Speak with Conviction

I recently had the good fortune of working with a number of teenagers to help them with their public speaking and presentation skills for leadership roles that they have in their youth group. It’s always great to see young people who are interested in public speaking and willing to take the plunge to share their ideas with others.

As I was preparing the workshop, I came across a wonderful performance by poet Taylor Mali. I have long been a fan of Mali and have previously written about him. I love the way in which he weaves words together and the passion with which he speaks.

I showed this video to the teenagers with whom I was working. They loved it.

Mali’s poem is great for young people, but it’s not just for young people. It’s for all of us. When we stand up to give that speech or make that presentation, we had better speak with conviction. Because if we don’t have confidence in our own words, why should our audiences have confidence in us? If we don’t believe in the message that we are conveying, how can we hope to move others to action?

In order to speak with conviction, we have to know our material; we have to believe in the rightness of our message; and we have to be prepared to take the risk that people might not agree with us. As Seth Godin said in a recent post,

If you’re hyper-aware of what others are thinking, if you’re looking for criticism, the unhappy audience member and the guy who didn’t get the joke, you will always find what you’re seeking.

For it to be any other way, you’d either have to be invisible or performing for a totally homogeneous audience. Invisible is an option, of course. You can lay low, not speak up and make no difference to anyone. That’s sort of like dividing by zero, though. You’ll get no criticism, but no delight either.

As for finding a homogeneous audience, good luck with that. The one thing that’s true of all people is that they are different from one another. What delights one enrages the other.

Part of the deal.

So, like Taylor Mali, “I implore you, I entreat you and I challenge you to speak with conviction. To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks the determination with which you believe it. Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker, it is not enough these days to simply question authority—you’ve got to speak with it too.”


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
This entry was posted in Delivery, Seth Godin and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Speak with Conviction

  1. Murunwa says:

    wow this is the great…I really love it…is moving and obvously helping

  2. Pingback: A » Cynthia Zhai - Your Voice Coach

  3. Hiten says:

    Hi John,

    This was a really good post. I agree, speaking with conviction can dramatically impact the way we deliver our messages and how they are heard by others. What can help here, is to use an attitude of conviction and confidence, underlying the words.

    What I would like to practice and develop further, is the ability to speak with conviction in an impromptu fashion.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Hiten. Thanks for the comment. I have found that the conviction really starts to flow naturally in a speech when one’s focus is on the message and how it can help the audience, rather than oneself (such as being concerned about how one will appear to others, concern about forgetting something, etc.). As for conviction when speaking impromptu, a lot depends on the context.

      For example, answering questions at the end of a presentation is a form of impromptu speaking. But as the questions will likely be related to the topic on which you were presenting, you will already be in the proper frame of mind and that will certainly help. But in other cases – where you have to speak on something “out of the blue” – it can be tougher. I find that this is where having a rich life experience on which to draw helps. Knowledge gained through friendships, successes, setbacks, lessons learned, travel, reading, etc. can be very useful in helping us to frame our thoughts quickly and with conviction.



      • Sandra says:

        Hi John. I am citing some of your comments here in a persuasive speech I am giving for my Business & Professional Speech class. My speech is titled “Speaking with Conviction & Authority” — sort of ironic, if you think about the context!

        In regard to your comments here about focusing on your message and not the audience (and what they think of you)…my mother with her simple wisdom told me growing up — “You will never feel awkward in a social situation if you focus on others and finding out about them — forget yourself — put others at ease, and you will relax as well.” While at first that may seem contrary to what you’re saying about NOT focusing on the audience — I think it actually supports it in the arena of delivering a speech. Even though we have an audience — in this context I would apply my mother’s advice as focusing on my message and not worrying about what the audience is thinking of ME — but what they are thinking of my message — which frees a speaker to speak with more conviction.

        • John Zimmer says:

          Thanks for the message, Sandra. Great advice from your mother. Well worth sharing and I like how you apply it to public speaking.

          I think you definitely have to focus on the audience … but at the right time. And that time is when you are preparing. You need to think about the audience’s needs, the audience’s interests and how you can help them. Then, when you are on stage, the focus should be on delivering a great message which, ultimately, is in the audience’s interest.



  4. cynthiazhai says:

    Hi John,

    Thank you for this post. I speak about “don’t make your inflection go up at the end of a statement”, this video shows it all. I have a video to use for my speaking and training now. LOL Thank you!

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Cynthia. Glad that you enjoyed the post and that the video clip will help you with your training. It’s certainly perfect for the point you want to make. Best of success with it!


  5. Hi, John! I didn’t know about this version–I like it! Thanks! For comparison, here is an older version that is, I think, from a slam poetry competition, and thus in a lot of ways Mali’s delivery is more intense.


    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Donn. Many thanks. I had seen this version before. It too is good, but I prefer the more recent one that I used in the post for a couple of reasons.

      First, Mali builds to a climax in a more measured way and thus I find the message at the end more powerful, even if it is said with less vigour. More importantly, in my view, is the fact that in the more recent version, Mali has cut out some parts that he used before. This pruning, as it were, makes the poem tighter and better, and is a great example of how less is more.



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