Public speaking how to improve your skills
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Public speaking: how to improve your skills Roger Hurn, an experienced public speaker, offers you some practical advice that will help you to get your message across next time you have to stand up and speak to a large group of people. Most people find speaking in public a stressful experience and even battle-hardened professionals can suffer from stage fright. However, if you have a management role, public speaking is something you will have to do. The question is, will you do it well or badly? Will you inspire your audience or send them to sleep? After all, we’ve all attended meetings where the speaker has droned on and lost our attention after a few minutes or where the message has been confused, inaudible or lost in a blizzard of technology. In every case the result is the same – you leave the meeting feeling bored, disappointed or even angry but certainly not enlightened or enthused. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. You already use many of these skills automatically when dealing with children: you plan a good lesson, you make it interesting, you pitch it at the right level and you engage with the children; all skills which are highly relevant to public speaking. To add to these skills, this article aims to share with you some simple principles that you can follow to help you become an effective public speaker. Know your audience Before you can even begin to prepare your talk you have to know who you’re talking to and plan accordingly. Ask yourself three questions: 1 Who are they? 2 What are they expecting to hear from me? 3 How will I best get what I have to say across to them? Each audience is different so make sure you do your homework on the likely make-up of your listeners. For example, are they going to have a specialist knowledge of your subject matter or are they new to the topic? Whichever is the case you’ll need to make sure that you pitch your talk at the appropriate level. If you make it too easy for the specialists you’ll bore them to tears, if you make it too complex for the beginners it will pass over their heads. Either way you’ll lose your listeners. So, don’t write your presentation until you’ve a clear idea of the composition of your audience. Some opening techniques that you might want to consider – Open with a joke if you can find one that’s appropriate to your topic and audience. Getting people to chuckle will break the ice and make your listeners more receptive to what you have to say. But, before you use it in public, do try it out on someone who can be guaranteed to give you an honest opinion of whether or not it’s actually funny. – Start with a story. All the great teachers and communicators throughout history have used stories to get their points across. There is a reason for this; people like listening to stories and have done so since humans first learned to talk. But make sure your story is relevant and short (think parables). The point of the story is to lead the audience into your presentation and is not an end in itself. – Begin by asking a question even if you’re going to answer it in the course of your talk. Just by asking the audience for their views you will have made them feel involved and more ready to engage with your answer. – Launch your talk with a shocking statistic that will make everyone take notice. www.mwls.co.uk is a website on which you’ll find areas dedicated to anecdotes, fables, quotations, thoughts and so on that you can use to add interest if you need help at this point. But remember, others will have used this source and they may be in your audience. Take the ideas but embellish or personalise them in some way. Any of these opening gambits should ensure that, at the very least, you’ll catch your audience’s attention. Now the trick is to keep them listening… Getting going Then, when you know your audience you can decide how you’ll grab their attention from the very beginning. Some speakers prepare a cartoon, a joke, a shocking statistic or an outrageous comment on an OHT and have it on view as the participants arrive. You can refer to it at some time or completely ignore it. It can simply be there as an ice-breaker and gives people something to talk about with the stranger sitting beside them! Communication not technology The thing to remember here is that people have come to listen to you and what you have to say. You are the source of the message, not the technology or the visual aids you’ve spent hours preparing. They are just there to support you in communicating your ideas; they are not the ideas themselves. However, this is not to say you should avoid them for, if used appropriately, visual aids can be powerful tools for helping you put your message across. This is because: – Many people are visual learners. They like to see information as well as to hear it and a good visual aid can reinforce the point you’re making. – Information that is presented visually is received and processed faster than a verbal message. – Visuals aids can help keep the audience focused on your message. – They can help control any stress you’re feeling by giving you a purposeful physical activity that channels your nervous energy. Whatever sort of visuals you use, don’t fall into the trap of reading them out, verbatim, to the audience. The information on them is there to support what you have to say, it is not there as your autocue. What sort of visual aids should you use? The secret is to be comfortable with whatever visual aids you’re using. You may think your audience will be impressed by an all-singing, all-dancing multimedia display but if you’re unsure of the technology then this will increase your stress levels and distract you from the purpose of your talk. This is self-defeating so your choice of visual aids for a particular speech should depend on the following factors: – the information you want to convey – the size of the audience – the physical environment of the room – the equipment available to you – your ability to use the equipment – the time available to prepare visuals. Tips for using visual aids effectively Once you’ve thought carefully about these constraints you can prepare the type of visual aids that will enhance your ability to deliver your message to your target audience. However, these aids will be more of a hindrance than a help if you don’t follow these simple rules: – make sure everyone in your audience can see them clearly – once you’ve put them in the correct position don’t stand in front of them – only use a single visual to illustrate a point – make diagrams and wording simple and accurate – don’t use more than seven lines and seven words per line on an OHT. Yet, even if you are competent at using a wide range of visual aids, it pays never to take anything on trust as far as technology is concerned. More than one public speaker has turned up at a venue to give a presentation only to find that the equipment they were promised is either missing, broken or incompatible with their software. It’s a sensible precaution to arrive early and check out everything for yourself, thus giving you time to rectify the situation. Alternatively, have a presentation that doesn’t rely on anything more complicated than a hand-held visual aid. Value We’ve established that people have come to hear something worthwhile from you, not to be amazed at your technical wizardry. Now the thought that people are there to hang on your every word may make your stomach knot in terror and start you shaking like a jelly in a high wind but this won’t help you. It’s far better to remember that you’re not Brad Pitt or Uma Thurman and no one is expecting you to deliver an Oscar winning performance. Therefore, there’s no need to put unnecessary pressure on yourself by thinking you have to be witty, urbane and brilliant, because you don’t. (Even so, you don’t have to be dull either so see the handout at the end of this article for tips on delivery.) However, you do have to have something worthwhile to say because the essence of public speaking is to give your audience something of value. If they walk away from your meeting with a fresh insight into a problem, a new idea or a different way of thinking about something then they will regard your talk as a success. If your audience leaves feeling better informed about an issue that’s been concerning them or more confident about the job they have to do they will feel their time has been well spent. It is a bonus if they also walk away feeling happy or entertained but this is not your main purpose. Content This leads us on naturally to the content of your talk. As a general rule: don’t let yourself be talked into speaking on a subject on which you are not truly knowledgeable. This will affect your confidence from the start. However, with a degree of knowledge about, and interest in your subject you can research additional information. Be careful not to make the mistake that many speakers make of thinking that they must know the answer to everything and who then go to enormous lengths to cover every aspect of their chosen topic in their presentation. This usually results in them presenting an address that is overly complex and lacking in focus. Obviously, you do need to research your topic thoroughly but when you’ve done so decide on what are the key points you want to put across. A good way of doing this is to sit down and note them all down on a blank piece of paper as they occur to you. Then, when you’ve done that, refine your ideas by highlighting those that seem to be absolutely essential. As a general rule of thumb you should attempt to list them under no more than three major headings. Remember, your listeners don’t want to be bombarded with too many new facts and ideas as the human brain just isn’t programmed to process them effectively in the format of the meeting. Our brains need time to digest new information, to consolidate and internalise it by actively processing it. Research has shown that people remember very few of the facts or information speakers try to put across. So, while you may choose to include lots of details, you only need to impress two or three main points on the minds of your listeners for your talk to be successful. Making sure your message is heard At this juncture, it’s worth mentioning that no matter how important and relevant your three key points are no one will know this if they can’t hear what you’re saying. It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking in a small room or a huge hall – you must project your voice and speak clearly. Though projecting your voice is not the same thing at all as shouting. Rather, it is raising the volume of your normal speaking voice while still keeping control of it. Here’s how to do it: – when you’re in the place where you’re giving your talk, aim your speech at the object that is furthest away from you – during the first minute of speaking, check your listeners’ faces, particularly those towards the back, to see if they look puzzled – if you notice that they are not paying attention from the word go, stop and ask if everyone can hear you. If a resounding silence is your only answer then you’re not projecting. Nervous speakers tend to speak very quickly – to get the ordeal over, presumably! So think about the pace of your presentation and slow down if necessary. Establishing a rapport When you’ve decided on your key points and the sequence in which you will use them, jot that sequence down on an index card. You can use this as your prompt when speaking. This is far better than writing down everything you want to say in a script as your talk will go far more smoothly if there are no barriers between yourself and your listeners. They want to feel that you are talking directly to them and reading from a script will not achieve this. In fact, it often helps if you think of your audience as a single person you’re trying to communicate with. Your goal is not to get to the end of your notes without mishap but to give your listeners something meaningful to think about so that they feel the time they’ve spent in your company has been time well spent. You can do this far more effectively if you make eye contact and establish a rapport with your audience. Do try to smile occasionally as it makes you look more like someone who is pleased to be there with them and less like a terrified patient waiting for their dentist to start root canal treatment. And think about your body language, in particular your hand gestures, as these can be most distracting for your audience. You need to find a balance that allows you to use some hand movements whilst avoiding waving your arms around wildly – the so-called ‘windmill’ effect. Audience involvement When speaking in public it is always good to draw on your own experiences and anecdotes, as this will give you confidence by personalising what you have to say and making you less dependent on notes to fill out the content of your talk. Moreover, it helps people to identify with you by making you far more real and sympathetic to them. They can see that, metaphorically, you’ve stood in their shoes and have a practical understanding of the situation they are facing. You can further increase the engagement of your audience by: – asking them thought provoking questions at regular intervals – recapping points during the talk and highlighting connections for your listeners – asking them to turn to their neighbours to discuss an issue you’ve raised – asking them to raise their hands to check agreement – asking them for their own experiences and views. This sort of audience participation not only keeps your listeners awake but also gives them a sense of personal involvement in what you’re saying. However, there is a potential danger here in so far as some members of your audience may want to challenge you and your message. You can deal with this by using confrontational behaviour as a stimulus for advancing the discussion but never be dismissive or humiliate the contributor even if they are wilfully missing the point. Your other listeners will tend to regard you as a bully if you do and this could cause them to receive your ideas far less sympathetically. You can counteract negative responses by drawing on facts, expert opinions, your personal experience and appropriate statistics. (Just a word here about statistics, they should be used to spread illumination and not, to paraphrase the poet Andrew Lang, as a drunk uses lampposts, to support a hopeless case.) Concluding your presentation The basic format for any presentation is: ‘tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em tell ‘em it tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em’ So you have reached the last part. Like all good stories your presentation will have had a punchy beginning, an interesting and involving middle, now all it needs is a satisfying conclusion. This is where you sum up your key points and leave your listeners in no doubt as to the importance and significance of what they’ve heard. But don’t labour the issues. A succinct conclusion that briefly recaps your three headings and then suggests the way forward will be far more effective than one that peters out or rambles on and on until everyone loses interest or leaves. Finally Before you actually deliver your talk or presentation, it can pay dividends to practise a technique called ‘visualisation’. This is used by people from all walks of life to reduce stress and put themselves into a positive frame of mind. To do this successfully all you have to do is: – sit down in a relaxed position but with your back straight – close your eyes and exhale completely – let your shoulders fall – breathe in slowly through your nose taking the air in deeply through your lungs and all the way down to your stomach – hold the breath for a count of four before exhaling slowly but steadily through your mouth. This will help relax you – then, when you’re breathing slowly and deeply, keep your eyes closed and see yourself confident and capable in front of your audience – tell yourself you are really looking forward to speaking as you have something really worthwhile to say – see yourself speaking in an engaging manner, making your points calmly and with clarity – feel warmth and approval radiating from your audience as you end the presentation. Remember, if you can see it in your mind you can make it happen when it matters. Tips for improving your delivery – Practice makes perfect, so try rehearsing what you’re going to say until you become comfortable with it. – Remember, variety catches and holds attention, so: – vary the sound and the volume of your voice – vary the speed of your delivery, your rhythms and your expression – make use of pauses and silences – use gestures to emphasise key points (but beware of the windmill effect). – Try delivering your speech in front of a mirror or to a video recorder. This lets you see how well you are using your face, hands and body to bring your message to life. Check that you: – are making eye contact – are standing in a confident, alert but relaxed way – are not overusing gestures – don’t have a nervous facial tic. – Use a tape recorder. This will help you learn when and how to vary the tone and pitch of your voice. When you replay the tape: – listen carefully to hear if everything sounds interesting, coherent and logical. – Try your presentation out on your friends or family members. Ask them for constructive criticism, listen to what they have to say and make the appropriate changes.