Opinion

The New Bible for Public Speaking

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Posted: Apr 04, 2020 12:01 AM
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The New Bible for Public Speaking

Source: AP Photo/Amanda Lee Myers

It is often said by many in the reporting world that the “must-have” book for print journalism is the AP Stylebook. Others might argue that it is The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook: A Guide to Documents, Databases and Techniques. Well, I have good news: An equivalent must-have book is now available for anyone whose vocation requires public speaking - whether politician, priest or PTA president. It is Winning Your Audience: Deliver a Message with the Confidence of a President, to be released in hardback and audiobook on April 7.

The author, James Rosebush, was Ronald Reagan’s communications protégé. He served as deputy assistant to President Reagan and chief of staff to Nancy Reagan. Rosebush learned the art of public speaking at the feet of the master, and he has marvelously woven the wit and wisdom of President Reagan into the most comprehensive, readable and useful book on the topic of public speaking that I have ever read. Had it only been available 30 years ago when I was first required to engage in public speaking professionally!

Rosebush has condensed a half century of learning about staging, lighting, diction, audience engagement, speech structuring and heckler-handling into an eloquent treatise for Everyman who dares put himself before an audience to persuade them. That suasion may involve convincing an audience on the merits of a policy proposal, the value of an investment opportunity, the promotion of a political candidate, or any other “sale” the speaker may be trying to make.

As the author says in his introduction, “Public speaking is the most common and requisite skill for which we receive the least amount of training.” Truer words were never said.

As someone who had an early and deeply engrained terror of public speaking, but who would later be required to give presentations around the world to large audiences regarding drug traffickers, money launderers, corporate investigative strategies, insurance fraud schemes and corrupt government officials, I cannot overstate the value of formal training in public speaking. I was fortunate enough to have taken an outstanding college course on the subject in my youth, taught by the brilliant Robert Leo Sheppard – “The Voice of Yankee Stadium”. This book would have made for the perfect accompanying text and I’ve no doubt the late, wonderful Professor Sheppard would concur. 

Rosebush informs us that even the greatest, most renowned statesmen have been gripped by fears like mine and others’ over the prospect of public speaking. The late great British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, told him once that she herself had suffered such fear, but “would talk herself out of her fear, forge ahead, and prevail.” 

The author draws fascinating parallels between the public speaking styles of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. While distinctly different in their delivery and word choice, both men developed an ability to read their audience and connect with it in a manner befitting their unique times. Reagan was steeped in history and the nuts and bolts of well-thought out policy positions, which he could articulate eloquently to his audience. Trump, however, Rosebush notes, “is a gladiator. An ultra-competitor. This is fascinating, because even though he professes not to talk about policy, he creates it by bringing his audience along with him on an oratorical roller-coaster.”

Consider how Trump’s style of political oratory is a natural evolution in the three decades since Reagan left the political scene, when reality television, in-your-face social media blasts, and 24/7 cable news coverage have become ubiquitous. Like it or not, Trump’s style conforms with contemporary American culture. Reagan’s style was one that exuded much more good cheer and humility than Mr. Trump’s, perhaps, but that in no way diminishes the success that Mr. Trump has found in connecting with his audience in his own, inimitable style.

In Mr. Rosebush, a decency and humility similar to Mr. Reagan’s comes through in every page of his book. Rosebush is a man who travelled in the most august circles of our country’s leadership in the most consequential times of our nation’s history, as President Reagan took on, and took down, the Soviet Union. He was present at meetings between President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, as he describes in appearances in the recent documentary, The Divine Planabout the amazing collaboration between Mr. Reagan and the pope to bring down the evil Soviet empire. Yet, there is no hint of pomposity or grandiosity.  Rosebush emphasizes the point repeatedly that no matter our station in life, or how seemingly mundane the purpose our public talk may be in our own minds, we should view every opportunity to speak publicly as a performance where we should bring our best game.

The book is really about more than public speaking. It is about public presenting. In a chapter discussing the nuance of word usage, for example, Rosebush makes the important point that different audiences may interpret the same words differently. We should be cognizant of cultural differences. We should take time to do a little research on our audience and say something specific to the unique interests of their town, or university, or country. 

A principal theme Rosebush drives home is the importance of finding one’s own authenticity when publicly speaking. If you do not believe what you are saying, neither will your audience. He describes the wall that many public speakers unconsciously erect between themselves and their listeners. It typically results from arrogance and ego. Public speaking is an interaction between the speaker and the audience. If you do not like and warm to those assembled to hear you, you will not persuade them.

Just as the AP Stylebook should be a reference found on every reporter’s bookshelf, Winning Your Audience should be at the ready near the desk of anyone who gives public speeches, to be read, digested and referred to frequently. As one who is always looking for ways to improve my own public speaking performance, Winning Your Audience will have a permanent place on my desk.