How to nail public speaking
YES, IT’S TERRIFYING TRICKS TO – BUT THERE MAKE ARE ADDRESSING A WHOLE A CROWD LOT EASIER…
Barack Obama has it. Oprah inspires the globe with it. Gwyneth Paltrow has been known to cry while doing it. Being adept at public speaking may appear to be something you are simply born with, but, actually, all those who seem to be ‘naturals’ tend to have a secret. They’ve had training. Or so says Imogen ButlerCole, a tutor at RADA Business, who, through its course on improving communication in the workplace, has trained some of the very best business minds around. We tapped her brain for some advice – get ready for your TED Talk...
Martin Luther King practised his historydefining speech eight months before to a smaller, highschool audience. It’s a technique we can all learn from, says ButlerCole. And while you may not have a group of students to rehearse in front of, you can make the most of what you do have on offer: mirrors, the recorder on your phone and friends can all make for a backup audience. If you choose to video or record yourself, the key is to do it more than once. This way, you’ll become less selfconscious and can also watch out for faults in both how you speak (‘ums’ and ‘ahs’) as well as sections you stumble over.
DITCH THE SCRIPT
Knowing your stuff doesn’t necessarily mean following a script, though. ‘There are dangers in learning something word for word – if you forget one word, it might throw you completely,’ says ButlerCole. Write out what you want to
say, but go back and extract key messages to make a bulletpoint list. The dream is to speak without notes – but if there’s even the slightest chance you might forget something, take them with you on small system cards (not a big flappy piece of paper). As for those key messages? Make sure you repeat them three times.
TELL A STORY
The one thing most successful TED Talks have in common? They contain a personal story. And with good reason. It’s the key to keeping people engaged. ‘The more we can include stories in public speaking, the more our audience stays with us,’ says ButlerCole. ‘Introduce a character, project or organisation you’ll be talking about and show some struggles it or they might have overcome – this gets the audience to come on a journey with you.’ Try to engage the audience’s senses, too – paint a picture of what you’re talking about with descriptive language. What does it sound, look, smell or even taste like? ‘If we can picture what someone’s talking about, we’re much more likely to remember what we’re listening to,’ she says. But be wary – there’s a difference between evoking emotion and waffling on. Your personal story should take up around a minute of your speech (we analysed TED Talks and found most of the readers stuck to this rule), and it must relate to your central point.
It was all going fine… in your bedroom. But you’re about to go out on stage/to the front of the meeting and your heart is racing. Your body is perceiving a dangerous situation (a room full of
eyes staring straight at you) and putting you into fight or flight mode. ‘That adrenaline spike will only last for a minute, but if we don’t handle it appropriately, and go into a state of short, shallow breathing, those symptoms can exacerbate,’ says ButlerCole. By breathing through it you can settle the adrenaline – and that feeling of sheer panic. ‘It’s about getting the breath lower down into the body. Imagine a birthday cake with lots of candles to blow out. Take an active and sustained out breath, and at the end of it, just relax into the lower belly and let that breath drop in. That settles the breath, and all those symptoms we might get.’ For added calm, count the candles as you go up to 10 – it will stop your mind going haywire.
FIND YOUR VOICE
It’s not what you say, but how you say it that matters. Studies show that words only count for seven per cent of the impact on your audience, while 38 per cent of it is your cadence* – how varied you sound. A monotonous, flat voice can send an audience to sleep. Margaret Thatcher was said to have undergone extensive training to make her sound more powerful, and ButlerCole recommends trying this trick: ‘Make little siren sounds with your voice, and draw a circle in the space in front of you while you do it, as if you were a conductor. As you draw it all the way down and up the other side again, follow with your voice (up and down accordingly).’ Then try saying a sentence while moving your hand up and down and following the pattern with your voice. Finally, try stretching the words, exaggerating each one. ‘You’re encouraging your voice to go into places it wouldn’t normally and opening it up. It can make such a difference to the impact you make and help bring in emotion and passion.’
‘One issue for a lot of public speakers is that we feel we shouldn’t be taking up people’s time,’ says ButlerCole. So we race through what we have to say in order to get off the stage as fast as we can – a big mistake. ‘The more time you take, the more confident you appear.’ Just watch a clip of Michelle Obama. ‘One reason she is so engaging is (because) she takes her time and allows her points to land,’ explains ButlerCole. Obama not only punctuates each sentence with a pause, but she speaks slower as well. ‘That gives you time to breathe, think of the next point, and move on. You’re calming yourself but also giving the audience time for the message to sink in.’ And the pauses? Allow double the time you would normally – Obama takes around three seconds. And practise speaking as slowly as you would if you were handing out a phone number.
You’ve spent hours crafting an informative, wellwritten, funny, inspiring talk – so don’t waste it by delivering it with your head down and buried in notes. Whether you’re sitting around a table with 10 people or speaking to a hall of 300 (gulp), making eye contact with the audience is crucial, explains ButlerCole: ‘It helps them connect with us and feel like we’re talking directly to them.’ If the space is so big that direct eye contact is tricky, angle your shoulders towards different areas so your eyeline is in that direction. ‘Make sure your body is open to different parts of the room and you take people in from all parts of the space.’ Can’t bear to look your audience directly in the eye? Stare at their eyebrows, it’s interpreted the same. Don’t be afraid to gesture either – within reason. ‘Gestures give the audience a visual language, but it’s important that they are intentional and not just wafting,’ explains ButlerCole. ‘It’s the difference between one clear movement and just flapping your hands about.’
‘The more time you take, the more confident you appear’
ABOVE AND FAR RIGHT: MARTIN LUTHER KING AND MICHELLE OBAMA ARE MASTERS OF PUBLIC SPEAKING, BUT OSCAR NIGHT WAS ALL A BIT TOO MUCH FOR GWYNETH (RIGHT)