We asked our seasoned showmen Peter Bonventre and John Jannuzzi to share their tips on winning over the crowd.
“Keep it short and sweet, babe. I don’t think I ever bored my friends, don’t you.”
That was the best advice I ever got about public speaking. It came from my father many years ago. He was dying, and he was talking about his eulogy.
I still use my father’s words—“Keep it short and sweet”—as my mantra heading into a speaking engagement. It works for me. It works even better for the audience. Give it a try. Chances are you’ll be asked to give a speech a few times in your life. Some speeches will pertain to your job, while others will be delivered as toasts or eulogies. Nevertheless, many of the same rules will apply to all types of public oratory. To begin, believe me when I say: Your words will not change the course of human history. So, relax. And listen up:
The writing and rehearsing of a speech is essential. Writing it down helps you to organize your thoughts and lock them in your brain. Practice, practice, practice, and do it out loud. Perhaps get feedback from someone you trust. In the end, giving a speech is a lot like acting: Make eye contact with your audience, vary your hand gestures and the tone of your voice, and use the pause for humorous or dramatic effect.
Here, I feel compelled to repeat myself: Keep it short! As the best man at a wedding, for example, figure on talking for maybe three minutes, certainly no more than five. If it makes you more comfortable, use an index card with topical sentences. And always remind yourself that the toast is not about you, and it should not contain any embarrassing stories, like the time the groom got so drunk that he (fill in the blank)!
As for a eulogy: Yes, it’s difficult to summarize a person’s life in a matter of minutes. The most reliable course, I believe, is to strike a theme, expound on a large truth or several small ones about the deceased that will resonate with his or her family and friends. In my father’s eulogy, I spoke mainly of his unwavering devotion to the practice of medicine, and I am as certain as I can be that I got to the core of the man.
After all he had done for me, it was the least I could for him.
Most people I know dread public speaking. The idea of getting up on stage, making a toast (especially at a wedding), or speaking in front of a large audience stops them dead in their tracks. Once, I felt the same, but no longer.
When I was a sophomore in college, I competed in a male beauty pageant, a sort of joke on campus, but still fun. Vying for the title of “Mr. Muhlenberg” included a talent display, a swimsuit portion, an interview, and all the usual crap that comes with pageantry. Naturally, I was terrified of getting up in front of an entire gymnasium of my peers and acting out all the necessary parts.
With about thirty minutes to curtain, I ran back to my dorm to grab something I’d forgotten, and saw my friend A.J. He wished me luck, and could definitely I was nervous (read: shaking). He offered me a can of Natty Light (God bless America) before I went back to face the music. A few seconds and a full chug later, the concept of “liquid courage” made so much more sense to me. The edge was off (just barely) and I went on stage completely relaxed (not drunk, there’s a difference, guys) and managed to not even place in the competition, but that didn’t matter — the nerves were gone.
These days, throwing back a drink before a big presentation may not always be a wise move, but you don’t have to hit the bottle to relax. Whenever I find myself with the same nerves again, I always just find ten or fifteen minutes to just calm the fuck down. That could mean anything from a shot of tequila, a cup of tea, a quick scroll through Instagram, or even just a short walk around the auditorium. You’ll sort of forget what you’re stressed about, and then by the time you realize what’s going on, it’s too late to be anything but on-point.