Thursday, June 04, 2015

Straight From The Heart

Lance Miller, a World Champion in Public Speaking, gives a few tips on how to be a good speaker

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Melton Antony 

I was 26 years old,” said Lance Miller. “I was living in a small town in Indiana. I had a job I did not like. I hadn’t a date in three years. And I had a couple of roommates named Mom and Dad. I felt like my life was going nowhere. So I took control. I left my home and my family and I headed to Los Angeles to start over.”

This partial autobiography, which can be seen on YouTube, was part of Miller’s speech called ‘The Ultimate Question’ which enabled him to win the 2005 World Championship for Public Speaking conducted by the Toastmasters International group, at Toronto, Canada. In the final, there were 10 contestants, although the initial number was 28,000 from over 100 countries. A panel of 20 Toastmasters judged the contestants on speech content, organisation, voice quality and gestures

And to ensure that he had a championship-winning speech, Miller practised relentlessly. “I gave the same speech to 35 toastmaster Clubs,” he says. “Then I got a feedback from the members. Based on that, I kept changing the speech all the time.”

But his success was also based on many years of defeat. Miller lost at the club level for nine years, then at the district level four times, and once in the semi-final. “And each time I lost, it was painful,” he says. “There were a lot of emotions involved, but I learnt valuable lessons. One was to never give up, to keep moving forward.”

Today, Miller is a speech trainer and life coach who travels all over the world teaching people on how to speak correctly. He was in Kochi recently where he was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of District 92, which consists of Toastmasters clubs from Kerala and Karnataka.

Asked about the qualities needed to be a good speaker, Miller says, “Speaking is a muscle. So you have to exercise it. If you don’t do so, it will atrophy and you will lose the skill.”

Another necessary attribute is the ability to project life energy. “You should have enough energy to fill the room,” says Miller. “For a major part of our life we are told to sit still and be quiet. So it takes some practice to get your life energy out. However, you will be able to do so if the message that you are giving is important to you.”

It is also important to be authentic. “Be true to yourself,” says Miller. “Don’t try to be dazzling. Just be the same person on stage that you would be in the hallway. The only difference should be that your energy should be amplified.”

Another important attribute is clarity. “A lot of people are not clear in their own mind about what their speech is all about,” he says. “If it is not clear to you, then it will not be so in the audience’s mind. I have a rule that states that no matter how clear it is in your mind, it is less so in the audience’s mind. So a speech has to be crystal-clear in your mind to get the point across.”

Meanwhile, there are common errors that most speakers make. “People have a tendency to lecture the crowd,” says Miller. “That puts people off. It is better to ‘share’ with the crowd, rather than ‘tell’ or ‘look down’ at them. In other words, you should be natural and humble. Then there are others who give rehearsed speeches. That prevents one from connecting with the audience.”

Since he is so well travelled, Miller is in the right position to compare Asian and Western speakers. “In Asia, English is a second language,” says Miller. “So, the fluency and articulation in English are much less. There is an English dialect for different areas of the world. The local people will understand each other, but many times I cannot do so even though English is my native language. But that is the problem in the West, also. There are several regional accents including a Cockney accent in Britain, which is very difficult to understand.”

But the Toastmasters in Kochi understood Miller very well. “Miller was confidence personified,” says George Thomas, Governor of Division H, District 92. “He showed the importance of natural body language, an expressive face, voice modulation, pauses, eye contact and the use of space on a stage. And he garnished his speech with dashes of humour. It was a great learning opportunity for us.”

However, not all are enamoured of Miller’s way of speaking. Once, Miller noticed a man nodding off at one his speeches. But later, the man re-assured Miller by saying, “L ance, I was listening to your speech. I only had my eyes closed.”

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

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