One of my first blog posts was my seminal piece on the art of small talk. Although no one will admit it, I believe that it has shaped a generation’s approach to mindless nattering with total strangers. Likewise, my tome on the keys to success swept the nation in the same sort of low-key manner. As the voice of my generation, I now offer simple steps to effective speaking.
As a lawyer, I speak in public. It neither thrills nor frightens me. It’s just what I have to do on occasion. Sometimes, I speak in court hearings and trials. Occasionally I deliver talks to attorneys or other unfortunates on such topics as legalizing child labor and the law of Internet pornography. Of course, I’m joking–those topics might actually fascinate some people. My topics are more obscure–even arcane. As a result, am I forced to spice up my presentations with such things as this clip for the classic film Road House. You might think that would be difficult to work in to a talk about coal mine safety, but I did it.
You may not have a good speaker voice. Don’t worry. I don’t, either. It’s not necessary to sound like Morgan Freeman. But, if you do, you don’t need any of these pointers. People will listen to you just to hear your voice. The rest of us need help.
What makes a good speaker? I’m not sure that I qualify as one, but I’ve heard some good ones in my time. Beyond my earlier observations on chit-chat, speaking takes many forms–both public and private. Over the years, I have become at least competent in my communication skills. Thus, I want to offer my suggestions and observations.
My wife accuses me of mumbling. I grew up in Eastern Kentucky where mumbling is an accepted form of communication, and I make no apologies for that. I would note that I believe my wife has significant hearing loss, perhaps from stress fractures to the delicate bones in her ears caused by cranial vibration induced by her own shrill screaming. That debate is best left for another forum. However, my father–who was almost completely deaf–always accused my mother of mumbling. So there. Where was I?
You want to speak with a loud, clear voice. If possible, speak louder than everyone else. In this way, you will be authoritative and sound like you are “in the know.” Here is an example:
THEM: I heard that [INSERT NAME OF POLITICIAN].…
YOU: HE’S A COMPLETE IDIOT!!!
By subtly insinuating yourself into the discussion, you have commandeered the conversation. Also, your insight will persuade others to join your “side” of the discussion. You come away looking knowledgeable while your unfortunate friend is branded a gadfly or even a simpleton.
This tip is vitally important if you encounter someone who doesn’t speak English. This can happen with no warning–unless you are a bigot engaged in racial profiling. Recently, at a fast food restaurant, I was approached by a young man who addressed me in a language that no sane person could understand. He may have been asking me a question. He could have been cursing God for all I know. I offered this response: “Do you speak English?” He misunderstood and prattled on. I then took control of the conversation by fairly yelling: “DO…YOU…SPEAK…ENGLISH?” He said “No” and walked away. There are two important lessons here: 1) It’s possible that people who don’t speak your native tongue may understand it if your scream it slowly; and 2) No one likes being yelled at, even in a foreign language.
Note, too, that yelling may even work with the deaf. Once, a man handed me a card which read: “I AM DEAF. NEED MONEY FOR FOOD.” I yelled: “SORRY. I CAN’T HELP YOU.” He pointed at his ears and walked away. See, it works.
Most importantly, you might know my wife. She doesn’t like mumbling. You know how she is.
Whether it’s called cursing, swearing or potty mouth, foul language has long been condemned by skilled speakers. I once read that repeated cursing chops up one’s message rendering it nothing but a series of short, disconnected thoughts. Your larger message is lost.
To this advice, I say BULLSHIT! Many times, such language is all that can adequately deliver your message. More often, it can set the tone for your entire oratory. Here is an example. Let us suppose that you are asked to give a talk at your church. Naturally, you lack formal religious training. At best, you will make a fool of yourself. At worst, you will offend both the parishioners and God Himself. One approach would be to memorize a few scriptures and meditate upon them in prayer, asking for the right words. Good luck with that. Another approach is to immediately grab your listeners with an opening salvo along these lines:
LISTEN UP, YOU BUNCH OF MOTHER—-ERS!!
The congregation will be rocked by this forceful opening. They will immediately think “There must be a strong message from the Lord to follow.” You can then launch into a recklessly inaccurate sermon peppered with occasional obscenities that will hold the listener’s attention.
This approach works in casual conversation as well. Nothing will impress your friends more than your adroit use of all manner of filth. Let’s say you are in a conversation with someone far more educated than you. You make a casual comment about, say, the invention of the linotype machine, which you foolishly attribute to Grover Cleveland. Your friend says “Well, the linotype was actually invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler.” What do you do now? You could stare at your feet and excuse yourself from the conversation. Here is the better approach: Lock eyes with your friend and declare: “YOU, SIR, ARE GODDAMNED LIAR!!” (be sure to speak loudly as advised above). You have turned the tables on Mr. Know-It-All. Not only have you challenged his assertion, you have done so in a way that calls into question his credibility in general. Bystanders, unconcerned as they might be with the inanity of the topic, will view you as man with whom to be reckoned. You can bet that no one will take exception to you again in a public setting.
KNOW YOUR TOPIC
I can’t stress this one enough. No manner of loud swearing is an adequate substitute for knowing your subject matter. This is especially so if, like me, there are people who actually believe you know about certain things. If you have been in that unenviable position, you know it almost impossible to know enough about anything to intelligently speak for more than 5 minutes or so.
One approach is to research and carefully study your topic. Okay, that will work if you have no life and want to waste what precious time you have on the planet on such endeavors. Another approach is to pay someone who does know about the topic to prepare a PowerPoint presentation for you. Then, you can simply babble from slide to slide until your allotted time has been used up.
Another approach is to simply make up your talk from whole cloth. In the legal profession, this is especially effective. Usually, I speak at continuing legal education seminars where no one listens anyway. I can say anything! Almost no one listens, and the few who do don’t know anymore than I do. If someone asks me a question, I can either make up something or simply fire back “SHUT THE F— UP!”
The same pointers work in casual conversation. Ignorance has never shut anyone up as far as I know. As long as you talk incessantly, loudly and obscenely, you’re bound to say something close to accurate. Again, remember: Few people listen to you anyway. Thus, it’s never what you say that matters. It’s how you say it.
USE AN ACCENT
I have an accent. It’s Eastern Kentucky. Sadly, no matter what I say, to many people it sounds dumb. That’s because they think Eastern Kentuckians are dumb. You probably have an accent, too, unless you are from Nebraska or Kansas or some other accent-less part of the country. If you are a foreigner, you almost certainly have an accent, and it may be a really good one.
If you have a bad one, try another. British always works. Have you ever heard the BBC News? Everything sounds important. The moment the word “schedule” (SHED-yule) slides across your tongue, everything you say will sound authoritative. Consider Madonna. She is from Michigan but speaks with a British accent. How about eccentric actor Johnny Depp? Like me, he is from Kentucky, yet he has a vague, non-specific Euro accent. Neither of these marvelous entertainers is well-educated, but both sound erudite and informed. Isn’t that the whole point of speaking aloud?
There are many other accents available. Spanish, for example, sounds worldly and sophisticated. A word of caution–unless you master it, you may sound like Tony Montana and terrify the listener. This isn’t good unless that’s your goal. There are pluses and minuses of other accents:
Scottish: Kinda British but less understandable. You’ll sound friendly, if a tad odd.
Canadian: You’ll sound like a plain, white American, except you’ll say “aboot” instead of “about.” I’m not sure how that will help you.
Irish: Also possibly incomprehensible, plus the listener may believe you to be under the influence of strong drink. Has the plus side of being sort of funny.
German: You will sound commanding and more than a little frightening. Especially effective with curse words. If you actually speak the German language, everything sounds like cursing.
Russian: Extra terrifying. Great if you like to pretend to be spy.
Swedish: Goofy, but good if you don’t want the listener to understand you.
Australian: A rougher form of the British accent. You’ll sound less intelligent but considerably more dangerous.
Asian: Just avoid this one. The prospect of speaking stereotypical pidgin English is too great. Also, if you’re not, in fact, Asian, the listener will simply believe you are odd.
My accent is not always a drawback. The Eastern Kentucky accent adds just the right tone to such rejoinders as “I’ll whip your ass” or “What the hell are you looking at?” No Brit can deliver such messages with the same force.
Good grammar is good and important, at least according to my late mother. I don’t really know nothing about that, so I’ll move on.
USE THE RIGHT WORD
Some suggest using simple words. I guess this is good advice if you spend your time speaking to morons who are unlikely to understand anything you say anyway. I suggest using poorly understood words like sardonic, disaffected, nonplussed and irregardless. That way, you appear superior to the listener. Even if you don’t know what these words mean, use them anyway. No one else understands them, either.
You might say of an acquaintance: “Carl just don’t give a shit about nothing.” Admittedly, that’s an effective use of an expletive; however, consider this alternative: “Carl has a disaffected attitude about everything.” Have you praised or insulted Carl? It’s hard to say, isn’t it? The listener can be the judge.
Call someone obsequious or an opsimath. You can refer to this post as an amphigory. Accuse someone of being an irresponsible jackanapes. I like to call people wastrels, slugabeds and layabouts. Don’t bother looking up the definitions. Just use them.
The use of indecipherable language might seem counterintuitive. It is true that such use is unwise in the rare event that you want to be understood. If you want to make an impression, though, there is no better way than to talk like you’re smarter than everyone else. Do you want to be understood by complete idiots or by smart people?
Most of us have much to say but lack the skills to say it. Honing your verbal skills is the key to making yourself heard, if not understood. Now, go out there and talk to someone.
You may have found my advice inconsistent and even useless. If so, so be it. Better yet, JUST SHUT THE… . You get it.