The wrong question

All day long, I am surrounded by people who are fluent speakers of English, or nearly fluent speakers of English.

One of the main questions people ask me is how can I speak better English?

I tell them, if you are a fluent or near fluent speaker of English, then asking how can I speak better English is the wrong question to be asking.

Once you get to that level, it’s not a question of speaking better English anymore, it’s about putting more vivid images into the audience’s head.

A key idea to remember here is that good stories happen in the reader’s head, not in the writer’s head.

Or, for speakers: a good speech happens in the listener’s head, not in the speaker’s head.

Your job as a speaker is to off-load as much of the processing power into the audience as possible, because the images they create in their heads will be far better and much more vivid than any images you could describe in any language. As a speaker, your job is not to find the right words per se. Your job is to kick off images in people’s heads.

A couple of ways that you can kick off these images in people’s heads:

One is to tell a story, preferably a story about yourself. A common story structure goes like this: Today I want you to X. I remember years ago, I wanted to X too. Here are the challenges I faced and how I met them.

Another way that you can cause these images to happen in people’s heads is to ask questions. One of the great benefits of this tactic is that your speech actually becomes really easy, because you basically just get to stand up there and be silent and listen while the audience does the talking.

For example, if you are talking about the process of starting a business, questions might be: Have you ever tried to start a business? Why did you think about starting your own business? What kind of business did you think about starting?

The minute you stop asking questions, the audience just kind of gets to sit there passively and listen to you and maybe think about other stuff. When you stop asking questions, you bring the cognitive processing responsibility, the heavy lifting, back onto yourself.

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