The art of public speaking: be yourself—elizabeth i to her army: lecture 3
“My own experience with talking about myself has been that it transformed my lectures, my pep talks as a coach, my explanations of how to do things in the field for students into something that they pay more attention to and that they see more clearly and that at the end we feel like more of a team”.
In this lecture, we tackle one of the most important, but most neglected, aspects of public speaking: talking about yourself. There’s a famous man in American history, Dale Carnegie, who trained hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the art of public speaking; and he always said that the single besetting sin of most beginners was to talk in abstractions and to talk in impersonal terms, ignoring his mantra that was, “Be yourself, and let your audience know who you are.”
One great speaker who gives us an example of how you should bring yourself into your words is Queen Elizabeth I of England. We are going to follow her in her barge from her palace in London, down the River Thames, to Tilbury, where her army is assembling to try to fend off the most serious invasion threat her island has ever known, at least since the time of William the Conqueror half a millennium earlier: the threat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. It looked hopeless for England: Elizabeth’s fleet was undermanned, underequipped, underfinanced. It was up to her to put some heart into those men, and she did it perhaps in the most surprising way possible: She did it by talking about herself.
The key moment in her speech is when she confesses her sense of her own weakness: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman.” By taking that tack, Elizabeth has drawn them in, drawn their sympathies to her, opened herself up to them, admitted her weakness, and I’m sure created feelings of courage and determination in that army that she could have gotten in no other way. She is a model for us of how you tackle a very difficult situation. Opening up to people in public speaking, as in private life, is the way to establish a true relationship.
Queen Elizabeth talks about laying her own honor and life down in the dust, dying with them if necessary. She has pledged to them she will not run away, that their danger is her danger.
Because she opened up about something that they must have all been wondering about — the feeling of fighting for a woman, a weak woman, not a soldier — king as they were used to with her father and her grandfather — she tackled what was on everyone’s mind, and she made it a strength. If you will open up about weaknesses, if you will open up about failures, you, too, can create the feeling that out of these past failures and out of these inherent weaknesses and your struggle to overcome them comes strength that you can share with your listeners. It’s a great way to get a crowd on your side.
There are lots of ways in which you can talk to people about yourself. It doesn’t have to be just weaknesses; it can be personal things to you that help people understand you. In fact, I think public speaking can make people better, because it gets them in touch with who they really are; it puts them in a forum where they can say anything about themselves and know that it will only add to the sense of authenticity, of communication, of revelation, and finally of communication with the audience. Nobody’s perfect; we all feel closer to people who we know through and through and who have felt confident enough to share their weaknesses and failures with us.