Public Speaking and the Importance of Character: A Life’s Lesson

On June 20th in the Wall Street Journal, in response to the media coverage of Tim Russert’s untimely death, Peggy Noonan wrote in her Declarations column, “When somebody dies we tell his story and try to define and isolate what was special about it–what it was he brought to the party, how he enhanced life by showing up. In this way we educate ourselves about what really matters.”

“In a way, the world is a great liar. It shows you it worships and admires money, but at the end of the day it doesn’t. It says it adores fame and celebrity, but it doesn’t, not really. The world admires, and wants to hold on to, and not lose, goodness. It admires virtue. […] That’s what we talk about in eulogies, because that’s what’s important.”

Reading this, it struck me that we could say the same thing about public speaking. We make a show of admiring speakers who are clever, rich with data slides, equipped with approved platform behaviors and polished texts. But in the end, what we really like in speakers is character.

Character traits that appeal to audiences are varied, but certainly confidence is one, tempered, we hope, with humility. Genuine interest in the audience is another, or at least an empathetic understanding of their needs and concerns.

Finally, I myself like speakers who appear to be authentic, true to themselves, not working too hard to please me, but are nevertheless skilled at holding my attention.

Think about this. When a speech or presentation is over, which do you remember the longest: what the speaker said, or the impression the speaker created?

Decision makers rarely undertake an important project without first hearing the project leader explain it to them. They are listening for two things–grasp of the material, and the requisite character needed to overcome the inevitable obstacles any large project will encounter.

When a presentation is over, and listeners gather to discuss it and pass judgment, the speaker’s expertise is the dimension they consider overtly. But deep down, their decisions are informed by their perceptions of the speaker’s character.


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