Public Speaking: Learning from Some of the Best

November 29, 2021


Have you given public speaking a try and decided it’s not for you?

It’s easy to both enjoy and be daunted by the talents of captivating speakers such as Canadian Rick Mercer. When you think about your turn at the podium, you may mistakenly hold yourself to standards it’s taken others years to achieve.

What? It Takes Time and Practice?

Of course, it does. While many good speakers weave an air of magic when they take the floor, such auras are typically reflections of good old-fashioned hard work.

It takes skill borne of experience to make something appear effortless.

While a number of orators are naturally talented, even the most gifted have become that way by virtue of discipline, practice and investments of time to hone their skills.  That’s right – much like the best admin. professionals you admire. They didn’t become that way overnight, and you can bet that most had at least the occasional faux pas along the way.

Choose Not to Be Intimidated by Others’ Capabilities – Instead, Watch, Listen, and Learn from Them

Instead of being intimidated, why not draw on the talents and expertise of speakers you admire – either on the international stage or right in your own office or network? Next time you’re in an audience, pay attention to such speakers for techniques you can develop through time and practice.

 Pay attention to nuances, pauses, voice modulation, and body language

… and then think about how you can adapt their approaches in a way that rings true to who you are. Watch for strategies and techniques that you will want to incorporate.

Some of the Best

Picture yourself in a room alongside hundreds of others listening to a former President such as Bill Clinton or Vincente Fox wax eloquently about a significant issue.

Or perhaps National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence Wade Davis, a botanist, and anthropologist who screens breathtaking photos in accompaniment of his perspectives on why ancient wisdom matters in a modern world.

Imagine Stephen Lewis, Companion of the Order of Canada and Former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, delivering his impassioned views on international development and human rights.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been in the right places and times to hear these four speakers in person. Vincente Fox offered political perspectives and his insights on the roles of education and business in Mexico’s development.

In Clinton’s case, I was one of the thousands who paid to hear his call to action in support of the Clinton Foundation’s endeavors. This former President’s presence at a June 2013 event is said to have garnered a speaking fee, directed to the Foundation rather than Clinton himself, that averaged out at $11,100 per minute. This impressive rate presumably included well-timed pauses, but more about those later.

It’s inevitable that none of these speakers secured unanimous subscription to their views

… but do you think these speakers let that stop them from sharing their convictions? Not a bit. Instead, each speaker demonstrated skillful use of a turn of phrase to convey the substance of his knowledge and passion with clarity and confidence, in order to persuade his audience of his views. 

These experienced speakers reached out to their audiences without the obvious benefit of notes. That, too, comes with experience, repetition, and from a base of knowledge. These people spoke with conviction on topics for which they have passion, topics in which they believe. 

Paint pictures with your words, and emotionally engage your audience

All four tapped into the imagery of words, and affective modulation of voice, to reach out and emotionally engage the audience.

To a person, each understood the effectiveness of silence and demonstrated the art of a well-placed pause. Mark Twain understood this more than a century ago; he encouraged speakers that, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause

I’ve also had the privilege of witnessing Peter Legge speak. In addition to being a successful entrepreneur, best-selling author, and community leader, Legge is a member of the Speakers Roundtable, an invitation-only society of 22 of North America’s top professional speakers. On stage to receive yet another honor, Legge demonstrated mastery of brevity as well as the concepts above. He spoke of himself only in terms of appreciation of the honor before dedicating the balance of his time on stage to offer words of inspiration from the listeners’ perspectives.

Assistants as Public Speakers

When it comes to public speaking, assistants typically expend their energies supporting others’ presentations – be it drafting speaking notes, conducting research, securing background information, or serving as a test audience and providing constructive feedback.

Others among us are in careers that see us occasionally or regularly taking the floor to give a presentation. If you’ve done so, you may have turned to your executive as a role model. For readers with limited public speaking experience, this is a good starting point, but where do you go from there?

Begin your public speaking experiences by putting your expectations in perspective

Recognize that, while we can learn from the masters, we needn’t place inordinate expectations or pressure upon our shoulders by expecting that we will perform at a professional level. After all, it’s unlikely you’ll be commanding a fee, let alone one in the ballpark of $11,000 a minute!

What we can do is recognize that Clinton, Fox, Legge, Lewis, and Wade are individuals who have built professional speaking careers from their respective foundations of expertise. If you’re embarking on a path of improving your public speaking skills, it helps to speak about a topic on which you’re well informed, and ideally one for which you have a passion – or at least a high degree of interest. Knowledge and interest lend authority and enthusiasm to your words, and may help prevent your knees from suddenly wobbling at the thought of giving a presentation!

Think about a speaker you’ve enjoyed, in whatever setting – a coach, someone proposing a toast at a wedding, a teacher or prof in front of the classroom, or someone from your professional world. What made you want to listen to this person, as opposed to counting down the minutes until the speech, presentation or meeting would conclude?

What makes you want to listen to a speaker, rather than catnapping through a presentation?

When you have an opportunity to observe a skilled speaker, study how the speaker paces her/his words, and works to build a rapport with the audience. Look around you to gauge your fellow listeners’ reactions. Learn from the best speakers you can observe in action, and consider which practices you might emulate or incorporate in your presentations, without ever losing sight of your sense of self.

Effective speakers are confident by virtue of having done their homework

Not only do they understand their audience and their topic, but effective speakers also are self-aware and continually work to enhance their skills. Some speakers are known for their dynamic delivery, others for their humor. Others develop an ability to cut to the chase, effectively breaking complex issues down into simple concepts that are more readily understood.

Effective speakers tell a story

They draw upon a range of internal resources and project their voices effectively. The best speakers draw upon their voices, eyes, body language, passion, and the use of silence as instruments through which they tell their story to engage listeners.

Effective speakers are generous

… with their insights, integrity, and respect for the audience’s time, interests, and understanding of the topic. An effective speaker will continually read and seek to engage the audience and will know when to stop.

About the Author: Shelagh Donnelly educates and inspires assistants on topics ranging from meetings and minutes to business acumen, cybersecurity, and working with boards. She helps assistants nurture their adaptability, productivity, and resilience in order to enjoy the career and continue to add value even as roles evolve. An international speaker, Shelagh worked with C-level executives for more than 25 years and is recognized for her governance expertise. Shelagh founded her globally read Exceptional EA website in 2013 and is the author of the upcoming book, The Resilient Assistant

This article first appeared in Exceptional EA, a globally respected professional development resource for administrative professionals. Visit to find out more and tell her we sent you

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