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Public Speaking: Lessons from Maya Angelou

posted on Wednesday, July 2, 2014 by Susan Morgenstern

By Office of the White House (via NPR, courtesy of the White House) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Office of the White House (via NPR, courtesy of the White House) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Who’s the best public speaker you ever heard? For me, the answer is Maya Angelou. I heard her speak many years ago. I’ve forgotten some of the surrounding details, but I’ll never forget her.

Most speakers are not memorable. But she captured an audience of around 1,000 and mesmerized us for an hour. There was no PowerPoint. No background music. Nothing but her incredible presence.

There were many reasons why she was such a powerful speaker. Here are a few that we can all use to improve our own presentations:

Surprise your audience. Maya Angelou opened her presentation singing a snippet of a song; then she said good morning in several different languages. She was bold, interesting and a consummate performer.

Too many times, speakers put the audience to sleep with their opening lines. If we could use just a little of her technique, we could avoid being boring. We may not be able to sing, but we could begin with a compelling video clip, a shocking statistic or an intriguing question.

Tell real stories. The stories from her life were engaging. Some brought tears to our eyes and some made us laugh out loud. Great stories keep us listening closely to find out what happens next. And they create connections between the presenter and the audience.

Be genuine. Most speakers look and sound as if they’re trying to impersonate some other speaker. We should follow Maya Angelou’s fearless example of revealing her heart and soul to the audience. It takes courage to be honest, but it makes a lasting impression.

There’s a lot of advice available about presentations. But one of the best ways to improve is to seize every opportunity to listen to and learn from the best public speakers.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

Susan Morgenstern

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