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 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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Nelson Mandela: Lessons for Future Orators

* First appeared in The Atlantic Post

“When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.”
– Nelson Mandela, 1994

Nelson Mandela’s life, legacy and contributions to humanity will be studied for generations to come.

Mandela’s skill as a wordsmith and communicator will also be studied for generations to come.

Whether his longer address at the opening of his trial 49 years ago in 1964, or his statement upon his release from prison in 1990, Mandela clearly understood the power of words and language.

The sentences that Mandela closed with, both prior to imprisonment and upon his release were carefully chosen, extremely powerful, and symbolize why he is one of the most revered figures in modern history. The final lines clearly articulate his message:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
-April 24, 1964
-February 11, 1990

Mandela is certainly one of the most effective orators in modern history. Mandela’s contributions to oratory and public speaking are many. Here are six:

1) Message Development – When reading or listening to a Mandela speech (unfortunately there are few videos available to Mandela pre-imprisonment) his message is consistently well constructed, audience appropriate and…consistent.

2) Expression – Nelson Mandela was masterful at utilizing his facial muscles for emphasis whenever he spoke. His smile could light up any room, and served as a huge highlighter when delivering key lines. I am always particularly moved by his eyes – at some points when he speaks, even on a video clip, it often seems that he is directly looking at you. Which leads to…

3) Presence – Mandela carried himself like a man 20 years younger than his age. When speaking, it was clear he knew the power of nonverbal communication – he stood straight, shoulder’s back, no swaying, no rocking. He spoke with a measured cadence, and effectively utilized pausing to emphasize key points. Before he spoke, it was clear that a leader was on stage.

4) Rhetorical Devices – Like legendary orators before him, Mandela artfully utilized rhetorical devices to support his messaging. Examples of devices include metaphor, anaphora, allusion and repetition.

5) Quotations – One of the greatest gifts that Mandela has left future orators is a treasure chest of powerful, impactful quotations to open or close a speech or presentation; or to utilize to support key messages. The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory offers an entire book of his quotations – visit for more information.

6) Word Selection – Nelson Mandela clearly understood the power of words and language. In a world where public figures often discount the power of word selection, Mandela clearly knew that many, many people were closely listening to every word he spoke. His address upon release from prison illustrates Mandela’s respect for the power of word selection.

As he stated when closing the 13th Annual International Aids Conference in Durban in 2000:

It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.

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Demosthenes and Public Speaking, Pt II

What lengths would you go to in order to become a master orator, or to take  your public speaking to the next level?

Stand barefoot on blacktop while reciting your speech to test your patience and create proper cadence?

Practice on a tightrope to master balance and control over motion?

Of course not – and you shouldn’t!

I wrote about Demosthenes and the lengths he is rumored to have gone to in order to become one of the legendary Orators of the Greek Empire, but I left out one.

Michelle Koop, who runs a wonderful website –The  Word Wit – reminded me of what has to be one of the most painful of all historical training regiments.

Legend has it that when Demosthenes would present one shoulder would rise above the other, creating an awkward physical posture. 

What did he do to correct it?

It is recorded that he hung a sword just above shoulder level, so that when his shoulder would begin to rise, the sword would prick him, triggering him to lower it.

(I would advise strongly against doing this yourself!)

The point of both posts is not to drive one to try anything potentially dangerous to improve presentation skills; it is to drive home the point that the vast majority of those who are considered to be legendary orators   worked very, very hard to get there. 

Remember that the next time a presentation is coming up and the urge to just “wing it” and focus on other things arises.

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The Fear of Public Speaking: 25 Tips to Calm Your Nerves

1. Prepare: The more you prepare and the better handle you have on the material you are presenting, the better it will go.

2. Practice: Once you have prepared, you MUST practice, early and often. Rumor has it that Churchill practiced for one hour per one minute of speech content he was delivering. 5 minute presentation = 5 hours practice. How long are you practicing?

3. Check out the Room: Familiarity breeds comfort. Surprises the day of a presentation are not fun and ratchet up anxiety tenfold. Is there a podium? What technology are you using and does it work?

4. Read the Room: While not always an option, when you have the opportunity to meet a few audience members beforehand, take it! Arrive ten minutes early and introduce yourself to a few people. If you are presenting mid-day, arrive before a key break to meet a few folks.

5. “Seed” the Audience: Ask friends, associates or colleagues come to your presentation. Talk to the conference organizers when you arrive. Locate them before you take the stage, if possible. Identify where friendly faces are sitting. The purpose – to have friendly faces to focus on if the anxiety starts to build.

6. Remember the audience is on your side: 9 times out of 10, the audience is rooting for you to succeed, not waiting for you to fall flat.

7. Breathing: My three favorite breathing techniques – 3 Deep Belly Breathes, Ujjaiy breathing, and the Alternate Nostril technique – these techniques are explained in further detail at the end

8. Listen to Music: Watch a boxing or MMA competition or an NFL or NBA pre-game show and you will see world class athletes entering the locker room listening to music, getting in the zone, eliminating distraction and chasing away anxiety and negative thoughts. It works prior to public speaking as well; an iPod can be a presenter’s best friend.

9. Visualization: It works. Professional boxers, when shadow boxing, do not throw random punches — they are visualizing an opponent and quite literally sparring with that visualization. Ballplayers do the same thing before approaching the plate. Elite athletes, musicians, actors and dancers utilize visualization regularly — Todd Hargrove has an excellent article on visualization in athletics here. Visualization, if done properly, works for speakers and presenters as well.

10. Body Movement: A few minutes before “taking the stage” – “Waggle” (lateral movement) your jaw; bend forward and dangle your arms and let them shake; shake your hands over your head; utilize simple stretches and isometric stretches (more on that later) — all of these movements, when incorporated with proper breathing, warm the body, relax the mind and calm your nerves.

11. Body Movement, Pt. II: As a former amateur boxer, nothing prepares me to speak better than light shadow boxing a few minutes before I have to speak. I know a CEO who (literally) does 20 pushups prior to every earnings call. Focused movement helps even more than just generic movement because it tends to take your thought process in a different direction.

12. Do Sit-Ups: There is a school of thought that suggest that constricting the abdominal wall prevents the production of epinephrine, a hormone associated with fight or flight response. The most effective way to utilize this approach prior to speaking is to “crunch” and release the abdominal muscles while standing (lying down and doing sit ups is probably not optimal!)

13. Put the Pressure Elsewhere: The more interactive your presentation, the less pressure you will feel, as the presentation becomes a true conversation, and most people are much more comfortable in a conversation than delivering a presentation.

14. Caffeine Free: I always avoid copious amounts of caffeine (due to the epinephrine effect), and salty foods (to avoid drying out my mouth) on presentation day. I also tend to eat lighter on performance day as this keeps me sharp and “light.”

15. Utilize Props: A properly placed water bottle and well-timed break in the presentation to take a sip not only gives the presenter a break for a few seconds, it draws attention back to the presenter, and can be effective to “reset” the audience.

16. Work on your Open: The first minute of the presentation is usually when your tension will peak; having a well prepared, effective, engaging open will lessen anxiety dramatically. You can find some ideas on how to open effectively here.

17. The Restroom: Don’t laugh, on presentation day the restroom is your ally. Ten or fifteen minutes before presenting, head into the restroom to allow yourself the opportunity to breathe, listen to a last minute song or inspirational music, close your eyes and get into your zone. If called upon to do a last minute presentation, you will always be able to steal five minutes in the restroom – use it to pull yourself, and your thoughts, together.

18. Anxiety…Interrupted: When the anxiety is building and you are less than five minutes from taking the stage, your heart is starting to pound, heat is building and you keep telling yourself to calm down my favorite technique is to pick a random number – 1,795 and start counting backwards….by another random number – 7s, 9s, 11s, etc. It is not easy and allows for thought interruption, essentially plateauing the building anxiety

19. Anxiety…Distracted: Maybe you are a math wizard, or the number technique is not effective for you. Start reciting the alphabet backward (mentally). Again, more thought process disruption.

20. Remember the reality: I have worked with thousands of speakers over the years and have to come to the conclusion that you are always more nervous than you appear.

21. Remember the reality, Pt. II: In most cases, your presentation is infinitely more important to you than to your audience members – it is your job to peak their collective interest. The reality is that 99.9999…% of the time, the nightmare scenarios you envision will not come true.

22. Breathing Exercise # 1: Three Deep Belly Breaths – Sounds like what it is. Slowly inhale through the nose for a count of 5-15 (15 is optimal). Keep one hand on your diaphragm and feel it enlarge as you inhale. Hold for 5-10 seconds, and then exhale through your mouth slowly, again for a count of 5-15 seconds (15 is optimal). Repeat three times. This is awesome to do for the few minutes before you are actually going to be speaking.

23. Breathing Exercise #2: Ujjaiy Breathing – Also known as Oceanic or Victorious Breathing – it is remarkable. It is a yogic breathing technique I first learned from struggling through Vinyasa yoga classes. Similar to deep belly breathing, however this time the mouth stays closed the entire time.

24. Breathing Exercise #3: Alternate Nostril Breathing Technique (my favorite) – All you need for this is your thumb, your pinkie finger, and your nose. To begin, simply cover your left nostril with your left thumb, and slowly and deeply inhale for 5 seconds to start (10 is optimal). Then immediately cover your right nostril with your left pinkie finger, while keeping your left nostril pressed closed – at all times your mouth is closed as well, so at this point you are essentially holding your breathe. Again, hold for 5 seconds (10 is optimal). Then remove your left thumb from your left nostril and slowly exhale for a 10 count. Wait two seconds and repeat the same technique, inhaling through your left nostril as your right nostril is still closed, etc.

25. Use Notes: Memorization + anxiety = poor performance. An index card with key bullet points, just to keep you on track, will help free your mind to stay in the moment, rather than allowing the pressure to remember to add to the anxiety you are already feeling on presentation day.

There are other effective tactics and strategies including taking advantage of great programs that allow you to practice presenting in front of likeminded professionals (Toastmasters), seeking professional help to develop individual techniques to deal with a specific anxiety or aspect of presenting and in extreme cases seeking the expertise of a therapist.

One last technique is one I frequently suggest to people who have had a traumatic public speaking experience in the past, and the technique is scaling. After a traumatic experience your memory tends to exaggerate how poorly the event went, and the more time that goes by without that thought pattern being interrupted, the “bigger” the event feels, and the more anxious you feel prior to the next presentation. In this case it is critical to break this pattern, and that is done through scaling – finding low stakes…..

The next time you are about to present, do yourself a favor and take a deep breath. Picture Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln. Two of the greatest orators ever, both suffering from a fear of public speaking. Think about major Hollywood actors and actresses, many of who also suffer from glossophobia. You are not alone, and I can promise that if you institute much of what you just read, your next presentation will be better.

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Famous Orators – 5 Lessons from William Bourke Cockran


Today is a special day in the world of public speaking and communication. Today is the 89th anniversary of the death of William Bourke Cockran, who in my estimation may be one of the greatest speakers of all time.  Who is William Bourke Cockran, and how can I make such a bold statement, having never witnessed him speak, as he passed away well before speeches were recorded on video?

I have been fascinated by the ability of an individual to influence through spoken word since I was a young boy.  I am often asked what orator has had the biggest impact on me,  and my oratorical role model is  Sir Winston Churchill.  And who was Churchill’s oratorical role model?

William  Bourke Cockran, a Congressman from New York City in the early 1900s was described in his day as the greatest orator in the land.  He also served as a role model, and the oratorical role model, for a young Winston Churchill.  It was not just Churchill who held Cockran in such high regard as an orator – it was the vast majority of his peers.  The sad fact is that William Bourke Cockran might be the greatest speaker who no one knows about.  Books are few and far between, with my favorite being Becoming Winston Churchill: The Untold Story of Young Winston and his American Mentor, written by Michael McMenamin and Curt Zoller.   There are not many internet resources dedicated to Cockran, and even his Wikipedia entry is lacking. 

Congressman Cockran was noted for his ability to move colleagues and constituents to support causes or even change positions due his magnificent oratory.  Churchill once wrote to Cockran, about Cockran, “…there are few more fascinating experiences than to watch a great mass of people under the wand of a magician….”

Finding information might be difficult, but there are clear lessons that young Churchill and many other leaders took away from Cockran.  Here are a few,  some taken from books, comments from Cockran’s congressional colleagues, and my choice as the the best essay about his public speaking strengths, written by Professor Brian Leggett:

1. Rhythm – Every speech should have a rhythm, although most don’t.  Cockran was known for his rhythmic speeches, and many noticed, including Churchill;

2. Presence – Cockran knew the power of presence and using both his body, gestures and his voice to captivate and move (so can you – no matter your body type, height, weight, voice, you can use your best qualities to your advantage, and EVERYBODY has natural strengths – it is just a matter of finding them;)

3. Conversational language – Every presentation is a conversation, verbally and non-verbally;

4. Power of Delivery;

5. Subject Matter Expertise – Cockran was known not only for his oratorical skill, but for his mastery of the subject upon which he spoke;

Congressman Charles O’Brien (D-NJ), at Cockran’s Memorial Service:

“Much has been said and written about his ability as an orator. For ages to come his will be the standard upon which men of similar genius will be judged.  In all history of the world, no man has surpassed and few have equaled him.”


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Steve Jobs – Public Speaking, Preparation & Practice

The speed at which information travels has rendered most news dated within hours; days if a story really has “legs.”  To last through multiple news cycles is very rare.  The passing of Steve Jobs has done just that, and for good reason.  Over the past decade, very few (if any) executives  have had the impact on the way we communicate the way that Steve Jobs has.  

What made Steve Jobs an effective communicator was not innovation or new technology.   His public speaking skills had everything to do with fundamentals – an example being one that is crucial yet often ignored – extensive preparation.  The preparation and practice that went into a product launch or public presentation was evident, and each presentation became an event itself – not very common in the corporate world today (unless it is bad news).

Two of my favorite Steve Jobs presentations:

The launch of the original iPhone

Some Key Takeaways:

1. Very limited use of slides (no “Death by PPT”);

2. Limited content on each slide;

3. Effective use of movement;

4. Use of the “Power Pause”;

5. Effective gesturing;

6.  Simple, conversational language (I am convinced one of the reasons Apple is the market leader is not only the ease of use of the product line, but the ease of explanation as to how the products work.)

Stanford Commencement – 2005

This is one of the most moving speeches I have seen in the past decade, and moves me every time I watch it.  From a delivery standpoint, I can only imagine how powerful this would have been had Jobs given it in 2010, as his evolution as a public speaker over the past six years was evident.  Two key takeaways:

1. The use of story – amazing storytelling;

2. The use of repetition;

3. Use of summation – every story is neatly summarized with a memorable takeaway;

4. Chronological Speech Structure – not the conventional use of structure, and very, very effective.

“Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

 – Steve Jobs

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Public Speaking “Fight or Flight” – Acute Stress Response

“The only thing we have to fear is… fear itself.”

    – President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Sweating. Rapid heart rate. Dry mouth. Faster breathing. The “jitters.”

Most of us have experienced some, or all of these prior to speaking or presenting publicly. Whether in Princeton or Phuket, Dallas for Dubai, anxiety surrounding public speaking is nothing new.

Every presenter has a rush of adrenaline prior to presenting. Having worked with thousands of speakers, I can attest to this. This angst seems to be independent of position or job title. Nervous energy affects all of us.

This is a good thing.

That’s right, it is a good thing.

Contrary to popular wisdom, “nervous” energy, properly channeled, and the physiological responses that follow will make for a more impactful presenter, and presentation.

One of the keys to successfully channeling this “nervous energy” is to understand what is actually happening when our acute stress response, or “fight or flight” response, kicks in. And why many of the reactions from this response actually help you. This graphic will show you what is happening when your acute stress response kicks in. For more information, please contact Princeton Public Speaking, headquartered in Princeton, NJ with offices in Dallas and other locations.

Fight or Flight Public Speaking Infographic

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12 Tips to Overcome Public Speaking Jitters

“I know they are watching me tremble and sweat!

“Can they see me shake?”

“I get so blotchy when I am nervous and I know that the audience can tell!”

I hear these questions and statements on a regular basis. Fear and anxiety before speaking publicly is nearly universal – it targets all of us, at different times and to varying degrees.

Most individuals experience some degree of anxiety and/or nervousness prior to presenting. Two of the greatest orators of the past two centuries, Sir Winston Churchill and President Abraham Lincoln, were both reported to have some degree of anxiety before speaking publicly.

So the next time you are about to present, do yourself a favor and take a deep breath and picture Sir Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln. Two of the greatest orates ever, both suffered from a fear of public speaking. Also, think about major Hollywood actors and actresses, many of whom also suffer from Glossophobia (the fear of public speaking).

You are not alone! Keep this graphic nearby, and utilize these tips weeks, days, hours and minutes before your next presentation. You will be glad that you did!

Fear of Public Speaking Infographic

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