The Arts of Communication

In 1994 Barnett Helzberg, Jr. crossed Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, passing by The Plaza Hotel. It was a normal day until he ran into Warren Buffett. He took all his courage and approached the legendary investor.

Helzberg introduced himself as a shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway and a great admirer of the investor. Then he pitched his venture as sharply and quickly as possible. When he finished, Buffett replied with four words: “Send me more details.” One year later Helzberg sold his company. A powerful pitch was turned into a successful sale. A speech, whether it is a 1-minute pitch, or a 10-minute speech can be turned into a catalyst for change.

The very thought of public speaking, however, scares many people. It is the age-old fight or flight response, or what others call stage fright. It is normal. It is a physiological reaction when you are faced with what you perceive as a threatening situation. But as Yoda would say fear is the path to the dark side. We must find a way to turn that fear into a power.

When Warren Buffett was an MBA student at Columbia Business School, he was afraid of public speaking. “I was terrified of public speaking when I was in high school and college,” Warren told BBC in an interview. “I couldn’t do it.” He enrolled in a course on public speaking by Dale Carnegie and went on to teach at the University of Omaha, which solved the problem and changed his life.

Today Buffett is a master of public speaking. “You’ve got to be able to communicate in life,” he now tells others, “If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential.”

I used to be scared of public speaking. I was terrified of approaching beautiful women. It was especially difficult in situations that I couldn’t prepare for. When I met a CEO at an event, or saw a beautiful girl walking down the street, there was little time to think about what to do. I learned over time that the only thing that kills fear is action. Even if you fail, that’s better than standing just there and doing nothing.

But mastering the fear of public speaking is not enough. You also need a good framework. The Harvard Kennedy School teaches a course called The Arts of Communication every year. I participated in a workshop last semester by David Garfunkel. I want to share a framework that is adopted from that course.

Keep in mind the three pillars of public speaking: ethos, pathos and logos. Ethos relates to the credibility, or character of the speaker. Pathos relates to the emotional connection to the audience. Logos is about building a logical argument. There is a debate about which one is more important. Just remember that you need all three pillars to deliver a strong speech.

A strong speech is also about what you avoid doing. Avoid talking fast. Watch any speech by Barack Obama or Bill Clinton and notice how they pause between sentences. Avoid saying too many things. Learn McKinsey’s Rule of 3. Always present three reasons and keep repeating them. Avoid taking ownership over everything. Instead give credit to others where it is due. Avoid fidgeting with your hands. A good speech is as much about what you do and what you do not do.

Here is what you need to do. First, have a statistic for every story and a story for every statistic. Don’t tell a story that you can’t back up. It needs to be credible. But merely regurgitating data to the audience is not effective. You need to tell a story, too.

Second, be vulnerable. That is easier said than done. Keep the right balance. Avoid being overly emotional. Be authentic. Your audience will relate better to you and your message. Actress Jennifer Lawrence demonstrates the right balance in many of her interviews.

Third, know thyself in public speaking translates into knowing your audience. Tailor your speech to your audience. Don’t be generic. If you are trying to talk to everyone, you will talk to no one.

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” my finance professor used to ask when I was studying for my undergrad in New York. “Practice, Practice, Practice.” And that is probably the must useful thing to keep it mind. As they say practice makes perfect. It may not make you perfect. But if you practice, you will learn all these things on your own and become better at the arts of communication over time.

This was originally published at the Harbus HBS on August 23, 2014.