How to Speak Well

I’ve compiled a list of heuristics and directives in speaking well. By speaking well, I mean : ‘the ability to articulate your opinion/argument/point in a manner that is easily understood by the other person’.

Speaking is a meta skill. It is incredibly valuable but rarely taught. All human endeavours are cooperative efforts and speech is the medium for transmitting ideas. Ideas are how civilisation advances.

These are heuristics that can be used when talking to friends at the pub or when giving a speech in front of hundreds. I think the rules are the same, at least for me!

1. Know the subject stone cold then speak naturally.

It’s best never to memorise any speech. You want to be able to speak spontaneously without any self conscious thought. You want to speak without a sense of self. At best you can memorise your structure or plan if doing a formal speech, but ad libbing is vital. By doing this, it comes across as natural, uncoerced and authentic.

2. Have something valuable to say, otherwise keep silent

Often the most uninformed are the most vociferous in speaking about it. This is called the Dunning Kruger effect in psychology. It’s a human tendency to pretend we understand more than we do and to overrate our knowledge on a topic. You have to catch yourself. If you have nothing valuable to add (which is likely for many topics!) then do not speak. Just listen. If interested, go read more about it and formulate your own opinions. Or don’t. Just don’t pretend to know about the topic. As Feynman said “You must never fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”

3. Speak 3 S’s

This is a mnemonic tool you can bring to mind when speaking. Speak in a manner that is

• Simple

• Structured

• ConverSational

Simple because speech should be far simpler than writing. It is much easier to risk pretension when writing than speaking.

Structured because if you want to lead the listeners through a logical argument to the conclusion that you have made. If you simply unleash a barrage of unconnected points without elaboration, it is far less persuasive.

ConverSational because this is simply easier. We can’t all talk like Martin Luther King Jr. That would be strange. Imagine if the person across from you at a dinner party suddenly started talking with the phraseology of MLJ. You would think they are slightly off their rocker.

4. Anecdotes and Stories > Data

Anecdotes and stories trump data. Humans are just big story telling monkeys. We live in a world of stories (go read Sapiens for a further exploration of this thesis).

We make sense of the world through stories. We can be moved to tears or moved to elation by a well told story. Most great story tellers have been telling stories since they were young. It is a skill that is hard to master. I don’t think I’m particularly well informed about how to best do this. But observe friends/acquaintances that are good story tellers. They captivate and move their listeners. It’s a powerful device.

5. Record yourself

You have a particular speech pattern that has been baked into you since you were a child, reinforced in your teenage years and now its hard set. This may involve:

• Using filler words (like, um)

• Using a limited set of words (I say ‘cool’ a lot!)

• Speaking in a monotone voice

• Speaking too fast

• Lack of eye contact etc

• Hesitancy or unconfident speech

These are hard patterns to overcome. They are like deep grooves that have form in stone over years of rivers running over mountains.

The first thing to do is to be aware of them. Unfortunately this involves recording yourself. Becoming aware of your idiosyncrasies and bringing them to mind on a regular basis.

Then when you speak day to day, simply catch yourself. Overtime a transformation should occur.

6. Read, Write, Listen

All the best artists steal. Nothing under the sun is original. But when you steal it is your imperative to improve upon it and to make it your own. So

• Read good books. Make a note of any beautiful language (BL as Maria Popova uses) and overtime you may find yourself using some of the same language in your speech

• Write : writing and speaking are inextricably linked. They are both reflections of the process of thought. They are a marker of clear thought. So write. Write whatever you feel like. Articles, journals, fiction, non fiction. What is important is the habit of writing.

• Listen to good audio : podcasts and audiobooks have literally changed my life. So many smart and amazing people are on audio. A common theme is that many of them are excellent speakers! If you want a list of podcasts I absolutely love, follow this link.

Overtime, whatever you consume, you will become. Whatever you consume is weaved together in your mind unconsciously into a tapestry of phrases and words that will seep into your daily speech and writing.

Conclusion

This list is not exhaustive. I will hopefully add to it as I learn to improve my speaking.

I can’t emphasise how important communication is. I’ve improved leaps and bounds in medical school where you are judged on heavily on your ability to communicate. It’s a skill that will take a lifetime to master.

Hopefully these rules have been useful! Thanks