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On Speaking Well

On Speaking Well

3.6 3
by Peggy Noonan

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For anyone who fears the thought of writing and giving a speech--be it to business associates, or at a wedding--help is at hand. Acclaimed presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan shares her secrets to becoming a confidence, persuasive speaker demystifying topics including:

  • Finding you own authentic voice

  • Developing a text that interest


For anyone who fears the thought of writing and giving a speech--be it to business associates, or at a wedding--help is at hand. Acclaimed presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan shares her secrets to becoming a confidence, persuasive speaker demystifying topics including:

  • Finding you own authentic voice

  • Developing a text that interest you

  • Acing the all-important first paragraph

  • Using logic to move your audience

  • Creating, developing, and reinventing the "core speech" for diverse audiences

  • Strengthening your speech with a vital element: humor

  • Winnowing your thought down to the essentials

  • Handling professional jargon, clichés, and the sound bite syndrome

  • Presenting your speech in the best way

  • Collecting intellectual income--conversing your speech treasures

  • Breaking all the rules and still succeeding

  • Reading for inspiration--how to use the excellence of others

Complete with lessons, tips and memorable examples, On Speaking Well shows us how to create forceful, persuasive, relevant speeches that will resonate with our audiences. Engaging, informative, and always entertaining, this is undoubtedly the authoritative how-to guide for anyone writing or giving a speech

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Noonan (What I Saw at the Revolution), George Bush's most publicized speechwriter, describes her book accurately as "advice and anecdotes about the writing and giving of speeches." Not political speeches, which are probably an art form unto themselves, but the kind of speeches most people are at some time called upon to deliver. Noonan states her advice clearly: No speech should last more than 20 minutes; the text should be written out (no ad-libbing from outlines); humor is essential; read your draft speech aloud (speaking is different from writing); keep sentences short (the audience is hearing it, not reading it). One section deals with the special requirements of writing for other people. Shorter sections deal with situations such as toasts, tributes and eulogies. There are also tips on handling questions, walking up to the platform and meeting the audience afterward. The anecdotes deal chiefly with Noonan's adventures on the political circuit and in the White House with Presidents Reagan and Bush and are the fluffy sort of things the author herself probably uses facing audiences. The advice is practical and fairly obvious, but if speaking in public is indeed most people's Number One Fear, this is a calming, logical and sometimes entertaining guide. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Noonan, author of the best-selling What I Saw at the Revolution (LJ 3/15/90), presents a guide to communication that succeeds because of the entertaining and informative anecdotes drawn from her experience as a speech writer for presidents Reagan and Bush. She provides good, basic, but not original advicekeep speeches to 20 minutes, use plain language, incorporate humor, and, most important, be sincere. The author includes insightful commentary on Earl Spencer's eulogy for his sister, Princess Diana; President Clinton's oratory, which she faults for its reliance on clichs and for its emphasis on style rather than substance; and President Reagan's skill at using speeches to connect with the public. Recommended for public libraries, especially as an overview of presidential speechmaking.Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, Pa.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Chapter One


I'm tempted to begin this the way Reader's Digest used to: So you want to give a speech ...

There you are in the den, the kitchen or the dining room, and you're thinking, How do I get out of it?

The original invitation probably left you almost limp with self-love. They like me, they really like me. But now it is three weeks later and the speech is Tuesday and your mouth is dry as cotton, your heart dysrhhythmic, and in its wild thumping you are hearing the words: I gotta GIVE it, I GOT to stand there and they'll ALL be LOOKing at me ...

Your first thoughts are constructive alternatives: If I get in a car accident I won't have to speak. But it's hard to calibrate the exact extent of injury when you swerve across the fast lane into a divider, so you reconsider.

And sit. And shift in your chair. And begin, in a desultory manner, to type:

"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. It is nice to be here."

Try ajoke.

"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Before I get to the heart of my remarks, I just thought I'd tell you- There's three guys in a boat, a black guy, an Irishman and a Jew--"


"A man walks into a bar with a duck on his head--"


"So Bill Clinton's jogging down the street and he sees a cat in heat and he says-"


"Thank you for being here. I mean of course you had to be here, but thank you for inviting me even though I of course had to be here too, but I didn't think I'd ever have to speak--"


You try to summon from within what frightensyou most. It is dishearteningly easy. You will be so nervous you will not be able to stop shaking and they will see your arms vibrate-you will look like a three-year-old saying, "See, Daddy, I can fly." You will vibrate so hard you'll knock the pages off the podium, you'll bend to pick them up, lose your place, look out at the audience and your first words will be "In conclusion . . . "

No. You can put your arms on the side of the podium, grip it with your hands. That'll fool everyone. You'll look commanding, like Clinton. But: You will lose your voice! You'll clear your throat and open your mouth and you'll make this little itty-bitty weak mouse sound--eeep eeep eeep--and they will know: You lost your voice from nerves.

They will know something they didn't know. In fact, they will know something you didn't know: You are afraid of them.

And how could you be? They are your clients, whom you fool every day! They are your friends! They are that dumb-as-a-stone teacher your daughter had two years ago! Afraid of them?

No, you're not, not individually. But in the aggregateeight hundred eyes watching you, eight hundred feet ready to walk if you flop, four hundred brains waiting to be enter tained, four hundred witnesses to the fact that deep down you are a frightened little eeep-eeep-going mouse.

Here's some good news. Right now you are in the worst part. The reality you are imagining is worse than the reality that will be. They used to say the coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave man but one, but maybe it's closer to the truth to say that people with a vivid imagination die a thousand deaths, dullards but one.

And a vivid imagination is a sign of intelligence.

And intelligent people can give speeches.

Also, there's this: Even your most important speech isn't that important. Life is long and full of minutes, that crucial speech you made three years ago turns out actually not to have been a destiny changer, but just another knot in the ribbon of your life.

So don't be so nervous. It's only talking. If you fail miserably, nothing changes. It will momentarily sadden your friends and hearten your enemies. But only momentarily. And youyou'll just have to try again until you get it right.

I write in terms of near-phobic fear because, as I said, that is what I once had, and I am projecting. I had a horrible experience when I was in seventh grade. Before that I could stand up in class and speak with ease and enjoyment, but one day in seventh-grade English class we were each called upon, row by row, to read aloud from "The Song of Hiawatha." When it got to my row I became fearful, not knowing why. When the student in front of me stood for her turn I became so frightened I broke out in sweat. When it was my turn I stood with the book in my hands, began to read--"And beyond them stood the forest / Stood the groves of singing pine-trees'--and within a stanza lost my voice. It began to shake, to weaken, and then it just stopped coming out of me. The teacher looked up. I think I said something like, "I'm sick." She told me to sit down. I did. With great embarrassment and confusion.

Years later I would realize I had had an anxiety attack. But I didn't know that then, and what happened when I couldn't read the poem so took the wind from my sails, so traumatized me ... that I never stood to speak in public again until I was forty years old.

This kind of experience is not uncommon. I know a man who runs, an important media business who suffers terribly before he gives a speech, who in fact for twenty years devoted considerable energy and ingenuity to successfully avoiding ever having to make one, because of something that happened to him when he was a little boy.

Meet the Author

Peggy Noonan is the best-selling author of seven books on American politics, history, and culture. Her essays have appeared in Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other publications. She lives in New York City.

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