A Short Guide to Effective Public Speaking
Delivering an effective presentation to 20 or to 200 people is difficult. Because listeners have better access to information since the internet became commonplace, audiences expect more content from speakers today. In addition, because of the entertainment slant of most media today, audiences want a presentation delivered with animation, humor, and pizzazz.
If you would rather spend your time preparing your content than reading a book on public speaking, this is an article especially for you! From my experiences in delivering over l500 speeches during the past 20 years, here is a quick guide to giving an effective and interesting presentation your very first time.
Begin with something to get the attention of the audience. This might be a startling statement, statistic, or your own story. Listeners pay close attention when a person begins with, “Two weeks ago as I was driving to work a car pulled out in front of me….” You could begin with a current event: “You might have read in the paper this morning about the flood that….” A question is another way to make people listen. “How many of you feel our society spends too much on medical care?” might be a way to begin a presentation about curbing costs. Whatever technique you use, when you grab the attention of the audience you are on your way to a successful speech.
Second, be energetic in delivery. Speak with variety in your voice. Slow down for a dramatic point and speed up to show excitement. Pause occasionally for effect. Don’t just stand behind the lectern, but move a step away to make a point. When you are encouraging your audience, take a step toward them. Gesture to show how big or wide or tall or small an object is that you are describing. Demonstrate how something works or looks or moves as you tell about it. Show facial expression as you speak. Smile when talking about something pleasant and let your face show other emotions as you tell about an event or activity. Whatever your movements, they should have purpose.
Structure your speech. Don’t have more than two or three main points, and preview in the beginning what those points will be. With each point, have two or three pieces of support, such as examples, definitions, testimony, or statistics. Visual aids are important when you want your audience to understand a process or concept or understand a financial goal. Line graphs are best for trends. Bar graphs are best for comparisons and pie graphs are best for showing distribution of percentages.
Tie your points together with transitions. These could be signposts such as “First,” “Second,” or "Finally." Use an internal summary by simply including the point you just made and telling what you plan to talk about next. “Now that we have talked about structure, let’s move on to the use of stories,” would be an example. When you have an introduction, two or three main points with support for each, appropriate transitions, and a conclusion, you will have your speech organized in a way that the audience can follow you easily.
Tell your own story somewhere in the presentation–especially in a technical presentation. Include a personal experience that connects to your speech content, and the audience will connect with you. You want to help the audience link emotionally with what you are talking about, and the personal experience does that. With almost any topic you might choose, you have at least one “war story” to relate to the topic. When you tell the story, simply start at the beginning and move chronologically through the narrative, including answers to the “W” questions: “Who,” What, “When,” "Why," and “Where.”
To add interest and understanding to your speech, include a visual aid. A visual aid could be an object, a flip chart, a PowerPoint presentation, overhead projector slides, or a dry erase board. Whatever visual you are using, make sure everyone can see it. The best way to insure this is to put the visual where you will be speaking, and then find the seat farthest from it and determine if you can read the visual from that seat. Introduce the visual properly rather than simply throwing it at your audience; explain what the visual will do before you unveil it. Don’t allow the visual to become a silent demonstration. Keep talking as you show the visual. You are still the main event and your visual is an aid. Look at your audience, not your visual. When the visual is not in use, hide it from the audience. Humans are a curious lot, tending to keep looking at the object and losing track of the speaker—you!
If you are delivering a persuasive speech, in addition to your own stories include testimony of experts whom the audience respects and whose views reinforce your points. Add a key statistic when possible to show the seriousness of what you are discussing. For example, if I were discussing the need for improved listening to better serve your customers, I might add that although we spend half of our communication time in listening, our listening efficiency is only about 25%. By using stories, testimony, and statistics in your persuasive talk, you add depth to your evidence.
Look at the audience as you speak. If it is a small audience, you can look at each person in a short period of time. If it is a large audience, look at the audience in small “clumps” and move from one clump to another. One way to insure good eye contact is to look at your audience before you start to speak. Go to the lectern and pause, smile, look at the audience, and then speak. This will help you maintain good eye contact throughout your presentation as well as commanding immediate attention.
One of the ways to have consistently good eye contact is not to read your speech. Use note cards that have key words on them. The word or phrase should trigger the thought in your mind and then you can speak it. If you are including a quotation or complex statistics, reading from your note card actually lends credibility. If you write out your speech you will tend to read it and lose eye contact with the audience, as well as not being as enthusiastic in delivery as when you speak from note cards.
Include a “wow” factor in your speech. Something in your speech should make your audience think, “Wow!” It could be a story, a dramatic point, an unusual statistic, or an effective visual that helps the audience understand immediately. With a “wow” factor, you then have something to look forward to in the speech that you know will have an impact on your audience. You’ll become a more enthusiastic speaker because the “wow” factor will get you as well as your audience pumped for the speech.
Consider using a touch of humor in your speech. Don’t panic at this suggestion; you are not becoming a comedian but rather lightening up a serious speech so that people will be more accepting and interested in your ideas. Humor will help you to be perceived as an amiable person, and it is hard for people to disagree or be bored if they are smiling at you. Until you have lots of experience, keep your humor short. Perhaps inject a one-liner or a quotation. Yogi Berra said a lot of funny things. “You can observe a lot just by watching” for example. Tell a short embarrassing moment in your life that you might have thought not funny at the time. Now that you can laugh at the experience, you understand the old adage, “Humor is simply tragedy separated by time and space.” Don’t poke fun at your audience; you should be the object of any shortcoming, showing that you can laugh at yourself. Avoid long stories or jokes. Even seasoned speakers know that funny stories soon become unfunny if they go on too long. Probably the least risky use of humor is a cartoon. The cartoon is separate from you and if people don’t laugh, you don’t feel responsible. (Be sure to secure permission to use it.)
Finally, leave the audience with something to think about. People remember best what you say last. You might summarize your main points, or you might complete the statement, “What I want you to do as a result of this presentation is….” But beyond that, make your last words a thought to ponder. For example, I might end a speech on becoming a better speaker with “As Cicero said centuries ago, ‘The skill to do comes with the doing.’”
A more modern guide to effective public speaking was penned by some unknown sage: "Know your stuff. Know whom you are stuffing. Know when they are stuffed."
One never becomes a “perfect” speaker; developing public speaking skills is a life-long experience. But the points discussed here will get you started in becoming the speaker you want to be and the speaker your audience wants to hear.