What makes a great speaker?
What is the difference between someone who is so compelling they easily hold your attention, and someone who is so boring that it’s a fight to keep your mind from wandering?
It’s not their body language, it’s not how much they know and it’s not their charisma. It’s something we all do without realizing it, and something great speakers do on purpose.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s talk about Mormons.
A Story about Two Mormons
My fascination with Mormons started with South Park.
After seeing the episode on how the Mormon religion got started, and I was hooked. I read Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer, saw “Book of Mormon” on Broadway and took every chance to talk with Mormons and ex-Mormons about what their religion was like.
I went to their website and found that you could order a Book of Mormon for free. One day later there came a knock at my door and when I opened it, there were two smiling missionaries waiting for me with a brand new book in hand.
“Here’s your book David, do you have any questions about the faith?”
“I have a few”, I said enthusiastically. “Would you guys like to go for a walk?”
There I was taking a stroll with my two new friends, one was talkative and the other was quiet. I asked them all about their lives growing up Mormon, what they loved about the faith and what inspired them to share it. The conversation was pleasant but shallow, maybe because they didn’t know what to make of me, some weird guy with a beard who was both fascinated with the religion and clearly not wanting to join.
I steered the conversation toward how they could better connect with people and share their faith. I asked them to get more real about their experience, instead of simply repeating what they had learned in church. The talkative guy kept using the phrase, “being with God” and I wanted to know more, so I asked.
“What does being with God mean to you?”
He paused and didn’t know what to say, but the quiet missionary spoke up, and I’ll never forget what he said.
“It feels like being in water with rough seas, then a hand coming down, touching the water and the water becoming calm.”
Wow. I was really moved.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” I said. “You guys should share that with people, that’s beautiful.”
He shared another story about a time in his life when he was stressed out in school, to the point where he almost had a panic attack. He said that in that moment he thought about God, breathed deeper and watched as his whole body relaxed. Again, I shared how impactful that story was for me.
Sharing Theory vs Sharing Experience
If I asked one hundred people “how can I improve my marriage”, I might get people answering one of two ways.
The first way will be a sample from all of the advice they’ve ever heard on being a better spouse. For example, they might say “listen more, spend more quality time together and pay attention to the little things”. While that advice may be true, it’s not really coming from them and I’ll forget it a minute after it’s spoken.
I could get the same thing from a google search.
The second approach is people sharing their experience. This may come in the form of a story, but it always starts with the mindset of “this is what works for me”, and people will often say that in conversation. They might share a story of how having separate bedrooms made their sex life better. They might share about how they put aside one night every week for a fun date. Whatever they share, it will keep your attention and add to your life, because it’s coming from their experience.
What I’ve noticed is that this simple distinction between sharing from your experience and sharing from theory is what makes the difference between an average speaker and a great one. It’s what makes some speeches memorable and others forgettable.
For the fellow science-minded people, I made a flow chart, and it’s a fool-proof way to have what you say be memorable.
One of the keys to this, is being willing to be with and say “I don’t know”. It’s hard, because we make “I don’t know” mean something about who we are. We resist it, but it’s actually a quite powerful statement. When we say “I don’t know”, our mind can relax because it doesn’t need to come up with an answer. From that place, our deeper wisdom is easier to access.
Asking Better Questions
One of the things I’ve learned hosting Darken the Page, a podcast interviewing writers about their creative process, is the importance of asking questions that draw on people’s experience versus their opinions.
My favorite question that I ask at the end of every show is “if you could write one note to yourself and slip it back through the fabric of time to when you first started out as a writer, what would you say?”
The beauty of that question is it has people explore their life experience, and discover what it is they have learned.
Everyone Has Something To Offer
If you want to teach a college course, you may need a degree and years of study. If you want to touch someone’s heart, all you need is your life experience.
Everyone, no matter what their age or experience level can do this, there is no requirement other than the willingness to share your life with someone else.
You want to deliver a brilliant TEDx talk? Go back through your life, find a few stories that shaped your life, crystalize the lessons you learned, then find the theme that runs throughout them.
Instead of sharing as a professor might, share it vulnerably, and take people on an emotional tour of the stories you tell. When you let people in to your life experience, you open your heart to them.
The deeper you go, the deeper you will take them.
It took me years to learn this, but it’s made all the difference.