So You Think You Want to Be a Speaker
Every time someone else steps up the microphone, you think, “I could be doing that. I should be doing that. I want to be a speaker!” Whether it’s your own sense of what you would be good at, or the impression that God wants you to publicly share your story or your message with others, your heart is longing to be the one at the podium.
The Big Points
1. Why do you want to speak? Being honest about your motivation is key. Do you want to be a speaker because you love being the center of attention? Because you have an affinity for microphones and spotlights? Because you believe other people should listen to you because you’re smarter than they are, or more gifted than they are? Or because if you were a speaker, you would finally be able to prove to yourself and to the world that you are not the dorky, talent-less junior high kid that couldn’t get any respect?
Those are not good reasons. Apart from the fact that they are all flesh and all about you, think about it: would you want to listen to a speaker who was being driven by any of those reasons?
If, however, you want to be a speaker because God has impressed it on your heart; if you find yourself continually running into confirmations about speaking from the Holy Spirit; if you keep laying your desire at the Lord’s feet and He keeps giving you a “green light” in your spirit, then joyfully surrender to His call and do your part to be equipped. God calls speakers, but He does not supernaturally override the need to develop the craft of speaking—which He is delighted to help us do!
2. Talk about what you know, and know more than you say. Speak about what is a part of you, so you can speak from the heart and not simply from your notes. But just as shopkeepers have more merchandise in the back room than they have on display in the front of the store, you should know more about your subject than you are sharing. This will give you a comforting degree of confidence.
3. What is your goal? Have a clear idea about what will constitute a successful presentation because of its effect on the audience. Do you want to motivate them to do something in particular? Do you want to change their paradigm so they see something differently? Do you want them to grow in their love for God and His word and His people? Do you want to simply instruct them? If that’s the case, just give them a handout and send them home! (This is an article on being a speaker, not a teacher.)
4. Be edifying. Make sure that your words are glorifying to God and edifying to the audience. Don’t use vulgarity just to prove you’re “cutting edge.” Don’t be negative or judgmental when talking about other people, or religions, or churches, or schools, or anything else. Even if you are communicating a negative experience, choose your words carefully so that you do not give offense unnecessarily.
How to Develop a Message
If the Lord wants you to speak, He will give you a topic, and quite possibly more than one. If you just want to be a speaker but you have no idea what to speak on, you are still at the beginning of the process. What do you have a passion for? What do you know? The same guideline for writers, “Write what you know,” is true of speakers as well.
See your message preparation as an ongoing project that is always in the back of your mind. As God gives you insights and connects dots to your topic during everyday life, write them down. Some people carry a journal with them; mine is a Day-Timer notebook that not only contains my calendar, but lots of room to write down things I don’t want to forget. Sometimes, the outline for a message or a Probe.org website article (which starts out as a radio transcript for Probe Ministries) emerges while I’m driving or swimming laps, and then I shoot up a prayer asking God for “remembering grace” till I can get to my Day-Timer. I have also grabbed my cell phone and left myself a message recording the insights before they’re gone. One message on suffering, probably the best thing I’ve ever written, took me five years to compile. I kept several sheets of paper in the back cover of my Bible, a page for each section. So it doesn’t have to be fancy.
If you are trying to build several messages at once, consider putting labeled tabs (which could be as simple as Post-it notes) in the journal you take everywhere with you, so you can record your ideas in the right place and keep all the message separate.
Construct an outline or skeleton of your talk. Keep it simple. Write a purpose statement that sums up the big points of your talk in one sentence. It it’s too complicated, your audience won’t be able to follow you or remember all that wonderful insightful information anyway.
To construct your actual message, consider writing each point on an index card, with a different color card for each section of your message. Then you can spread the cards out in front of you on a table so you can see what you have, easily moving them around as you organize your thoughts.
Start collecting stories and anecdotes now. People won’t remember your points as much as they will remember your stories and illustrations, which may well help them remember the point you were trying to make. It’s easy to copy and paste from emails and web pages into individual documents on your computer, and you can always print them out to put in notebooks. I started doing this when I got my first computer in 1994, and I now have almost 900 stories. Most of them I’ll never use, in all probability, but I love having them as a resource!
Some people feel better about writing out every word of their talk, but that can tend to be restrictive and frustrating because you should never, ever read it to your audience. Use bullet points and key phrases to remind yourself of what you wanted to say. Be as simple as you can. Use the fewest words with the fewest syllables so that your audience doesn’t have to think too hard or worse, get stuck on a word they’re trying to figure out.
At the very least, you need to be able to give your testimony, your story of how Jesus has changed your life. Think of it in terms of three stages: what your life was like before you trusted in Him, how you came to faith, and the difference it has made. Just remember, the point of giving your testimony is to glorify Jesus, not yourself. All the details in the world about your life will never draw anyone to Christ—that’s His job. Our part is to lift Him up, and He draws people to Himself.
Finding Speaking Venues
I love the motto of Stonecroft Ministries, the parent organization of Christian Women’s Connections (formerly Christian Women’s Clubs): “Let God be your booking agent.” Don’t try to drum up “business.” That is flesh, the part of us that operates independently from the Spirit of God within us. It’s fine to tell your friends that you’re working on preparing to be a speaker (especially to get their prayer support!), but don’t try to make it happen in your own strength and timing. Ask God to provide speaking opportunities. If He wants you to be a speaker, He’ll open the doors. Stonecroft is a great way to get started with speaking, by the way. They provide speaker training and speaker lists to the monthly clubs that are spread throughout the U.S.
Start strong—with a bang, not a whimper. You only get a few seconds to make a first impression, and in those precious seconds your audience will decide if you’re worth paying attention to. Start with a well-crafted story or a strong statement that compels them to keep listening. When I’m giving my testimony, my first words are, “When you hear that a speaker is going to talk about ‘How to Handle the Things You Hate But Can’t Change’ [the title of my message, which is in the last sentence of my speaker introduction], your first thought is probably, ‘What would she know? What’s her credibility? Well, I’m one of the last people in the United States to get polio before the vaccine was developed.” Apart from giving my testimony, I try to start with one of the stories from my collection, launching right into the story without any introductory remarks.
Don’t start with the weak, “Thank you for inviting me here today.” The audience didn’t invite you; they don’t know if they even like you yet! And never, ever start with an apology. Not for being nervous, not for spilling salad dressing on yourself, not for forgetting a page of your notes. You don’t connect with the audience that way; nobody wants to hear apologies from a platform, which are time and energy wasters.
Make eye contact with your audience by looking into individuals’ eyes. Not just a glancing blow, either; look into a person’s eyes for a several seconds so they know you are connecting with them. Then find another person to connect with. Don’t scan the room from right to left and back again like an oscillating fan; be more random than that. (And if you see someone who doesn’t appear to be on board with you, or who is sleepy or looks bored, avoid focusing on him or her. It will drain you of energy. Focus on the ones who are with you.)
After making your introductory remarks, practiced till it flows well, tell your audience what you’re going to tell them so they have a mental road map of your talk. As you work through it, give them road markers of where you are in your talk, and remind them of where you’ve been by repeating the main points as you move through them.
Don’t speak too fast, and speak clearly. Many speakers have written “SLOW DOWN!!!” at the top of their notes. Don’t slur your words or try to be so casual that you drop sounds. (Example: “They showed up while we were watchin’ a movie.”) That sounds sloppy, not casual.
Older people often have hearing losses, and this is also true of a growing number of younger people who have damaged their ears from too-loud music. If an audience has to work to understand you or to keep up with you, you tempt them to tune out from frustration or irritation. It’s the speaker’s job to remove or prevent unnecessary obstacles to communication. Speaking too fast or not clearly are the two biggest unnecessary obstacles.
When you have to look at your notes, pick up what you need to say, lift your eyes, and make eye contact before speaking again. This pause may feel like an eternity to you, but it won’t to your audience. It will look professional. Reading is deadly. Don’t read your notes. Don’t read your notes. Don’t read your notes. (This is really important; can you tell?)
Use body language well. If you want to make a gesture that suggests a time line, make it from right to left because your audience will see it as left to right. This is more natural to people who read in that direction, which means all English-speaking and Western cultures. (For the multi-lingual Bible.org readers who might speak in a culture that reads from right to left, just reverse this.) If you have three points to make, you can use three different (but relatively close) spots on the platform, and stand in each spot as you’re making that point. But if you move around, make sure there is a reason for your movement or it will be distracting.
Dress at the same level of the audience, or even a level above, so you look professional. This presupposes that you know something about your audience, which is an important fact-finding part of your preparation. Women should not wear distracting jewelry such as noisy bracelets or dangle earrings that move freely when you move your head. If you feel the need to tug at any apparel item (such as pulling a top UP or a skirt DOWN), you shouldn't be wearing it. Men in suits should button them up to stand and unbutton them to sit. If you’re going to speak at a place with video amplification or you are on a stage, take off your nametag.
Watch out for annoying habits and mannerisms. Cut out repetitive words and phrases completely, especially “like” and “y’know.” Watch a videotape or ask a friend to watch for repetitive gestures like smoothing your hair (use hair spray or a clip!), fidgeting, touching your jewelry, crossing your legs, or putting your hands in your pockets. Avoid touching your body (especially your head) unless it is a deliberate, meaningful gesture; it is distracting.
Arrive early enough to be able to mingle with people before you get up to speak. You will feel like you know at least some of the people that way, and more importantly, they will feel that they know you. You don’t necessarily have to introduce yourself as the speaker, which can sound pompous and self-important, but do introduce yourself by name.
Check your technology. If you are using any kind of machine or prop, make sure it works properly with plenty of time before you start speaking. Assume nothing except that things will go wrong. Once I was speaking on how to use the internet before wi-fi was invented, and brought an extremely long telephone cord so I could use my dial-up connection. I didn’t check to make sure the telephone cord worked, and of course it didn’t. My “live internet” class was quite impacted by the total inability to get online!
Public speaking includes some acting. So use facial expressions, purposeful gestures, and changes in voice pitch and volume. Pay attention to good speakers to see what they’re doing well, and learn from them.
Practice. Practice! And practice speaking as if you were already confident. Confidence-by-faith (what the world might call “faked confidence”) looks like the real thing. Confidence means being relaxed, passionate about what you’re saying, and enjoying the experience. It’s important that you really believe what you’re saying; an audience will know if you don’t.
Audiences feed energy to speakers with their body language. When you are part of an audience, feed the speaker by looking attentive, nodding, smiling, and leaning forward with open body position to show you are open to what they’re saying. And may you receive it back when it’s your turn at the microphone!
One final piece of advice. Never get up to speak without yielding yourself into the Lord’s hands, surrendering to His power, and thanking Him by faith for speaking through you. I envision myself as a glove, inviting Jesus to slip inside me like a hand. The audience will see and hear me, but my prayer is that the real power and the real communication comes from the Lord Himself.