How to Speak Like an Expert (Attn: Sarah Palin)

When John McCain's VP pick addresses the public this week, she'll need to look like a pro.

By + More

As Republican vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin heads for her first national debate tomorrow night, many are scratching their heads at the seemingly impossible task in front of her. The two-year Alaska governor and former small-town mayor will go head to head with Democratic VP candidate Joe Biden, a member of the U.S. Senate for the past three decades.

For politicians, public speaking is a way of life, but Palin will be tackling unfamiliar subjects in front of a national audience. In some ways, Palin is not entirely alone. On a smaller scale, every day in corporate America, employees and executives are called upon for speaking skills or knowledge they may not have.

Thom Lisk, author of the recently published The Complete Idiot's Guide to Success as a Professional Speaker and president of Ohio-based Professional Speakers Bureau International, recently chatted with U.S. News about speaking tips for the inexperienced. Excerpts:

How do people become expert communicators on topics they may not be experts on?
Great speakers have long known that they are to surround themselves with experts. Henry Ford said, "I don't need to know how to build a car; all I need to know is how to hire the right person to build it." And speakers are somewhat that way. The challenge is: Are they genuine when they present the information or ideas that they have recently adopted? They may need to couch their remarks and be right upfront with people.

So you advocate honesty when a speaker is new to a topic?
They need to give credit where credit is due, not present material as if it is their own.

What are some things a speaker can do to overcome nervousness?
Sometimes [nervousness] is good. If you're too self-confident, sometimes you don't prepare as you should. There's a fine line between self-confidence and being cocky or egotistical.

Sometimes you can have too high of an expectation, like everybody's got to rate you A plus. That can bring nervousness: How are you going to please everybody? If you're thinking about how you're going to be evaluated, that can create nervousness. Try to connect with a few people in the audience. Make eye contact. Talk to them as if you're their friend.

How can a speaker be compelling when their topic is new?
You can tell when a speaker really believes what he or she is saying. I do a lot of sales training—and really, politics is the ultimate sales job. Selling first and foremost is transference of belief. It's not always important to say something in a perfect and right way. But don't we know when somebody really believes what they're espousing? Your emotion, enthusiasm, and belief get transferred. That's what a lot of [buying] decisions are made on.

What are some of the basics for new speakers?
No. 1: Make sure you care about your audience. People don't care about how much you know until they know how much you care about them. Whether there are 10 or 110 or 1,010 in the audience, you somehow have to communicate that you care.

No. 2: A lot of communication is nonverbal in nature. Depending on what study you want to quote, 60 to 90 percent is nonverbal. So, you ask yourself, what message am I communicating today? With politicians and with neophyte speakers, their nonverbals may or may not be congruent with what they're saying.

Are there nonverbal moves that should be avoided?
One thing that politicians do too much of is to point their finger at people. Think about what it conveys. It's better to have open-hand gestures.