Faced with the prospect of speaking in front of an audience, normally confident and well-balanced people have been known to have a panic attack. Yet not only is it a skill that practically anyone can pick up, it is one that well serves all forms of personal communication. If you can improve the way you speak to a group of people, you’ll usually find that you’ve improved at a one-on-one level too.
If you’ve not had much experience—or perhaps have unwisely decided after a couple of bad experiences that you are ‘no good’ at public speaking—remember that this is a skill that is very rarely inherent and is almost always learnt. Even the very few who have a natural confidence and a way with words will benefit from some tips on how to get the best out of preparation and delivery. And all speakers, even the more experienced, will improve with practice.
Nevertheless, the point of departure should be as long as possible before you actually get up to speak. Firstclass preparation is vital: without it, the inexperienced become (deservedly) nervous and the experienced are simply boring. No matter how often you might speak on the same subject, it is always better to try to find a new approach to what you want to say—and never misuse old notes as a quick substitute. After all, if you cannot get interested, let alone enthusiastic, about your subject matter, then think how that is going to come across to your audience.
So there you are, sitting at your desk with a pile of blank paper in front of you. Where do you start?
The first step is easy. Think very carefully about to whom you will be talking and exactly what you want to get across to them. Then jot down all your ideas, however random or incoherent they may be. Let your mind drift and reach out to all the possible points that you might want to make. If you’re at all creative, interested, or passionate about your subject, this really is the fun part of the exercise.
The second step, of course, is far more difficult. You need to pull this material together in a way that ensures a logical delivery with a beginning, body, and conclusion. As you do so, you must be ruthless in discarding any points that simply do not fit.
Start with the body. Sort out your ideas under appropriate headings. The key here is that you have to keep your audience with you. Don’t distract them with lines of argumentation that will only confuse them. Only when you’ve outlined the body should you work out the beginning. Here, the aim is to create interest so the audience genuinely wants to hear the rest of what you have to say. Finally, work out a good ending to leave them with a clear conclusion that they can take away with them.
Many books on public speaking have a very simple test as a key to a successful speech: Tell them what you are going to say, say it, and then remind them of what you said.
As you work out what to say, remember a few caveats:
• Do not be over-ambitious. It really is pointless writing a beautiful speech if you are unable to deliver it beautifully. So don’t waste your time carefully crafting every sentence with just the right adjectives and adverbs.
• Avoid clichés and long, wordy phrases. Simplicity pays; just use ordinary everyday language. Even if your audience knows the subject well, there is a big difference between reading an article and listening to someone speak. Make it easier for them—and yourself.
• Beware of humor. What might seem very funny to you late at night in your own room could fall flat on your audience. That will leave both you and them feeling awkward. If you have them and feel comfortable using them, amusing anecdotes can work well. But you certainly do not have to be funny to be good.
This post, written by Scott Hamilton, is an excerpt from the IHS “Creating Your Path to a Policy Career” guide. Tune in next week for part 2.