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Public Speaking: Connecting with Your Audience and the Art of Storytelling

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Of the great fears that consume us, as individuals and as an example of our shared humanity, few compare to public speaking.

Other existential crises – including war, famine, illness, political upheaval, exile and the loss of a loved one – while of greater long-term significance, nonetheless pale before the call from an emcee or a master of ceremonies summoning you to the rostrum, to speak before hundreds or thousands of attendees.

The experience can accelerate your heart rate because of anxiety, make your palms sweat, and, as you arrange the pages of your prepared remarks and encounter the reverb from the microphone; an unpleasant piercing sound that will get your audience’s attention by eliciting a collective wince, only to be followed by a silence (of anticipation) so deep it can render you speechless; in the glare of the spotlight, and regardless of however many prior command performances in the shower (where everyone sings like a rock star) or rehearsals before a mirror, the actual moment can overwhelm even our bravest warriors and most inspiring leaders.

I not only sympathize with those who must deliver a speech; I empathize with them because, in a career spent traveling to meet various retailers and as the guest speaker before a multitude of groups, I know that something as seemingly easy (in theory) as offering a few words on behalf of a specific cause can be more frightening than just about anything.

The good news is that, one, your nervousness is neither uncommon nor incurable.

And secondly, by structuring your speech the right way – by having a conversation with your audience – you will lessen the burden to be an orator (leave that job to politicians and clergymen), and soon develop your own style and self-confidence.

The jitters will subside, as will the “ums” and “ahs,” replaced by a rhythm that matches your personality and sense of timing.

By repetition alone, by speaking at more and more venues, everything will improve; from the way you begin a speech, with a surefire quip that relaxes the audience and elicits their friendly laughter, to the way you imbue your comments with excitement and a call to action – you will find your voice, distinctive in its tone and resonant in its delivery, by treating public speaking as an exercise (not unlike training for a marathon, or conditioning your body to climb a mountain) that requires practice and discipline.

Again, I know of what I write – and say – because, in my role as the Founder of Dave’s Pet Food and Dave’s Soda and Pet Food City, and as the namesake of my own personal site, DaveRatner.com, I frequently receive invitations to speak about a diversity of topics before a diverse array of professionals.

And, if there is one lesson I can share with readers about public speaking, it is this: Be a storyteller!

Use your own experiences as material, so you may connect with your audience and win their applause.

The Speaker as Narrator: Weaving a Good Yarn

This clip is a good example of this point about storytelling, as it also reflects some of the principles in my book, Creating Customer Love: Make Your Customers Love You So Much They’ll Never Go Anyplace Else!

By engaging my audience, first with a question and then with a humorous aside, a conversational tone develops – I am telling a story with the same relaxed manner I would display at a dinner party – that allows me to make a much larger point (in that speech) about something we should all do: Express our individual gratitude by sending a handwritten card to a person we respect or admire.

I encourage would-be speakers to seize the chance to become master storytellers.

For the details of a speech – including the anecdotes and personal maxims we would just as soon classify as throwaway lines – are, in fact, the essence of a good story and a great speech.

Collect those details. Cherish their richness, and cultivate their power.

Then you will enjoy that most soothing reward: Peace of mind, as you speak before an audience.

Dave Ratner is the founder of Dave’s Pet Food and Dave’s Soda and Pet Food City. He is also a member of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association Board of Directors, representing independent retailers alongside Vice Presidents of Marketing for Home Depot, Walgreens and Target.

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