Successful Public Speaking for Men and Women

By Tony Zurlo

In the twilight of my career in education, I am often asked by students how long it took me to become comfortable talking in front of large groups. I hesitate, wondering if there are degrees of honesty. “Never,” is the real answer.

Of course revealing this frightening secret might drive dozens of young people into introspective, self-indulgent careers, and away from public service. The whole purpose of my career in education has been to encourage the opposite. If our society is to grow toward even greater equality and unity then I must not reveal the heavy burdens of doubt that I carry into the classroom daily.

I am sometimes asked to speak to public service groups and gatherings of employees by former students who are now successful leaders in their community. After a few years of bumps and bruises on the circuit, I developed a lecture on Successful Public Speaking. And indeed, I have been successful at public speaking ever since.

Inevitably, there will be a Q & A session after. I learned quickly that audiences have no expectations of receiving real answers to the questions. So it is easy to dance around most topics. However, sometimes a joker rises from the deck and tries to trick the speaker with a challenging question. A response I’ve learned that temporarily silences the smart-aleck is, “I’ll get back to you on that.” Then after side-stepping to my conclusion, I quick march toward the exit, pausing only to tell the questioner(s): “If you’ll jot down your question and give it to [the Head or MC of the gathering], I’ll Email...” Then I slip out before finishing the sentence.

To expedite matters, I have prepared a written outline to accompany my lecture. Just in case I’ve managed to dupe anyone in the audience into thinking that something I said made sense, I leave a few copies of the outline at the door. I wish to share the outline with readers, so the next time they see my name on the speaking roster, they can stay home and demand a refund.

My speech about Successful Public Speaking is targeted for three audiences: Men, Women, and Others.

A. Qualities for Men

1. Must be tall (a minimum of 5' 8" unless you're Woody Allen or Dustin Hoffman.

2. Must be handsome (unless you're cute like Buddy Hackett or silly looking like Mr. Bean—Rowan Atkinson).

3. Must pretend to be vulnerable; let the eyes swell up with tears when you refer to the poor, ignorant, or helpless. Try to use references to abused pets. Keep a handkerchief or Kleenex close by as a substitute security blanket.

4. Must give behavioral hints of abnormality, possibly borderline criminally insane. No need to act this out; just inadvertently bang the rostrum a couple of times and stare down one or two of the younger members of the audience.

5. Look rich enough to make people think that you can make them rich. (#5 can usually override #1, #2, #3, and #4)

* No, you don’t have to be funny. But if you’re short, ugly, and are seeing an analyst (Woody Allen, perhaps), it's a good add-on to substitute for height, looks, watery eyes, unpredictable behavior, or money.

B. Qualities for Women:

1. Substitute from “Qualities for Men” the equivalents for women (i.e. Beauty for Handsome).

2. Showing a thigh beneath a little lace and / or healthy portions of bosom can override #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5.

C. Qualities for Others:

“I’ll get back to you on that.”