Let’s talk: Elaine Cogan dishes on public speaking

A conversation with public speaking coach and Portland icon Elaine Cogan.

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“You smile nicely. Some people don’t smile well. But you have a warmth. You have possibilities.”

Elaine Cogan, founding principal of Cogan Owens Greene, multitasker extraordinaire and author of a new book on public speaking, is sitting across the table from me, assessing my potential.

I tell her in my own speeches I try to break the ice by telling a humorous story. For example, I kicked off one of our 100 Best Companies to Work for in Oregon awards dinners by joking that Oregon Business never makes the list.

Cogan laughs. “That’s funny,” she says.

Emboldened, I continue. During my 100 Best Green Workplaces presentation this past June, I talked about my kids enacting a uniquely Portland form of teenage rebellion: throwing banana peels in the garbage instead of the compost.

“That’s wonderful!” Cogan says. (I’m liking her more and more.) These are not jokes — they are personal anecdotes, she says. “Most people cannot tell a joke. That’s fine; don’t try. But we are anecdotal people.”

Cogan schools politicians, CEOs and many others in the art of public presentation. She published an earlier edition of the book with co-author and former Portland State University speech professor Ben Padrow several decades ago. The new version, How to Talk to (Almost) Anyone About (Almost) Anything, is a complete rewrite, she says. 

“There is so much I have learned in last 20-25 years. Over time I have picked up a lot more information, and so it seemed the time to rewrite it.” 

Padrow passed away in 1986, and Cogan is the sole author of the new edition.

I ask Cogan about the best and worst speeches she’s heard.

“I see a lot of the worst. I’m so sorry.”

She describes an all too common scenario, the person who says: “‘Hello folks, this reminds me of a story.’ Then they tell a joke or story that has nothing to do with the topic. They read it in a book or their kid brought it home from the playground. It doesn’t fit. It’s phony.”

“Another thing I say is: Information does not convince people. People convince people. I have professional people — engineers, architects, tech people — to this day they don’t believe it.” 

“You want a speech that was almost perfect?” asks Cogan. “Michelle Obama’s during the convention. She did several very good things.  She told stories, authentic stories about herself and her family. They resonated with the TV audience and the audience there.”

Obama also used her hands effectively, Cogan observes. “Men particularly are much more stoic in speaking. So I tell my men students: Put one hand in your pocket; then you will naturally wave or point with the other one. If you have both hands out, you are going to be kind of hysterical.”

Cogan, who is in her 80s, has lived many lives. She’s worked as a newspaper columnist, political commentator and radio show host and served as president of the League of Women Voters and (the first female) chair of the Portland Development Commission.

She was also a tea entrepreneur who still receives royalty checks for her Elaine’s Special Blend tea, now sold through Harney & Sons. 

“It’s an excellent tea; there’s nothing better,” says Cogan. She has a message for startup founders pitching investors. “I’ve seen the winners. They may not have the perfect widget that makes that investor say: ‘OK, you can have your money.’ But they know how to make a connection with the investor.”

Cogan says clients she worked with years ago still come up to her on the street. “They say: ‘Elaine, I just gave a speech, and I remembered what you said. And it worked.”

Well, not everyone is so enthusiastic.

On one occasion the mother of a well-known Oregon politician (Cogan declines to identify him) asked Cogan to give the son a few public speaking tips. When Cogan showed up at his office, the politician in question was less than thrilled about the behind the scenes maternal kibbitzing.

Cogan chuckles at the memory. “’No thanks,’ he said.”

Like many Hillary Clinton supporters, Cogan is pained by the Democratic nominee’s stiff public presentation.

“Apparently she’s warm in person. She has the right instincts; she cares. So what is the matter that she cannot project it?”

Perhaps Cogan should send Clinton a copy of How to Talk about (Almost) Anything?

“Maybe I should. Because I believe in this book.”

Cogan asks what I wear when I give a talk. Depending on the context, a suit or a party dress, I say.

Cogan nods approvingly. “Good. That’s fun. That’s what I try and make it in my book. You can make public speaking fun.”