Ways you can hone your public speaking skills and beat boredom
Fear not, speak up Key ways to hone your oratory skills and keep them listening
T HE worst speech I ever heard was at a school sportsmans’ dinner. The speaker had little to do with sport, no affinity with the audience, and got lost in irrelevant and poorly constructed anecdotes. Audiences are not dumb. They know if a speaker is knowledgeable and has paid them due respect. The speaker was losing his audience but stubbornly continued. After 25 minutes he had had enough, banging his microphone on the podium to command everyone’s attention. When the room was as quiet as he was going to get it, he brought the house down. “Look, if you don’t be quiet I’m going to start all over again.” The speech got no better but he had pin-drop silence for the remainder.
While leaders develop a communication style most relevant for their personality, being adept at public speaking and the town-hall address are requisite skills for any major role. No leader should need to resort to tricks or threats to command attention. And this is not easy. Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, made the top five in the Chapman University Survey of American Fears – in the same league as identity theft and mass shootings!
The following are five key considerations for any town-hall address.
Short is sweet: Comedian George Burns believed the secret to a good speech was a good beginning, a good ending, and to have the two as close together as possible. Most people deliver at around 100-120 words per minute so a five-minute address will require an average of 500-600 words. Know your timing and choose your words judiciously.
Prepare to succeed: Former US President Woodrow Wilson was once quoted on preparing speeches: “If it is a 10-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.” Being prepared though, doesn’t mean being inflexible. Be sure of how you will start a presentation, the three points you must make in the middle, and where you will finish. But be flexible enough to read the audience along the way as you decide how to take them there.
Tell stories: Our brains are wired for stories so tell them. As we listen to or tell stories, dopamine, our own naturally produced addictive chemical, is released making us feel better about ourselves and helping us to remember. Institutions, from the world’s oldest religions to Harvard University, have used stories or case studies to relay their message in a more potent, meaningful and memorable manner.
Flow matters: When writing and speaking I follow the philosophy of William Zinsser. In his book, On Writing Well, he maintains the only goal of the first sentence is to get someone to read the second sentence and the only goal of the second sentence is to get someone to read the third. You get the picture. Speeches must similarly have a lyrical and logical flow about them. Take your audience on a journey. Surprise them, sure, but lead them somewhere. If it is not relevant, leave it out. They should walk out of the room appreciating the journey while also getting the message.
Be confident: When speaking, it is worth remembering the audience is on your side. There is nothing quite as uncomfortable as squirming in your seat while witnessing a death on stage, so use that goodwill to build your confidence and allow it to resonate in your message.
One final thought, beware of traps. One friend was invited to speak on a Saturday night in Rockhampton. It coincided with the biggest race day in the town for the year.
On arrival the country hospitality took him straight to the track and filled him with amber fluid. This continued through to the evening where he couldn’t avoid having a drink with every guest as they arrived. As the night wore on it was finally time to introduce the guest speaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce one of this country’s great athletes, one of our sport’s great ambassadors, please make him feel welcome.”
The worse-for-wear speaker braced the podium, scanned the room from one corner to the other, and began. “Ladies and gentlemen … I’ve had a shocker …” And then he sat down and didn’t say another thing all night.
So relax, you can’t possibly be any worse than that.