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Sun Tzu, Toastmasters and Speaking

by Jean V. Dickson

Many of you may argue that Sun Tzu, a Chinese General who lived 2,500 years ago, a famed military strategist whose book, The Art of War, is still studied today, has nothing to say on public speaking. My reply? Phooey! You just have to turn off the logical side of your brain and turn on the creative side. In less than ten minutes I found a plethora of Sun Tzu quotes that apply equally well to military strategy, business policy, and Toastmasters!

The Grand Duke said, ‘He who excels at resolving his difficulties does so before they arise. He who excels in conquering his enemies triumphs before threats materialize.’
Sun Tzu

It isn’t just the person working on the advanced sales manual that this quote speaks to. It applies to each and every Toastmaster. Whenever we speak, whether in Toastmasters or not, we sell ourselves. We sell our mannerisms, our style of thinking, our appearance, our emotions and our logic. Sun Tzu said that in order to be successful, we need to look at what is holding us back. This is the same principal behind Lewin’s Forcefield Analysis: if you want to change something, first look at those things hindering the change and overcome them before strengthening the forces helping the change.

There is a natural tendency for people to notice the negative and disregard the positive. We are all like the HR manager who looks for reasons to reject applicants instead of reasons to hire them. When a speaker is talking about making money in the stock market, but his shoes come from Wal-Mart and have holes in the soles, are we going to listen to the words? No. We make an instant judgment that this person doesn’t know what he is talking about.

In the same way, when we speak at Toastmasters, we first need to overcome those things that keep people from hearing our message. If we have a vocabulary of four and five syllable words, but many of the people in the audience didn’t graduate from high school, then we need to simplify the words we use. If we think in flowery language but are speaking to computer programmers and engineers, then we need to tone down the imagery or connect it to the audience’s world. If we are a plumber speaking on effective writing, then we need to convince the audience that we know what we are talking about.

The key is knowing both yourself AND the audience. And Toastmasters is the place to learn.

The musical notes are only five in number but their melodies are so numerous that one cannot hear them all.
Sun Tzu

This quote speaks to both creativity and variety. The first thing many people think when they connect music and public speaking is the quality of the speaker's voice. In the same way that a single note played precisely each two seconds becomes irritating, so does a voice that stays at the same tone, the same volume, and doesn’t speed up or slow down. Speakers need to think of their voice as a song. Taping yourself can help you hear whether your voice is a song that you would turn up – or turn off! All of us can improve our voices by using our voice to emphasize our speech. Instead of getting loud and fast to pound in a point, lower your voice, slow it down, and reduce the volume. Make the listener lean forward to hear your points. By doing this, they will listen more attentively to your words.

This quote may also be prepared to organizing our speech. By being creative when planning our speech, we can add suspense. I recently wrote a speech for our Club Speech Contest. I had a story to tell but realized that it was dull and boring if I started at the beginning of the story – the logical place to start. The beginning didn’t have punch. But the middle and the end did. Realizing this and thinking about Andrew Wallace’s winning speech from last year’s contest, I reorganized my draft speech. I cut out one image – an image that immediately created suspense for the audience. I knew they would be asking themselves, ‘What happened?’ So I put this image at the very beginning – and then flashbacked to how I arrived at that point. I didn’t just play the notes in order; I created a more effective melody by changing the order the notes were played.

It follows that one does not contend against powerful combinations nor does he foster the power of other states.
Sun Tzu

When we are taking part in a speech contest, the last thing we want to do is compete head-on with a gifted speaker. Anyone would be crazy if he/she tried to compete with Richard Mercer by imitating his wonderful, humorous, laid-back storytelling style that's much like the famed Stuart McLean. The only way a person can successfully compete against Richard is by not facing him head to head, but by coming at him from the side. The speaker has to compete against Richard by being different from Richard. He/she must foster, not Richard’s strengths, but his/hers.

We’ve already dealt with our weaknesses and improved them, but now we need to push our strengths. And if one of my strengths is an area where my competitor is weak, then so much the better. In war, the English used this technique against the much more powerful Spanish Armada. Most would say (before the battle) that there was no way the English could win the war. But the smaller English ships had an advantage – they could more quickly turn from their path, more quickly maneuver than could the heavy, clumsy Spanish ships. By pitting their strength against the enemy’s weakness, the English David overcame the Spanish Goliath. In the same way, we can overcome our competitors at Area, District and Regional competitions!

As you can see, Sun Tzu has a lot to say on public speaking. By following, and applying, his advise, we will nurture our speaking strengths, overcome areas of weakness, and vanquish competition from other clubs. But let’s not stop there. Let’s look at other areas of our lives and determine how we can use Sun Tzu to help us better ourselves in whatever we do!

About the Author

Jean V. Dickson is a Canadian-based entrepreneur who puts creativity's ZING into training and communications. For more information on creativity and innovation, visit www.jvdcreativity.com. For training activities, visit www.experientialexercises.com. To jazz up your corporate PowerPoint presentations, visit The PowerPoint Joint at www.powerpointjoint.com. And for ideas and resources to power up your worship, visit www.fatsheep.org and www.worshipzing.com.

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