How to Hold an Audience Spellbound for An Hour

 Of all the public speaking feats, few are more difficult than holding an audience spellbound for an hour. No PowerPoint. No music.  No notes.  Just a microphone and a lectern. I mean who wants to hear anyone speak for an hour straight? 

How do you do it?  Stories. Stories. Stories.

Last night I attended a lecture by David Maraniss at the Atlanta History Center. Maraniss is on a tour promoting his book “Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World.” So far it’s gotten good reviews.  I wanted to hear him speak because I loved his biography “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi.”

But as he was being introduced last night, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit of panic. The man making the introduction told the audience that Maraniss was going to speak for 45 minutes and then take questions for 15 minutes.

I looked at my watch. Did I hear that right?  He was going to speak for 45 minutes straight before taking a single question! I looked toward the door. Is there any way to get out of here if this gets ugly? 

I speak all the time. But I almost never speak for that long without a single question. I want interaction. I once heard Colin Powell hold an audience rapt for an hour. But he was Colin Powell!  He could read the Federal Tax Code for an hour and people would be fascinated.

But this was David Maraniss. He’s an author. Authors are notorious for being dull.  I met Maraniss briefly before the lecture. Nice guy. But low key. Not the kind of personality that you would expect to hold a packed auditorium’s attention for an hour. I was worried. 

I was wrong. 

Once again Maraniss reminded me of the power of telling stories.

Maraniss was terrific. Why? It wasn’t his dynamic style. His low key style didn’t change much once he was behind the lectern.

He held everyone spellbound by telling one story after another about the 1960 Olympics. He told about how Wilma Rudolph, the legendary sprinter, was one of the true shining lights of the games. He told about how she was pursued by Cassius Clay the 18-year-old brash boxer who would someday become Muhammad Ali.

He told about Rafer Johnson and how he won the decathalon. He described how Johnson conducted himself with dignity even as he was being used by the white US establishment to downplay the racism then making headlines in the American South.  He told about interviewing Johnson recently and thinking “He’s in his seventies and is still in good enough shape to win the decathalon this summer.”

He told about Jim McKay, the legendary sportcaster, typing his scripts on a portable typewriter. In those days, when McKay hadn’t heard of a country involved in a sport, he would look it up himself using a set of Encyclopedia Britannica.

It was fascinating. I loved every minute of it.

And there was no question about what made it so interesting. Stories. Stories. Stories. 

O sure, Maraniss made a few points about how this particular Olympics was a turning point in many ways. But really, the whole thing was just a string of stories. 

How do you hold an audience for an hour?  Tell stories.  

Either that, or be Colin Powell.

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