The art of public persuasion 

Public speaking is a skill anyone can master, says QUest U's David Helfand

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - power of persuasion Becoming an effective public speaker is all about practise, says Quest University's David Helfand.
  • power of persuasion Becoming an effective public speaker is all about practise, says Quest University's David Helfand.

Have you ever wanted to captivate a country like Barack Obama in 2008, or take control of a room like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street?

Do you have a dream of inspiring a generation like Martin Luther King Jr.?

Or do you break into a nervous sweat at the thought of speaking to a crowd?

You aren't alone. Being a persuasive public speaker is a skill that's in high demand. A course being offered on the topic at Quest University in Squamish is full, with a number of names on a waiting list to get in.

"I think it's the way the world sees you," said David Helfand, president and vice-chancellor of Quest, on the benefits of being persuasive.

"You can be seen as confident and effective, or you can be seen as nervous and bumbling, and people make snap judgments. We've been evolving as a social species for hundreds of thousands of years and part of that is being able to make quick judgments about the person you're encountering, and our brains do that unconsciously, whether we like it or not.

"Coming across as an effective person is just a huge advantage in any kind of interaction."

While some people enter the early stages of a panic attack at the mere thought of public speaking, Helfand believes even the most anxious of glossophobes can get over it with practise.

"Some people are terrified of riding a bicycle when they first get on," he laughed.

"We've had students at Quest who in the first block say, 'I just can't do this, I have panic attacks, I've tried it in high school and it's just a disaster.'"

"They do it three, four, five times every month and within a few months it just becomes natural."

While some are admittedly more nervous than others, Helfand said there are various tricks you can use before and during your presentation to calm you down.

"Some of them are physical," he said.

"You get someone to massage your shoulders before you go onstage, you breathe deeply, you hydrate yourself so you're not constantly unscrewing and sipping water out of your water jug when you're talking."

But mostly it just comes down to practise. Helfand said he has students memorize the first four lines of their speech word for word.

"If you know the first three or four sentences, verbatim, cold, that are going to come out of your mouth, well then right away you're well into your talk and you're more relaxed because you're not trying to think of what's going to happen next," he said.

You've also got to be overly conscientious of things like posture and hand movements.

Helfand recommends videotaping yourself giving a presentation for five minutes and examining it frame by frame.

"Almost everyone is appalled at the way they behave, because they're unconscious of it," he said.

"You have to become conscious of everything you're doing with your hands, with your voice, with your body, with your eye contact, all these things."

All of those things add up to the mechanical side of public speaking, but equally important is the rhetorical side.

"The rhetorical part is more challenging, and it depends on the audience," Helfand said.

"There are lots of little subtle things in the way you phrase things that can be either more or less effective."

Depending on your audience, you'll have to decide on a specific approach to engage them. Do you use technical language and explain it as necessary, or avoid it altogether? Do you try to appeal to the emotion of your audience, or take a more logical and rational approach to your persuasion?

"It really depends on what your audience is and what your goal is," Helfand said.

"What you always have to remember when you're giving any kind of presentation, whether it's to two people or 2,000 people, whether you're on a stage or you're just in an informal setting, is it's a performance.

"And unlike in theatre, you don't have to play someone else. You can play yourself, but you have to play it. That's my advice."

There are a number of courses on offer this spring at Quest University.

Visit for a complete listing.



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