works to this day.   I often run a few 100-yard sprints, and then immediately retreat to my garage, winded, to practice and get my posture and breathing right (breathing from the diaphragm.)  You do not have to run sprints – any exercise that gets your heart rate up and adrenaline pumping can subtly mimic what your body feels when beginning an address.

What lengths would you go to in order to become a master orator, or to take your public speaking to the next level? The point of highlighting Demosthenes in this post is not to drive one to try anything potentially dangerous to improve presentation skills; it’s to drive home the point that the majority of those who are considered to be public speaking experts worked very, very hard to get there.

Remember that the next time a presentation is coming up and the urge to just “wing it” arrives.

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Rock Your Next Interview: Public Speaking Dallas to Dubai

First, public speaking in Dallas is as important as public speaking in Dubai or public speaking in Djibouti. Location doesn’t matter. Interviews are a given in life, interviews certainly qualify as public speaking events, and how you communicate in that interview is crucial.  Whether interviewing or speaking in Dallas or Dubai, or anywhere else in the world, every person is going to have an interview.

You are often the preeminent expert in the topic of the interview – YOU!  There is no one on the planet that knows you better than you know yourself.  That does not mean you don’t need to prepare.   It means you actually need to prepare more – you know yourself better than anyone, and that means you know every extraneous detail while forgetting other important ones.  Preparation is key.  There is no replacement.


What else can you do to prepare more effectively? We have you covered.  From the days leading up to the interview, to minutes before the interview, to the interview and the days following, this graphic will help guide you through the interview process. For more information, please contact Princeton Public Speaking, headquartered in Princeton, NJ with offices in Dallas and other locations.

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