Enthusiasm! The Cure for the Common Speech

The digital projector decided to sulk that warm evening last April at the Women’s Club. My meticulously orchestrated PowerPoint presentation on garden ornaments could not be salvaged. I would have to punt. With a sigh, a gulp and a smile, I quickly revised my plan of attack and threw myself into the talk.

It took good humor, plenty of gestures, descriptive words and an exhortation for audience participation. With that approach, I delivered a knockout speech despite the lack of equipment. At the conclusion, the audience clapped loudly. And I was invited back for a subsequent booking.

What saved the day? My enthusiasm. I’m a professional horticulturalist, and I’m excited about the topic of ornamenting one’s garden and teaching others how best to accomplish this. Though challenged by my equipment, I was able to paint word pictures through evocative phrasing, expressive body language and voice variation. In that way, my audience could see the statue of a little girl holding a bouquet of flowers, hear the breeze through the wind chimes, feel the texture of a wooden bench under the sugar maple and taste the lemonade served on a hot day in the Victorian gazebo. They were right with me as my facial expressions reflected dismay when I spoke of clutter as opposed to well-thought-out beauty in the garden; showed disgust at the depredations of the noxious lily beetle and demonstrated anxiety at the unrelenting drought of the past year. My small props of a birdhouse, unique rock and statuette of a toad added to the ambience.

Would my speech have been better if the projector had behaved? Maybe not. That evening I learned about the power of enthusiasm. Projecting one’s positive feelings can not only carry a speaker over those inevitable rough spots, but add dimension, depth and determination to any speaking engagement. A dollop of effervescence makes your talk memorable. Your zeal for your topic, properly conveyed to your audience, not only keeps them awake, but helps them retain the message you’ve so carefully crafted.

Inject Passion and Pizzazz.
The ability to communicate delight and confidence in one’s chosen topic is a hidden key to successful speaking. Of course, a Toastmaster must always pay attention to organization, vocal range, extraneous filler words and a host of other items. But if a speaker doesn’t project pizzazz and show devotion to her topic, the speech may still fall flat on its well-prepared face.

Bill Sher, of the China Capitol Toastmasters club in Beijing, China, knows this well. A recent winner of a speech contest in Shanghai, China, he feels that the essential component of his speaking success is his enthusiasm. This quality comes through the moment he enters the room. He works the crowd prior to the speech, greeting guests with a firm handshake and a confident smile. His secrets, he explains, are his energy level and ability to exude self-assurance. As he puts it, he is totally “in my speech,” conveying to the audience a strong dedication to his topic. “I pour my heart into my speeches,” he says. “I want to share my thoughts with the audience and articulate my vision.”

Whether you do motivational, educational, informative, public relations, entertainment or some other type of speaking, enthusiasm is vital, because it allows you to connect with your audience on an emotional level. But how can you increase the “zing” quotient in your speeches? 

Let your body reflect your words. If you say “lean,” then sway to one side. Smile, not only at your audience but during the humorous parts of your presentation. What is your audience watching as you speak? Not your hands, not the lectern; they’re fixed on your face. So arch an eyebrow, shrug those shoulders. Nod or shake your head as the speech requires. Maintain eye contact. If possible, engage in friendly banter prior to being introduced; this helps warm up your audience and prepares them for the entertaining, informative speech to come. Stand with your head up and your shoulders squared, your body stance open to the audience. Let your guests see that you are receptive to them, eager to teach and to learn. No rounded shoulders or dropped chin!

And use your mouth to enunciate your words, allowing your voice to project your confidence and subject knowledge.

Use descriptive words. Your audience really wants to share an experience with you. Too often we speakers forget that we are performers as well as informers. So carry an audience into your speech by employing action verbs and colorful nouns. Use all five senses, just as actors do in theatrical productions. Toastmaster Martha Bishop of Barnum Square Toastmasters in Bethel, Connecticut, is active in local community theater and can engage any group with her use of dialects and accents. Try it yourself. You don’t have to be Meryl Streep, but such techniques can add sparkle to an ordinary talk. 

Don’t be on a constant high. No one can be “up” all the time, even in a short speech. Constant, continuous cheerfulness seems forced and will make your listeners uncomfortable. They’ll react as if you’re selling snake oil. Instead, temper your talk with highs and lows. The highs should be at the points you particularly want your audience to retain. Intersperse these moments with quieter interludes. Don’t be bombastic, fanatical, sloppily sentimental or pushy. Be animated, but balance it with low-key moments. 

Be well-grounded in your topic. Expertise is where confidence and enthusiasm intersect, and there’s nothing worse than coming up blank on something you should know. Audiences are sharp, and they can sense when speakers are knowledgeable about and involved in their topics. When the speaker promotes new concepts and quickly offers knowledgeable answers to the group’s questions, the audience feels assured of the speaker’s competence. 

Use props. Though my projector failed at the Women’s Club presentation, the small garden ornaments I’d carried in my canvas bag helped intrigue the audience. With a flourish, I pulled them out at suitable junctions, to the amusement and interest of the crowd.

I do this with most of my speeches. For instance, when I lecture on composting, I bring a bag of compostable materials and haul each item out to show my audience, producing facial expressions and comments in the process – “Oh, look, pine cones!” Or as I’m ripping a cereal box into shreds, I’ll ask, “Ever thought of putting this into the compost pile? Why not?”

When I show pretty garden pictures, my voice conveys how much I love the flowers, and that I know the bulbs are grateful to receive three helpings of fertilizer a year. When a listener asks a particularly relevant question, I ring a bell. “The winner!” I exclaim. “You’ve won the prize!” I then delve into my supplies, and extract either a compost bag or small potted flower and hand it over to the pleased and surprised individual. What have I done by my actions? I’ve dramatically engaged the participant and grabbed the attention of the entire room. 

Don’t use notes. Guidance by paper is a crutch that prevents you from making the best emotional connection with your audience. If you’re reading from cards or notes, you won’t be consistently making eye contact and will thereby establish an automatic barrier between yourself and those you wish to inform, entertain or enlighten. Instead of a script, relax and let your speech tell a story. It will be easier to remember and audiences never outgrow their appreciation of good stories. 

The best speakers are also leaders. District 53 governor Dave Wheeler is a good example of this. A 10-year Toastmaster and member of several clubs, he models leadership in his choice of subjects, poise, obvious pleasure in his topics and wise use of carefully timed pauses. Whether speaking about an upcoming Toastmasters conference, an aspect of his business or something else entirely, Dave’s eyes meet the audience head-on, showing that he enjoys being exactly where he is. An athletic individual, his clever sports anecdotes add to the drama and relevance of his speeches. 

Practice, practice, practice. Record your speech in audio or video, if possible. Hearing your voice will help you determine where you need to add energy or where you might want to tone it down. Watching yourself on video allows you to see what jumps out and what just lies there. You can then revise with better accuracy and assuredness that you’re on the right track. 

Use your evaluations and evaluate others. Let your evaluator know that you’re working on increasing the amount of excitement in your work. You can also observe speakers who convey enthusiasm and learn from them. What is it that makes them interesting? Is it their words, the way they move or their props? Take notes, ask for pointers. Be sure to incorporate some of what you’ve learned into your next speech. 

Build a bridge to those who are less interested. If, despite your best efforts, you sense your audience losing focus, it’s time to shake things up. Move into the audience, ask a question. Shorten your sentences, use dynamic, action-oriented words. Be exuberant, but be sincere about it.

Remember, however much zest you exhibit, you still must present a coordinated, logical speech. Don’t confuse your audience with a disorganized presentation. Apply the Toastmasters tenets in the Competent Communication manual, and have an opening, body and conclusion in your talk. Open with a bang; present points and subpoints in the main portion of the speech; use smooth transitions and loop your ending back to the beginning of your speech.

Go to the Toastmasters Web site for more advice and information: www.toastmasters.org. Research other sites as well; the Web offers a lot of information on presentations.

Enthusiasm is power, and any speech can be made more powerful if presented with gusto. In truth, a lively speech creates a circle. If you convey exuberance to your audience, and it’s received, you’ll get it back in the way they respond with alert attention, smiles, attentive body language and focused presence.

It needn’t take an equipment disaster like mine to ramp up the energy in your speeches. Try these tips to go forth and enthuse!

Colleen Plimpton, ACB, is a member of the Barnum Square club in Bethel, Connecticut. A professional writer, coach and lecturer on gardening, her most recent book is Mentors in the Garden of Life. Reach her at www.colleenplimpton.com.