When Steve Jobs got into high gear as a speaker, many people reported that he seemed to have a reality-distortion field around him. No matter how unrealistic his claims at any given moment, people said they couldn't help being mesmerized: his enthusiasm could suspend their disbelief.
In the 1850s, there was another spellbinder not unlike Jobs--a guy named Henry Ward Beecher, a rock star of a preacher whose church in Brooklyn seated 2,800. In the 1850s, he was arguably the most famous man in America.
Here are five ways his contemporaries described his extraordinary appeal. Each of these techniques are timeless. You probably use them in real life already, and you can put them to use to make your presentations surprise and delight an audience.
"He knocked down the stifling solemnity endemic to churches in that era, with a cheerful irreverence that sent shock waves through America. He was like no minister anyone had ever seen. He was bold and funny, a natural actor who made his ideas come alive."
You may not be able to send shock waves through America, but you can bring your good cheer to the front of the room, get relaxed and let you be you, express yourself in your own best way, and make your ideas come alive precisely because you yourself are lively, engaging, and authentic. The pleasure of the listener adds subjective value to the intrinsic value of your message.
"He spoke plainly and with an air of candid personal confession that made him seem at once endearingly sensitive, admirably virile, and completely trustworthy."
So, he used simple language, not Biblical terms or terms of theology. He talked about events in his own life that the audience could relate to. He revealed his minor imperfections, confessing to errors of judgment and personal eccentricities that made him appear vulnerable and made his listeners feel they had an intimate relationship with him.
Let me remind you that it is not selfish or inappropriate to talk about yourself at the start of a talk. Your own story is a large part of your appeal, and if what you say is short, relevant, and helps the audience feel that they know you, tell it.
Be a Story Teller
"He was always natural, always himself, always giving forth his own interior condition, honestly and frankly. His sermons were filled with funny, poignant stories about his personal fortunes and foibles, inviting everyone to identify with him."
Being able to relate your own personal experiences to larger public and corporate issues is a powerful method for generating an intimate connection with an audience. Instead of projecting power and authority using the cold steel of reasoned argument, he projected warmth and intimacy using personal anecdotes, self-effacing humor, and storytelling.
Once he gave a speech in a hot and drowsy town in West Virginia, which was known in lecture circles as "Death Valley." When he rose from his chair, wiping his brow with a large handkerchief, he strode to the front of the platform and said, "It's a God-damned hot day." Then he paused, and raising a finger of solemn reproof, went on, "That's what I heard a man say here this afternoon." He went on to deliver a stirring condemnation of blasphemy.
"He was almost shockingly casual in the pulpit. If a name or date slipped his mind, he asked one of the people near him."
Most public speakers in Beecher's day received a formal education in rhetoric. They tended to use large, rehearsed gestures and speak in an oratorical manner. They had valid reasons for their style: they had no microphones, the crowds were large, and they often spoke outdoors, where the wind and ambient noise could impede their effectiveness. The speaker needed to wave his arms around so those in the back could see who was speaking, and to shout to ensure they could hear.
Henry Ward Beecher played against the prevailing speaking style. Dropping all pretense, he was a breath of fresh air--casual, informal, authentic. And yet his lack of pretense was just as much a rhetorical style as the more formal, hammy style of his contemporaries. He chose a style that was the polar opposite of his contemporaries.
Now, microphones and video cameras minimize the need for speakers to project and gesticulate. The up-close and personal style of talk shows and news broadcasts is pervasive. Every day you hear speakers on TV who are scripted, polished, and experienced, and when an average guy shows up on the screen, the contrast is severe.
The contemporary challenge as business speakers is to get enough experience so that you can relax in front of camera and crowd alike, and still bring a highly-disciplined approach to your messaging. Without those two things, you are less able to capture and hold the most fleeting commodity in the world--human attention.
Show, Don't Tell
"He was theatrical, using his whole body to communicate the whole range of human emotion, with dramatic gestures and subtle facial expressions. Audiences were startled by his imitation of a sailor taking a pinch of chewing tobacco and wiping his hands on his pants, of a fisherman casting, or a young girl flirting."
These descriptions of Beecher indicate that not only did he tell stories, he acted them out. He had a well-developed kinesthetic sense. Most of us have the same ability when talking to our friends, although we may tighten up in front of a crowd. I was waiting in a doctor's office the other day when I saw two teenage girls seated across from me leaning close together and looking into an iPhone. One of them said, "And when I saw the picture, I was like--Oh my God--and then I went like--I'm getting out of here," and you can imagine the mad, comedic gestures of horror she was making.
Depending on the circumstances and your own personality, such enactments are not out of place. They can be memorable and engaging if they are done with a degree of moderation. In fact, I have seen world class scientists demonstrate with elaborate hand gestures how a protein nestles into a receptor on the surface of a cell.
Someone once said that, "Abraham Lincoln emancipated men's bodies; Henry Ward Beecher emancipated their minds. He was phenomenal in his ability to make people love him."
He wrote his sermons at the last minute on Sunday morning. "Some men like their bread cold," he said. "I like mine hot."
Each to his own. I like to thaw out my frozen bread in the toaster of rehearsal.
But these techniques that enchanted America more than 150 years ago are available to all of us. In fact, we do them all the time in real life. Why not bring them to your next presentation?