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The Art of Public Speaking

The era of stand up public speaking, with cue cards and auditoriums full of people may belong to the bygone days of school public speaking competitions and the dreaded stand-up oral. So is there a place for public speaking in our more virtual work spaces, with agile meetings and geographically dispersed teams?

Whether we’re making a contribution in a team meeting or asking a question in a stand-up, we all still have to speak in public from time to time. And whether you’ve pursued a career in IT or not chosen a business development path, most employees will be called upon at some stage to present, to train or to lead, all of which involve public speaking.

And just in case you’re a back office software tester, and think you’ll be spared the speaker spotlight at work, there’s always your best man speech, daughter’s 21st or eulogy for a loved one!

What has changed in the domain of public speaking however, is how it is done and the challenge for an audience’s attention, which is diverted by email, social media or the ‘to do list’ of the day. This explains why formats like Ted Talks (20 minute sound bytes) and Pechakucha presentations (20 slides in 20 minutes) have become so popular, since they provide the instant gratification that our short attention spans desire.

Truth is the realm of public speaking has become that much more competitive and more challenging to attract and retain your audience’s attention.

The 7 elements of public speaking

So at its core, for public speaking to take place, seven elements need to be considered;

  1. The speaker – and that of course is you! One of the dangers of technology is the minute we introduce the word ‘presentation’ into the workplace, every one hauls out their powerpoint slides. But powerpoint is not the content, you are!

  2. The message – A coaching colleague once challenged me by stating, “If you can’t define it in a single sentence, it isn’t clear enough.” Although public speaking contains multiple messages, you must be clear up front about the one umbrella topic that brackets them all.
  3. The audience – this is our most vital of elements (next to you, of course) and some good audience research beforehand to determine if there is a common audience ‘type’ will help you tailor your message much more specifically. Speaking to a group of millennial graduates considering your firm as a potential employer requires a far different approach to a mature client Board, to whom you are positioning a pitch.

  4. The channel­ – in the presentation coaching of the past, we spent a great deal of effort working on body language and non-verbal cues, ensuring what we said aligned with what our body was saying. Today we are often meeting virtually or presenting from a seated position and so the challenge is on to allow our tone, our pitch, volume and facial gestures to tell the story of our presentation. Where we are physically present, our posture and gestures add to the mix. Visual aids are an additional communication channel, which should complement the message rather than dominate it.
  5. Feedback – communication is said not to have taken place until the feedback loop has been completed. Feedback is often gauged by the questions one receives at the end of a presentation or perhaps a side conversation with an audience member after the session. Nonverbal cues, however are present from the outset of a presentation from the eye contact of an audience member, to the shuffling in the seat or frown on an audience member’s face.

  6. Noise – temperature, lighting, sounds or poor acoustics are all referred to as external noise in our speaking environment. I have often found myself distracted by the inevitable ringing of an unmuted cell phone, someone scrolling through their email or a video conferencing facility that did not allow me to see the eyes of my audience clearly. Internal noise refers to confused messaging or a lack of clarity of thought in what the speaker is trying to convey.
  7. Place – when preparing for a high stakes presentation or proposal pitch, it is always advisable to scout out the venue beforehand, to allow for optimal positioning and comfort. Encountering a data projector without the necessary connections or an audio system that doesn’t support the video you wished to stream is always nerve-wracking if encountered shortly before a presentation.

The fear of public speaking

So no.1, next to visiting the dentist is the fear of public speaking (or for many, the order is reversed)! ‘Glossophobia’  as it’s called, has probably visited most of us at one point or other in our lives, and would typically be identified with an experience of;

  • Sweaty palms
  • A beating heart
  • Dry or ‘glue mouth’ as it’s often called
  • A freezing or ‘blanking’ of thoughts
  • Shaking
  • And sometimes nausea or a stomach ache

I’ve heard a lot of suggestions over the years from imagining your audience naked (frankly, that just frightens me!) to power posing, courtesy of Amy Cuddy.

A few tips I have found useful;

  1. Preparation is key: thorough preparation and knowing your content simply enables you to feel more confident. Dry running your presentation in front of the mirror, you cat and an audience member allows you to feel more prepared and confident.
  2. Use your adrenaline: no athlete is able to perform at their peak without a good dose of adrenaline. Welcome the quiver of butterflies in your stomach or the slight tremor in your hands with the knowledge that your body is providing what it needs to deliver at your performance edge.
  3. People, people, people: this one is courtesy of Brené Brown Constantly remind yourself that they are just people. “Speaking is vulnerable,” says Brown. “It’s a vulnerable act to stand up and be heard, no matter how confident you are. That’s you up there at the front of the room, or onstage or anywhere else you’re letting your voice be heard.”

  1. Use the power of your breath: whether you’re a meditation guru, or simply make use of 3 deep breaths, this is our inbuilt mechanism to calm the body, centre our thoughts and lower cortisol levels. The brain science is too abundant to miss this simple practice in your preparation.

How to improve your public speaking skills

  • What’s in it for them? As any business development executive will encourage, start with your audience and what is in it for them? Why should they listen to you and give up their precious time doing something else? This applies whether you’re presenting at a weekly meeting, providing feedback to a report or motivating for a promotion to your boss. Enticing them to listen is key and rather than being viewed as a manipulative tactic, is builds rapport and establishes relationship.

  • Harness the power of story We’ve all been in one of those deathly dull, data-based presentations where graph after graph is projected. However formal your presentation, always look for an anecdote or relevant example to make it come to life. Even a short dose of humour can break the monotony of a budget speech or compliance training.
  • Dry run, dry run, dry run Also known as practice, practice, practice this is often where I see great presentations derail at the last moment, because too much time is spent on beautifying slides or heaven forbid, adding just one more slide!

  • Make a recording These days whether you set up your cell phone on a tripod or simply make a zoom recording of a rehearsal meeting, you can very easily access the opportunity to watch yourself present. It takes a courageous person to view your performance and to critically evaluate your habits, but it is so much more accessible to make a few quick and powerful corrections.
  • Less is more This old cliché dictates the fewer the slides and the less text, the better. If you have to use slides, go for lots of pictures and white space and speech captions. The content is in what you have to say and how you say it.

  • The power of the pause In general, most of us speed up when presenting in public and the effort to view slides and simultaneously listen to commentary can be taxing if fired at a rapid rate. Allow your audience (and you) time to reflect after a key point or simply to pause for effect.
  • Get some coaching Whether you choose to attend a group public speaking course or elect to receive coaching one-on-one, there is an abundance of skilled people willing to help. Suffering alone only increases anxiety and prevents one from gaining the feedback we all need to raise our game. Many of those I coach suffer from the judgement of their inner critic, who needs to be balanced by an objective and supportive outsider, to empower and equip you.

Finally after attending to all of these tips and practices, it is really important for your authentic self to shine through. It may be in the opening of your presentation with a confession to being somewhat anxious, or in a powerful closing with a personal story you choose to illustrate a point.

In this information age, when all one needs to do is spend five minutes on ‘Dr Google’ to find out anything you potentially need to know, why should we listen to you? In spite of the pace and the information overload, we are still enticed by an authentic brand, a personalised packaging of a message and an authentic presence. It is what makes public speaking, artful.



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