What Speakers Can Learn From Paul Harvey’s Success Formula

Paul Harvey-renowned radio host of “Paul Harvey News and Comment” and “The Rest of the Story-enjoyed unusual broadcasting prominence and longevity. At age 82, he signed a ten year contract with ABC Radio for $10 million per year. When he died in 2008 at age 90, he had completed eight of those years. Besides pleasing his employer and sponsors for decades, he built a massive following of devoted listeners-24 million per week, who could hear him on 1200 commercial radio stations and 400 stations on the Armed Forces Network.

Why did so many millions listen to him for so many years? What can every speaker learn from Paul Harvey’s success?

First, he did not let criticism distract or discourage him.

When he worked for a station in Missoula, Montana-a locale which bore no resemblance to Chicago’s “Miracle Mile” that would become so familiar to him years later-the station owner told Paul, “You have a silly and funny sounding voice. Honestly, you’re never going to make it in the news business. You don’t have a believable sound for news. It’s distracting. People won’t trust you.” The manager fired Harvey, who declined an advertising sales offer.

Well, let’s apply that to us. The great majority of novice speakers run into critics who give them painful feedback. You might hear “poor eye contact,” “can’t understand your mumbling” or “quit fidgeting so much.” Certainly we benefit by evaluating the accuracy of those comments, yet we want to keep our confidence high while we make needed improvements.

Second, he stuck to his unique style.

A Kalamazoo, Michigan manager disliked Harvey’s on-air vocal pauses. The manager thought Harvey was simply wasting valuable time. After listening politely, Paul agreed to “shorten but not entirely eliminate the tactic.” Eventually, hordes of listeners would recognize his trademark pauses, and stand by patiently-even excitedly–until the next intriguing words came.

Likewise, you will want to stick with your distinct style, as long as you use good taste and your audience will understand you. Let’s suppose a rapid-fire delivery comes naturally for you. Advisors might recommend that you slow your pace. However, you sense that an accelerated pace keeps you energized and your audience on the alert. Stick with what fits you.

Third, Paul Harvey used suspense with the skill of a mystery novelist.

In his regular broadcasts, he kept listeners wondering what would come in the next section, after he said “Page Two” or “Page Three,” his favorite transitional guideposts. Then at greater length, his “The Rest of the Story” portrayed an individual who had accomplished something remarkable, but Harvey withheld the character’s name until the last sentence.

As speakers, we can keep audiences riveted when, for example, we start our speech with a “teaser,” such as: “When I was eight years old, I had an accident, which led to an experience that saved my life. Amazingly, I made medical history because of the experimental drug the doctors used, with my parents’ consent. But before I share that story with you, I want you to think about a truly dramatic moment in your life that you are willing to tell us about now. Once some of you have told your story, I’ll tell mine.”

Fourth, Harvey featured everyday people, not just internationally known leaders.

Although he became well acquainted with famous celebrities, statesmen, and religious leaders, he name-dropped rarely. Usually his program highlighted a hurricane victim who was rebuilding his life and business, a young athlete who finally made the team, or a teacher who paid special attention to disadvantaged children.

For speakers, here’s the point: Audiences welcome your stories about regular people they can identify with easily. Rather than talking about a famous actress, describe your neighbor’s daughter, who got the acting bug as a three year old in a school play, kept taking acting and singing lessons, and is now starring in your community theatre’s production of “South Pacific.”

To sum up: Paul Harvey succeeded-for an extraordinarily long time-in a very tough business, not because of any success secret hidden from the public and his competition. He did what we can do to become superlative speakers: overcome criticism, stick to your preferred style, create suspense, and spotlight what’s commonplace that listeners will relate to quite easily. We may not attract millions of listeners, but those who do hear us will welcome our homespun creativity.