How to Become a Great Speaker Just Like That

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Virgil Scudder is used to coaching busy executives fast. Here’s what he shared in a comparatively leisurely hour.

Those who attended Virgil Scudder’s Jan. 29 McMurry webinar “How to Become a Much Better Public Speaker in 60 Minutes” were drinking ideas out of a fire hose.

The legendary speaking coach learned to teach fast, from busy clients who would demand he make them great in 30 minutes. “I bet you don’t tell your golf pro that,” he tells them—and then he gets to work, as he got to work during the webinar, first running them through his “scorecard” of public speaking.

Every good speaker:

  • Brings plenty of energy to the lectern.
  • Projects.
  • Uses direct language.
  • Correctly interprets the flavor of the text.
  • Is ‘good’ good?” asks Scudder, “or just good?”
  • Varies pace, pitch and volume.
  • Bolsters ideas with imagery, “which includes word pictures,” Scudder asserts.
  • Pauses.
  • Gestures. “There’s a key word in every sentence or a phrase,” Scudder says. “That word gets a punch and it gets a gesture.”
  • Makes eye contact.

That’s what great speakers do, as Scudder illustrated by playing a couple of Obama speeches. But how do they do it? Scudder got into the nitty-gritty.

  • Listen before they talk, finding out everything they can about their audience: “Who are they? What do they know about the subject? Why are they there? What do we want them to do, say, think, feel as a result of the speech?”
  • They make an outline, organizing the speech into three memorable sections, and taking care to write an arresting opening and a memorable conclusion. An example of the former: Scudder recalls a speaker who opened an afterdinner speech to a group of banking execs by declaring that, because of the industry consolidation he was about to discuss, half of them wouldn’t be there 10 years from now.
    And as an example of a memorable conclusion, he offered an example of a speech he’d just worked on for an executive who concluded with a challenge to his audience to innovate and an expression of confidence. He closed by referring to his two-year-old son’s favorite sage, Bob the Builder, and he asked, “Can we build it?” And the audience roared back, “Yes we can!”
  • They build in humor, not just in the opening but organically throughout, to underline points. They use examples, illustrations and quotations in the same way, so the speech comes at the audience from various angles.
  • They prepare for the Q&A, and they pay close attention to it as a part of the speech event that can build credibility or tear it down. They prepare for combative questions and they answer them graciously. “I share your concern but not your conclusion, and here’s why.” They also answer them immediately. Instead of waffling before providing the answer, Scudder recommends a “bottom-line first” approach, beginning your answer this way: “No, not at this time, and here’s why.”
  • And maybe most importantly, good speakers speak in short sentences and short words.
  • Scudder plucked a sentence out of a letter to the editor in that day’s New York Times and offered it as example of the sort of stuff that would not work in a speech: “To the contrary, if our liberal education has taught us to use dialectical thinking, we can look for mutuality, reciprocity and a synthesis of such contradictions in order to meaningfully understand ourselves, our communities and our social systems.”
  • “Communication is not about what the
    speaker knows,” said Scudder, “it’s about what the
    listener takes away.”


Published in The Influential Executive