How A Hall Of Fame Broadcaster Taught Me To Be A Better Public Speaker

Detroit Tiger and Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell gives his farewell speech.

Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell gives his farewell speech. Courtesy of The Detroit Free Press.

I’m going to write today about public speaking, a skill I consider essential to leadership. I’ve done quite a bit of public speaking myself, and fortunately, I’ve been coached by someone with extraordinary talents. He gave me three tips to doing it well, which I will share here. I’ll also offer a few nuggets I’ve picked up along the way.

First, let me tell you a bit about my mentor.

After having just turned 20 in the summer of 1992, I wrote a letter to Ernie Harwell, the late Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster who spent 42 of his 55 years calling games for the Detroit Tigers. At the time, I was contemplating a career in sports journalism. Growing up as I did in a suburb of Detroit, there was no higher authority on this topic than Ernie, so I asked him what advice he’d give someone like me.

One Friday night, I returned home from a Tiger game to find my entire family awake to greet me. With the sort of smile ordinarily reserved for graduations and weddings, my mother handed me a legal pad with a note that read “Ernie Harwell called. Wants you to call him back tomorrow a.m. at 7.”

Sleep that evening came about as easily as it does for many six year olds on Christmas Eve. I called the Harwell home as instructed and was greeted by Ernie’s unmistakable voice. He told me he had received my letter, but rather than write back he wondered if I could come to his house for coffee so we could talk. Of course, I accepted his invitation.

Over the course of the next three hours, we talked about his career arc, the lessons he learned, and the personalities he met along the way, including some of the game’s Olympians, guys like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Though he had tailored his advice for an aspiring broadcaster, much of it has value to anyone who has to speak in front of an audience.

Here, then, is a list of tips on public speaking, including the three that Ernie taught me.

  1. Be yourself (Harwell tip #1): I realized how true this was later that summer when, as an intern at WJR radio in Detroit, a radio host told me that he had overcome an addiction problem earlier in his career. At that time, he wasn’t confident that anyone would want to hear him as he truly was, so he created a façade for his on-air persona. Keeping up the act broke him, costing him his job and his health (both of which he eventually recovered). Not only is it easier to be who you are; that’s the person your audience wants and expects.
  2. Make it personal: Audiences relate more completely to speakers who share an interesting story about themselves. It humanizes the speaker, increasing the likelihood that even if the audience forgets most of what she says, they’ll remember her.
  3. Minimize stuff on slides: Easier said than done, I know, but here’s how I do it. I prepare for every presentation by crafting my outline in PowerPoint. I then review each slide and move all but the one most important point or message to my speaker notes. Where possible, I use images that communicate that one message because audiences tend to remember visuals more than they do words.
  4. Rehearse in front of a mirror: It will feel awkward at first, but practice will reduce your dependence on notes, give you confidence, and allow you to refine your speech even more effectively.
  5. Get the audience to participate right away: Imagine you’re the fifth speaker of the day. By this time, the audience is experiencing the onset of speaker and slide fatigue. If you want to stand out, you’ll need to break out of the doldrums. Consider asking the audience a question that produces a show of hands. Invite them to stand up. Or, if you’re really good, get them to sing, as this speech by marketing guru Seth Godin demonstrates brilliantly. Physicality rushes blood to the brain, opening ears and minds and making us want to hear what happens next.
  6. Speak assertively: I’ve noticed many speakers sound like they are asking questions, not making statements, as they talk. When we finish a sentence on a higher note, the way many of us do when we ask questions, it projects uncertainty. Remember that when you take the stage, the audience expects to hear from an expert. You lose that respect when you sound like you’re not sure about what you’re saying. If you don’t know whether you do this, ask a friend to listen to you rehearse.
  7. Most people will forget what you said within 15 minutes (Harwell tip #2): In other words, don’t pressure yourself. Unless you’re giving a State of the Union address, your words will be forgotten sooner than you might think.
  8. No matter what you say, there are a billion people in China who don’t care (Harwell tip #3): Again, relax.
  9. Clean hands, healthy body: After you nail your speech, people will want to meet you. The hand shaking that follows is how people get sick at conventions. I always pack a small bottle of hand sanitizer to keep my hands clean.

If you’re an ambitious marketer, you’re going to need to excel on stage to advance your career. I’ve found that following these tips has helped me improve my skills. What has worked for you?

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