How To Take Your Public Speaking to the Next Level
(2006 Interview with Johnny Blue Star)
Ruben Gonzalez brings a unique experience to public speaking. As a four time Olympian in the field of luge racing, a sledding event where the contestant lies supine on a sled and hurtles, feet first, down an ice track at 90 miles. Unlike other Olympians in this area, Ruben started when he was twenty-one, an age where few would dare to enter into an Olympian version of any sport.
In this interview, Ruben brings his own unique approach to public speaking- from creating a carefully structured and intimately understood version of a basic speech, to preparing for an actual performance, from the details of handling an audience to dealing with ones own fears and goals.
Even more helpful, Ruben addresses your over-all training for the formidable task of inspiring and informing strangers about your own specialized message. His website, www.TheLugeMan.com , supports and amplifies his credentials for bringing to this book and validating a number of our important keys to unlocking the secrets of public speaking.
Read the interview below…
Most people are scared to death of public speaking. Yet your descriptions of luge racing in the Olympics leave no doubt in my mind, that if people actually knew what it was, its fear factor would outdistance the fear of public speaking in a matter of a few seconds. Was there any fear in you in learning to address an audience? Or was that small potatoes compared to that sport’s tendency to crush bones, twist joints and tear muscles?
For me, the luge is infinitely scarier than public speaking. But that’s just me. You see, I didn’t start luging until I was 21 years old. Most lugers start when they are 10 years old. Ten year olds are not afraid of anything. And by the time they are old enough to know better, they’ve developed such great skills, that they hardly ever experience any fear.
But I got started when I was 21. So I’ve been luging for 20 years, and I’m still scared after every run.
My background is in copier sales. But I’m a pretty introverted person. I feel very comfortable one on one, but put me in a group of five people and I become the wallflower – I totally shut down. For that reason, the thought of becoming a speaker never crossed my mind. I listened to all the great speakers while driving from one sales call to another, but never thought about doing it myself.
Then, in 2002, right before leaving to compete in the Salt Lake Olympics, a 5th grade student in my neighborhood asked me to be his show-and-tell project in school. I agreed, because I thought I’d be talking to 20 or so kids for 5 minutes. When I got to the school, the Principal took me to the school auditorium, which was filled with 200 fifth graders, and said, “You’ve got 45 minutes. Have at ‘em!”
I was looking for the nearest exit. I was totally unprepared and scared to death. I had never even taken a speech class in my life. I said a little prayer, then told the kids a series of Olympic stories with points that would help them in life. It was like a miracle. Everything I had learned from listening to all those motivational tapes started coming out of my mouth, wrapped up in great Olympic stories.
I wasn’t trying to be proper, or to watch my ‘uhms’ and ‘ahs.’ I was simply myself and tried to be as animated as possible so I could hold the kids’ interest. You can watch videos of my talks by visiting TheLugeMan.com
As I was leaving, the teachers said, “You’ve got a gift! You’re better than the people we hire! You need to do this for a living!” They were so emphatic that I quit my job three days later, got a Houston phone book, and started calling schools figuring, that if I can sell a copier, I can sell myself as a speaker.
I quit a little too soon. That first year we almost lost our home. But I found some successful speakers who took me under their wings and taught me the speaking business. If you’d like some great speaker resources, click here.
I’ve been full time ever since. Today I get to regularly share the stage with speakers like Zig Ziglar, Tom Hopkins, and Les Brown – all my heroes from my sales days.
Every famous speaker, athlete, entertainer gets nervous from time to time. Sometimes all the time! How should one deal with this phenomenon?
If you ever feel nervous before a speech, remember this – it doesn’t matter if you didn’t climb Mt. Everest, or survived a plane crash, or competed in the Olympics. Because just the fact that you are speaking, which is the thing most people fear more than anything else, earns you the respect of the audience. As long as you speak from the heart about something you are passionate about, you’ll do great.
Another thing… if you always open your speech the same way, I guarantee you that three sentences into your speech you’ll be feeling fine and will be on auto-pilot.
Speaking about something you’re passionate about is critical. Because your passion will get you through. Be yourself but don’t focus on yourself. Focus on your audience and on how you can get them to catch your passion. How do you expect them to get excited about your topic if you’re not excited about it?
Finally, focus on the audience members who show interest. If someone is falling asleep or looks bored, don’t take it personally. Maybe their son kept them up all night and they are exhausted. Focus on the people that are getting it and draw energy and excitement from them.
Speaking of a deeper level of fear, how does your experience as an Olympian, competing in a very scary, dangerous and painful sport, provide you with the capacity to face fears in other areas? Does it provide you with any special experience that would help you counsel people who are quite intensely afraid of public speaking?
We take hundreds of mental luge runs for every actual run we take. The idea is to practice so much in our minds that when we are on the ice, our subconscious will take over and we will get into “The Zone.”
I have only one speech. It has evolved over the years but I’ve delivered it so many times that I can do it in my sleep. It’s honed. But I have so much fun delivering it, that to the audience, it feels like it’s the first time.
If you change your speech for every audience, you’ll never be your best. I strongly suggest writing a speech that talks about universal principles of success that work for anyone, anywhere, anytime. I’ve delivered my speech to grade school kids, churches, associations, and corporations with equally great results.
If you specialize in giving one speech, you’ll be great.
Again, the big key is speaking about something you’re passionate about.
You seemed to have a very gung-ho, athletic attitude towards success- and that seems to be reflected in your delivery. How did you evolve towards that style?
Audiences will forgive you for making mistakes but they will not forgive you for being boring. It’s a good thing I got started by speaking at schools. Because I developed my animated style in order to hold the students’ attention. I found that corporate audiences appreciate my high energy style because they are sick and tired of boring PowerPoint politically correct speeches. I’m a breath of fresh air.
The funnier you are the better. You want to touch their hearts with great stories, hit their intellect with powerful and insightful points, while entertaining them with funny and exciting delivery.
How important is the audience to you? Do you psyche out the audience before you begin to speak – do you try and feel their interest and enthusiasms – or is that fairly irrelevant to your way of operating?
You have to start very strong. Either with a powerful question, a startling statistic, or a great story. If you don’t start strong, you’re dead in the water. I start with a powerful story about what taking a luge run feels like.
I always ask the meeting planner three things: what’s the theme of your event, what’s your group’s goal, and what’s the biggest challenge your group is experiencing?
Then, I can briefly talk about those things in between my stories. You see, my stories don’t ever change. They are segments of my speech that are honed to the word, to the pause, and even to the expression on my face. My customization takes place in the transition between the stories.
And it doesn’t take much to get an audience to feel that I really understand them. Heck, if I know where they want to go and that challenges they are facing, it’s a piece of cake.
For some strange reason, when I’m in front of an audience, it feels to me like I’m talking to just one person. So I’ve never really ever felt stage fright. As soon as I started speaking to those kids, I realized that for me, a big audience felt like just one person.
One thing I like to do before a talk is to walk around the audience introducing myself to people in different sections of the room or of the arena. I call it “making friendlies.” Then when I’m in the middle of the talk, I can make eye contact with those people and they always nod their heads or smile. That really helps warm up a crowd.
All I say to them is, “Hi, I’m your speaker tonight. I really appreciate your bringing me in to speak for you. We’re going to have a fun time!” And they feel real special to get to speak to the speaker, and they turn into great audiences.
Do you feel that you are an inspired speaker? That you are open to spontaneity and improvisation – or do you build your keynote speeches and motivational seminars around a very fixed agenda?
My stories are chunks of my speech that I generally don’t change. But I give myself permission to speak from my heart in between the stories. I never memorize the transitions where I will customize the speech for my audience. I prefer to let my inspiration take me where I need to go.
I try to be as real and genuine as possible. I tell it like it is. I don’t candy coat anything. I will go on rants sometimes if I feel lead to. And my audiences love it. I always get comments from them about how real I am.
If 30 minutes into my speech I realized that my fly was open, I would not pretend it was OK. I’d take advantage of the opportunity to make a joke about it and move on. After all, everyone has had embarrassing things happen to them. So that would just make me more human.
Bruce Lee said that older athletes generally do a lot of stretching, warming up before they tackle the heavier part of their training. He added that this was not necessarily because they were older, but because they were wiser. How important is preparation in motivational speaking?
It’s very important. The more prepared you are, the more confident you are. And when you’re in front of a crowd, you’d better be confident or else they’ll eat you alive.
What do you do to prepare?
I have the opening 5 minutes of my speech written out and I always read it before hand. I also do the Brain Gym exercises, and I prepare myself to have fun. My goal before every speech is to have fun. Because if I have fun, the audience will have fun. And when you have fun, you perform better. You’re looser.
You have testimonials from people like Mark Victor Hansen of the Chicken soup series and Stephen Covey, the astounding business coach and the legendary Zig Ziglar. Were any of these people your actual mentors? Did someone take you under their wings and teach you how to move people in the way you do?
All my life I’ve been a student of success. I’ve read hundreds of books, listened to thousands of tapes, and attended tons of seminars – always looking for anything that would give me an edge on the competition. I read hundreds of biographies because my Dad said that if I studied the lives of great people, I would learn what works and doesn’t work in life because success leaves clues.
When I got started speaking, a couple of successful Houston speakers became my mentors. They taught me the business side of speaking. They taught me how to market myself. They encouraged me to write a book. And when I wrote my book, I sent copies to all my heroes; Covey, Ziglar, Tracy, Blanchard, etc. Before long, I started getting testimonials from all of them.
About a year after I started speaking, when the Get Motivated Seminar, which features Zig Ziglar and other great speakers, came to Houston, I went up to the stage, and told the organizer that my story would be perfect for their seminar. I followed up with them regularly, and for several years I for them in huge arenas all over the nation. I got to share the stage with Zig Ziglar over 25 times in front of huge audiences.
From the Olympics, to getting started in the speaking business, to being able to become a part of huge seminars, I’ve always had the same modus operandi. I burned my bridges, and jumped, knowing that the net would appear.
You have to believe that you are destined for greatness, boldly take a chance, pray like it’s up to God and work like it’s up to you.
What is the main factor governing your success in motivational speaking?
From a speaking standpoint, speaking from my heart about something I’m passionate about.
From a business standpoint, my marketing. Marketing yourself is 95% of this business. A good speaker who’s a great marketer will make ten times as much money as a great speaker who’s a good marketer.
You have to be able to get to the people who can hire you, and once you do, you have to be able to get them to hire you.
Marketing is the key.
What advise would you give to the average person who wants to be a success in some form of public speaking? What do they need to do?
Speak from your heart about something you’re passionate about. Be yourself. Join Toastmasters. Join NSA. Find the top 5% of NSA Speakers in your chapter. The ones who are walking the talk, and take them out to Starbucks. Pick their brains. That’s what I did. Read “Never Be Boring Again” by Doug Stevenson. Check out some of the resources I recommend in my speaker resources post.
Have your reached the pinnacle of success in speaking? If so, what brought you to that point? If not, what other hurdles do you have to climb?
I’m having a blast. I’m getting to hang around with all my heroes. My lifestyle is getting better all the time because as I learn more about this business and as I consistently and persistently apply what I learn, my business is growing. But I think you never stop learning and you never stop growing. I’m just a baby at this. I’m just scratching the scratch of the scratch. I’m a pretty good marketer, but in a couple of weeks I’m attending a four-day seminar on speaker marketing. There’s so much more to learn…
There’s always a higher level to shoot for. Heck, even if you climbed Mt. Everest last week, you could try to climb it without bottled oxygen. Or you could try to climb it by using a more difficult route.
That’s what makes life an adventure. Striving to constantly better yourself.