Photo: George Burns/Harpo, Inc.
The first question I ask myself when I'm preparing an address is, "What can I say that hasn't already been said?" When I received the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award at the 2002 Emmys, I felt so grateful that I wanted to say something memorable—not just another clichéd "thank you very much." So while sitting in the makeup chair a few hours before the show, I began thinking about when I'd first connected to the meaning of the word humanitarian.
That's how I came up with an opening anecdote about how my father, who owned a barbershop, showed me what it means to extend yourself to others.
I've prepared many of my best speeches right before I delivered them. A few years back, when I spoke at Wellesley's graduation, I asked myself in the car on the way there, "What would I want to know if I were graduating?" And I decided on the words I'd share with the thousands of families filling Yankee Stadium after September 11 just moments before my address. I'd felt at a total loss for words, but sitting in the parking lot, I focused on the one thought that had comforted me in times of grief: When you lose someone you love, you gain an angel you know. So I walked up to the podium with the intention to comfort others with that thought.
Though I have to be practically in the moment before I can develop what I need to say, I know that the thought of eking out a speech moments before delivering it is enough to fill most hearts with panic.
My best advice:
Get silent with yourself and decide what you really want to communicate. Ask yourself some focusing questions: Can your point be boiled down to one sentence? If not, it probably needs clarifying. Do you have a provocative opening—a poignant story, for instance—that illustrates your message? A powerful beginning and ending will stick with your listeners. What's the most important message you want to leave your audience with—and why should they care? Every listener instinctively wants to know one thing: What's in this for me? The greatest public speakers are those who work at making their addresses both interesting and relatable.
The secret to addressing thousands confidently...
...is the same as the secret to addressing just one: Speak from your diaphragm, your gut—that place inside yourself where your deepest feelings reside. As girls, we're born strong, powerful, and opinionated—and as early as 11 or 12, we're told our voices don't matter, that a good girl is seen but not heard. To project we have to again get comfortable with having power—and to speak with the guttural sounds of our core. When you speak with clarity and conviction, you project and connect in a way that gives your words strength.
Stomach still flipping?
Make your breath your anchor. A few minutes before you begin speaking, draw in a huge breath and feel your abdomen expand. Slowly exhale and notice your diaphragm contract. Do it again. And again. Simple as it seems, a few deep breaths can calm shaky hands and slow a racing heart. And with every breath, you build a bridge back to the moment you know for certain you've already made it through: this one.
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