The most overlooked prep time for speakers

Looooong experience

Austrian journalist Karl Kraus once famously defined a journalist as someone who has nothing to say but knows how to say it. Journalism students have a tendency to fill a college career with nothing but journalism courses, which can lead to exactly the situation Kraus described. That’s why schools accredited by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication require students to take no more than a certain number of hours in journalism courses–they need to have something to write about when they graduate.

Speakers have related challenges, in that hardly anyone speaks simply to speak. You must have something to speak about.

Journalism students tend to fall in two camps: those who have known since age 11 or so that they intend to be newshounds, and those who think it looks easy or glamorous based on television shows. The latter leave the profession quickly in light of reality.

Unlike the former camp, though, hardly anyone goes to college planning to be a speaker, even those who major in speech (which is one of the reasons the academic departments in this field are tending toward renaming themselves “Communication Studies” or some such). In the 26 years that I’ve been teaching college classes, in fact, I can only think of two students who came into my speech class with a goal of becoming a professional speaker.

However, I can think of a lot of people who can claim that title. And a lot of those who could claim it don’t. They think of themselves not as speakers (or writers, for that matter), but rather as experts in a subject area who will use every means and medium available to communicate about it.

Skill matters. But unless and until you have something to talk about, all the skill in the world matters little.

What do you know about? More importantly, what do you care about? You may or may not already be an expert, but if you dig into the areas you care about, you are mostly likely to stick with it until you find yourself getting asked to write or speak about what you have learned.

You’ll start to pay attention, then, to what it takes to clearly form a message, to analyze an audience, to hold attention, to make points memorable, to use language for the ear. You may look back on it and have trouble pinpointing when you started thinking of yourself as a speaker, when you starting consciously cultivating the skill set.

But you’ll suddenly realize that, though you never set out to become one, you are a speaker. Then, when someone asks you how long it took to prepare that speech, you can look him in the eye and say, “26 years.” And you’ll be right.

The fact is, you have to soak your speech for awhile to keep it from getting dry.

What experience do you take for granted? What’s the well from which you draw your best material?

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