Guest Article: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking

Mastering the Art of Public Speaking
by Larry Underwood

author of the book Life Under the Corporate Microscope: A Maverick's Irreverent Perspective
Underwood started out his career working behind the counter renting cars to people at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, and worked his way up the corporate ladder, eventually becoming a multimillionaire earning almost $4 million per year, and retiring before the age of 49

Mastering the Art of Public Speaking

Let’s face it; most people don’t like giving presentations in front of large audiences. In fact, that type of endeavor absolutely terrifies the vast majority of people, and those who aren’t completely frozen with fear generally still feel at least somewhat uncomfortable and ill at ease; probably because they lack confidence, and somehow feel that the audience won’t like them, for whatever reason, or that they’ll screw the presentation up, and not cover the necessary material in a smooth and cohesive way.

In other words, they let their anxieties prevent them from giving a good presentation; those anxieties usually become self-fulfilling prophecies, and as a result, they’ll usually receive a tepid response from the surly gathering, who may only being applauding at the conclusion of the speech because they’re glad the person will now shut up and go sit down.

For some reason I really enjoy giving speeches, especially when I have my very own podium and microphone to work from. I feel empowered when I get up there. I suppose I like the way my voice sounds over a microphone; it always reminded me of being a public address announcer, which I’ve always thought would be a cool job to have.

The best in the business, as far as I’m concerned in getting a crowd worked up into a complete frenzy is the great boxing announcer, Michael Buffer. He absolutely nails the whole spiel perfectly every time with such an elongated confident flair it’s amazing, and helps explain why he gets paid millions each year to do his relatively brief, but inimitable work. He’s the king, and probably rehearses his voice intonation hundreds of times before he goes live to perfect every syllable so it all sounds “just right”; in other words, he’s completely prepared, and preparation breeds confidence; confidence breeds success.

Mastering the art of public speaking enhances mastering the art of public persuasion.

Politicians aren’t the only ones who need to master the art of public speaking to successfully gain public approval.

To be successful in business, it’s very nearly impossible to do that without having to give a significant number of presentations during the course of a career. It doesn’t matter if you’re in sales or accounting; or if you’re in some technical support capacity, sooner or later you’ll be required to convey an important message to an influential group of decision makers or colleagues, and it’s your job to “sell” them on the idea that they should place their trust, or simply learn something of value by your expertise. At times, you may only have to persuade a handful of people that you offer the best alternative for them, and that may be less nerve racking than having to give some big speech in front of hundreds of usually disinterested, daydreaming individuals.

Inevitably, there may come a time when you will be called upon to give a very formal presentation in front of some huge throng, and be required to make that presentation on center stage, with spot lights glaring at you as you stand in front of a podium, with a real live microphone. You’d better be prepared and you need to be absolutely fearless. Audiences immediately sense any sign of weakness, and if your voice is cracking and trembling, you’ll lose credibility, and much of what you say will go unnoticed or quickly forgotten.

Before I offer my suggestions in giving that “killer” presentation to a large group of people, let me share with you my personal experience while I was rising up the company ladder with the now famous Enterprise Rent-a-Car. I started out in St Louis, as a “grunt”, as my good friend Fred Fuld so accurately described what it was like to perform those mundane tasks entry level employees were subjected to dealing with; cleaning cars in blazing summer heat or digging them out of three feet of snow in January; trying to satisfy difficult and frequently pissed off customers; working long hours, usually skipping lunch because of the volume of business to handle; getting yelled at by some lazy boss because you didn’t get some car ready to go “quickly enough”; or dozens of other degrading activities dumped upon the workers in the trenches; the grunts.

Believe it or not, I actually enjoyed my job despite all the slave labor and low wages I endured during my early years. I suppose that helps explain why I had a successful career; I was persistent enough (and maybe crazy enough) to stick it out. I also happened to like the vast majority of the people working there, and we all seemed to enjoy hanging out together.

My first big “career break” came in 1981, nearly seven years after I started with the company, when I asked for, and received a promotion to head out west to open the Phoenix market. I had just returned from a little Phoenix vacation in late January of that year, had fallen in love with the Valley of the Sun, and convinced the right people that I was the right guy to open that new market. Strangely enough, that’s how things quite often worked back then; prior to my request, nobody else had expressed an interest in living in Phoenix.

Since I had no competition for the opening, and was already considered one of the top managers in the company, getting chosen was a relatively easy process. Even back then, I was amazed that nobody else in the company seemed willing to move there, something that I find mystifying to this day. However, without sounding overly brash, I think I would’ve aced anybody else out, anyway, since I was one of the top managers in the (small) company to begin with (Big deal).

About two years after successfully launching the Phoenix Group, I received my first real dose of public speaking when each of the City Managers (my title at the time) were, for some reason, called upon to give a presentation about all the exciting stuff going on in their towns, from a rental perspective, at an annual rental managers meeting that was held in St Louis.

Personally, I just thought the concept was a stupid idea; I mean, really. What could possibly be so exciting in any particular city about renting cars? Of course, the answer to that rhetorical question: “Not much!” Nevertheless, the City Managers knew they’d better think of something half-way interesting to say during their little speeches since the head-honchos of the company would be in attendance and intently listening; well, at least pretending to be intently listening.

Quite honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to this ordeal at all. I’d never given a speech before, and the fact that the subject matter was so uninspiring, my biggest fear was putting the audience to sleep. I suppose I was more agitated than nervous, especially having to listen to those first round of speeches, which were so banal, mind numbing and embarrassing, I really felt sorry for those poor speech givers; and I felt sorry for the beleaguered audience; including me, knowing my five minutes of shame would be coming up soon.

The ordeal dragged on for two nights, with about half of the victims being thrown to the lions on that first dreadful night. Most of those agonized orators were either so nervous they could barely make it through their presentations without having a complete nervous breakdown; or they were such self-absorbed windbags they couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful they were. It was sickening.

I’ll let my book (Life Under the Corporate Microscope: A Maverick's Irreverent Perspective), summarize the events that unfolded during that second round of speeches, which of course, meant that I’d finally have my chance to say a bunch of nothingness which would be heard by nobody, except maybe the perpetrator of this madness, the misguided head of daily rental, Wayne Kaufmann, who actually seemed to be having fun with the situation, proving that he had to be some sort of sadistic individual. How else could it be explained?

“During the increasingly repetitious bullshit that was being doled out by the second round of victims, I sat there with my little cocktail napkin in hand, mentally rehearsing how I was going to ad lib those cryptic notes I had scribbled on this tiny shred of damp, paper-like material. As I sat there stewing, I’d flag down a waiter from time to time to get some more of that wonderful wine they were serving. I’m sure the people who were seated at my little table were thinking what a complete dick this guy from Phoenix appeared to be.

Suddenly, with only another three or four victims remaining to be tortured, I could hear Wayne wearily drone, ‘Here to tell you what’s going on in Phoenix is Larry Underwood.’ As I confidently strode to the podium, I could almost hear a couple people in the audience pretend to applaud my presence. For the most part all I heard was the dull murmur of desperate people trying to converse with their buddies what they were going to after they escaped this wretched zombie-like enclave called the St Louis Club.

When I ended my death march to the podium, I suddenly felt at ease; not like I was having an out-of-body experience or anything; but it felt cool to be propped up in front of a real, live microphone, as hundreds of beleaguered spectators disdainfully looked on. For some reason I can’t explain, I decided to act like a complete lunatic, hoping to receive a favorable response from this surly gathering. It worked.

For absolutely no good reason, I started off with this killer line: ‘Now batting for Pedro Borbon; Manny Mota.’ The frazzled audience, including those poor waiters, waitresses, and bus boys, exploded in raucous laughter. I acted like I wasn’t totally shocked by the favorable response; but of course, I was; and I was grateful that the movie ‘Airplane!’ had supplied me with that all-important ice-breaking gag.

After the laughter died down a bit, I just hunched over the microphone and said, ‘Sorry; I always wanted to be a P.A. announcer.’ Hell, they even thought that was funny. Now I was thinking to myself, ‘They’ll laugh at anything.’ But the truth of the matter was, I always dreamed of being the guy to introduce the Cardinals fans’ favorite players just because it would be so much fun to strategically accentuate whatever syllables in that player’s name that would cause the maximum amount of pandemonium.

For some reason, the St Louis Club was now in a state of pandemonium, and I must’ve been butter, because I was on a roll; I then launched into a hilarious routine; lampooning everything we’d been subjected to, up to this point; capping it off with a recount of our brave struggle in Phoenix with the horrible weather we had to endure, like the terrifying day 1/16 of an inch of rain fell, making it oh so difficult to get to work; I mean, we had to turn the windshield wipers on and everything.”

Looking back on it, I think the reason my little improvisational comedy routine worked out for me in that particular situation is the simple fact that the previous speeches were boring and humorless. The audience desperately needed a change of pace and I was very glad to provide that service because I desperately needed a change of pace, as well!

Really, there’s no reason to be terrified when you have to give a speech. As long as you prepare yourself, interject a bit of humor as an opening ice-breaker speak with “conversational confidence” (in other words, don’t sound like you’re reading the speech like some nervous 6th grader), be concise, and make sure your points are relevant, how could any audience not love you?

Life Under the Corporate Microscope: A Maverick's Irreverent Perspective is available through Amazon. You can also see a review of the book at


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