Ten Techniques for Better Public Speaking
My background in public speaking is checkered: from abject failure to exceptional, but the seeds of success are born in failure. (My tortured evolution in public speaking is recounted in my essay, Forget Yourself.) For the purpose of the comments below, let’s simply say that I have a long history of public speaking and have had the privilege of coaching young and old in this arcane area.
Master Simple Conversational Skills First
Before launching into techniques of public speaking (PS), we should discuss conversational skills. I here express my abiding concern for today’s youth. Clearly, speaking of any kind is not on the required curriculum of our educational institutions at any level, and our young have developed obfuscatory speech patterns that render most of them unintelligible. How is that? They commit two Cardinal Sins of Speaking: (1) they speak way too fast; (2) they have no inflexion points; that is, they speak in a monotone (i.e., with no emphasis on any words or syllables), and (3) they drop their endings (ing’s, ed’s, etc.). This results in an emasculation of English that destroys not only its beauty but its intelligibility.
So, lads and lasses (if any of same ever read these words), hear this: When you speak, informally or formally, follow these simple rules:
(1) SLOW DOWN your speech to a crawl, by your standards;
(2) THINK about the meaning of your words; break the ghastly, sleep-inducing monotones that predominate among youthful speakers today, and EMHASIZE the more important syllables and words (i.e., sell your thoughts with feeling); it doesn’t hurt; it’s fun;
(3) PRONOUCE all of your endings, to allow people to actually hear your words; and
(4) ENJOY the opportunity to address your listeners; to savor it, you will naturally follow the above rules.
Pretend You’re on the Stage
Pretend that you are a Broadway actor/actress without a mike (as was my father’s sister, whose pix can be seen at Aunta) and that you wish to be understood in the last row of the auditorium; then, most important of all, speak with feeling, with passion, with conviction, with interest, and experience the sheer joy of communicating your thoughts and thus “selling’ your ideas. It beats boring people to death with unintelligible words gratingly regurgitated in a monotone voice. If you pretend that you’re on stage, you will automatically slow down. This works and what many of the youth now do, simply does not. As verbal communicators, based on my seven-decade survey, most of our youth today must receive an “F” grade, by historical standards. Don’t quarrel with me; just prove me wrong! I dare you! (I’m available to test your progress most any time.)
Formal, Public Speaking
Once we have taught ourselves to break our garbled-run-on-monotone-patterns and to converse informally in a pleasing, interesting and comprehendible way, we can address the exciting topic of formal or public speaking.
Before you prepare formal remarks, you must know the answer to these questions:
(1) What topic am I expected to address?
(2) How much time may I use? (Not more than 80% of the time allotted)
(3) What is the composition and mind-set of my audience?
Armed with the above data, you can begin to prepare your talk.
There are three types of speeches: (1) extemporaneous (without preparation), (2) semi-formal (made from an outline or notes), and (3) formal (where the speech is fully prepared and is either read, partially read or given memorized word-for-word but in a manner that no one would know that it was memorized). Reading is never wise, as it bores the audience. Glancing at written text is fine. Before
Golden Rule re Distribution of Written Materials: When you have prepared remarks that you intend to distribute to your audience, never distribute those remarks before you give them, as the audience will generally read same while you speak, thus missing much of what you say. The same negative often applies to using Power Point or other graphics; people tend to read rather than listen. If you use graphics, like Power Point, use a pointer and point to the words or image as you discuss it. Do not show graphics or words that you are not pointing to and reading, or you will often lose your audience.
The more formal speeches that we give, the better will be our semi-formal and extemporaneous talks as well. Accordingly, giving speeches at Toastmasters’ Meetings is a very worthy activity for most of us, assuming that we wish to improve our speaking ability at all levels. My suggestions tonight will focus exclusively on formal speeches. Indeed, it should be noted that, after giving an extemporaneous talk at a dinner, Abraham Lincoln said, “I apologize for not having had the time to prepare shorter remarks.” In other words, preparation should lead to tighter and better talks. Very briefly the ten procedures that I suggest are:
(1) Know your subject and lose yourself in it. Pick a subject that you know (or have time to master). You will be more comfortable with it, which invariably gives you conviction and your audience a better talk. Concentrate on your message; lose yourself in it. Don’t resist being emotional about it.
(2) Maintaining eye contact with your audience is critical, but you do not need to actually look at their eyes, as this may distract you. Simply look at their noses, chins, hair or some such, and they will think that you are engaging their eyes. Turn your head, slowly, from side-to-side, as if engaging every person present.
(3) Outline your major points. Do an outline of your talk, to avoid missing or misplacing major points. Organize them logically to support your conclusion.
(4) Research your points. Even when you know a subject, research to make sure that you aren’t giving any misleading or false data.
(5) Write your speech. Lincoln wrote every word of The Gettysburg Address, short as it is. You should do no less. Massage it; edit it; shorten it, and search for the most expressive words. Use a Thesaurus to find some good synonyms to avoid over-using words. By writing it, you will master it and you will shorten it, and it will be much better than if you speak from bullet points only, as all of us wander, take too long, lose our place, etc. Be a disciplined speaker.
(6) Reorganize and shorten. Eliminate all unessential points and words (other than those that add interest, color or humor). Brevity wins. If you’re given 20 minutes to talk; give a 15 minute talk. If you’re given 10 minutes, use eight minutes. Leave them wanting more. Never over-stay your welcome.
(7) Time, practice and condense. Read your talk aloud; time it and keep condensing it. Memorize it, but do NOT read it; use it for reference, to glance at now and then to make sure that you don’t overlook any big points and that you don’t wander and waste time on less important points.
(8) Rehearse until perfect. Practice it aloud repeatedly until it is effectively memorized, enabling you to give it with only an occasional glance at the text. Practice doing it with emotion and emphasis, just as actors do for their parts. Pretend that you are in a play ant that you enjoy giving this talk; you want to inform and entertain your audience.
(9) Relax; avoid distraction; avoid hand motions; inject humor; use quotes. Practice relaxing when you practice your talk. Raise your voice on some words, then almost whisper others. Use pauses, long pauses, now and then, which will bring your audience back to you. Avoid hand motions of all kinds as they distract the listener. Turn your head left and right, engaging as many listeners as you can. Try to inject humor, humorous quotes or profound ones (especially at the beginning and end). If you quote any widely respected source, “As Shakespeare said…”, you immediately regain the attention of everyone.
(10) Enjoy yourself. You are well prepared. You, more than anyone, deserve to enjoy this, your moment in the sun. It is fun, if you will allow it to be.
As Winston Churchill (among the greatest orators of the 20th Century) said, “If I don’t practice speaking for a day, I know it; if I don’t practice for two days, my wife knows it; and if I don’t practice for three days, the whole world knows it.”
So, speak; speak often; be prepared; relax; forget yourself; enjoy yourself; and you will speak well – and infinitely better than those who are less prepared. Public speaking can be one of the greatest joys of life. Learn to do it and join the fun.