Back to the Mar-Apr 2020 issue

The Art of Public Speaking

Photo. David Unmacht, Executive Director of the League of Minnesota Cities

By David Unmacht

Our routines — we swear by them, but don’t want to be defined or limited by them. I was reminded of this fact recently during the League’s Elected Leaders Institute for new and experienced elected officials.

We had the privilege of welcoming many long-time city leaders and League supporters, along with many newly elected officials, from all over the state to programs held in the cities of Plymouth and Baxter.

During the Plymouth program, I was the opening speaker on day two and I was pacing, walking around, going through my “pre-speech” routine when I sat down next to a group of leaders from Hastings. Mayor Mary Fasbender quizzically looked at me and asked, “Do you get nervous before you speak?” I responded “No, not anymore, but I have to be on my game.” And my game is centered on a practice and routine that is second nature to me: checking my audience, memorizing key points, writing notes, tying my shoes, hitching my pants, and taking three or four deep calming breaths.

I thoroughly enjoy public speaking. It brings me energy, emotion, and a sense of influence. Being an effective public speaker is an art. Successful public speaking requires practice, self-confidence, opportunities, and a routine that works.

Municipal officials have plenty of opportunities to speak in public; in fact, it comes with the territory. However, an election certificate does not cement your skills or abilities to be effective or persuasive.

I have given hundreds of public speeches in my career, yet continuous self-improvement is always on my mind.

No matter how good you are at speaking in public, you should always strive to be better. Some aspects of my speaking need improvement. I sometimes talk too fast, cram too much information in too little time, and randomly go off script (to name only three). What I’m good at: self-deprecation, passion, energy, connecting with the audience, and knowing my subject matter.

Speech coaches and authors point to a universal truth and that is the relevance and importance of storytelling.

The best speakers tell meaningful (short) stories to make their points. I consider myself OK at this, but continuously try to improve my storytelling. You should, too.

With all my experience, I do not get nervous anymore, but can, on occasion, have a dose of healthy anxiousness. If you are the same, that’s a good sign. Healthy anxiousness reflects caring and a desire to succeed.

If you still get overly nervous, focus on what drives the tension — is it your audience, your lack of knowledge about the subject matter, fear of saying the wrong thing, or lack of experience? All these tension-inducing stressors can be overcome with preparation, practice, and routine.

I was a very nervous speaker until I realized my career would be a mess if I didn’t get over it, so I went looking for opportunities, nearly inviting myself to every Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce, and public function where people gathered. I learned to start, build confidence, repeat, gain confidence, repeat, and believe in myself.

Connecting with your audience is an effective quality of public speaking. I asked a church pastor friend how she knows she’s connecting with her audience. Her response surprised me: “You can’t always tell, but you know if the congregation is not listening!” Our conversation went further, with each of us sharing experiences on how to effectively “grab and hold your audience” — making eye contact, not reading (unless quoting), and calling out audience members by name. Granted, the latter is not common in sermons, but should be common in your presentations. Learn how to personalize your speech to each person listening, no matter the size of the audience.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t close this column with a universal truth of public speaking. That brevity is always the best. Yes, I struggle with this myself at times, but we know brevity matters from our own listening experiences when our minds wander, and phones are a painful reminder that distractions increase with the length of the speech.

In your public service, you may not reach a point where you enjoy public speaking or even look for opportunities, but you know it is an important skill to be effective and persuasive in your city role. Don’t take speaking for granted; invest in yourself and your abilities. You and your audience will be much better for it. I know from experience.

David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 281-1205.