You may have pleaded sick in high school to duck out of that science debate on Darwin’s theory. You may have candy-smiled your way to a Pass grade in your Viva. And somehow you’ve escaped the boss’ eye every time the subject of making a PowerPoint presentation arose. But you can’t keep running away forever. Someday you’ll be called upon to stand and deliver, and maybe your whole career will hang on your performance.
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Whether your audience numbers 3 or 300 or more, the ability to communicate effectively opens the doors to success. The fact is, even if you’re an inexperienced speaker, you can hold your audience in the palm of your hand from your first word to your last. There are timeless principles that even the most polished speakers draw upon, and by putting them to work for you and stamping them with your own unique identity, you too can become a masterful communicator. Here are 10 of the most important:
1. Know what you’re aiming for. There is a difference between the art of presentation and the art of persuasion. Two of the great orators of ancient times were the Roman Cicero and the Greek Demosthenes. When Cicero finished speaking, he always got a standing ovation and the people exclaimed, “How well Cicero speaks!” When Demosthenes finished speaking, his hearers cried: “Let us march!” Each of these ancient orators apparently won what he wanted most. Cicero won applause and attracted men to his own brilliance. Demosthenes inspired men to action, to start fighting for his cause. In our own times, Shashi Tharoor is an example of a speaker whose eloquence is admirable, whose delivery style is impeccable. Malala’s speaking style is different: it is inspirational, moving people to open their hearts and to act on behalf of the world’s most defenceless children and families.
So, it’s important to know what your goals are in making your presentation. Do you want to inform, to inspire, to entertain, to persuade, or all of the above? Clarity on your goal is your first marching order.
2. Know what you’re talking about. This one is so obvious, and may be that is the reason most speakers seem to forget it or ignore it. There is nothing more certain to cause you to break out into a cold sweat than being unprepared about the topic you’re going to talk about.
To know what you’re going to be talking about is not just about having some expertise in the subject. As Dale Carnegie, the so-called “father of modern public speaking”, said: “You must know your material so well that you own it...you must know it so well that you are able to fill every second of your presentation with solid content. If you do that, 90 % of your work will be done before you even get up to speak.” Carnegie recommended that you collect more material than there is any possibility of using in your speech. Why? For the sureness of touch and the confidence it will give you.
What’s more, you should believe in what you’re saying. That is, you must be authentic. As Kenneth McFarland, who won his spurs as the dean of American speakers, said, “What is in the well of your heart will show up in the bucket of your speech.” Whether you’re speaking from the viewpoint of an excited and highly motivated learner, or from the viewpoint of an experienced and empathetic teacher, by showing your listeners that this is who you really are, you’ll capture their goodwill.
3. Practise, practise, practise. Rehearse your material until it becomes a part of you. Use a recording device to see how you come across. This is also a good way to detect weaknesses in your presentation and to work on flaws. If you can rehearse with an audience of even three or four persons, so much the better, because their feedback can be invaluable.
Check for things like:
Voice modulation. Is your tone too flat? Too high-pitched and shrill? Too loud?
Is your diction clear? Are you mumbling? Rushing through your delivery?
The word “monotony” derives from “monotone”, and monotony is what you risk when you speak in a flat voice. Varying the intonation and stress patterns in which you speak – that’s what prosody is about.
A lower pitch is the one to aim for. We associate depth with power, and with authority.
But – importantly – don’t try to memorize your speech. If you do, forgetting even a single word will cause you to lose your train of thought and maybe even to freeze – every speaker’s ultimate nightmare. Writing down a speech to read from is also not a good idea. If you do, your presentation will sound like you’re reading rather than speaking. Instead, know your material so well that you need only memorize the flow of ideas.
4. Don't make your talk an abstraction. Make liberal use of illustrations, personal observations and self-revelations; think of specific situations you've observed and let those situations reveal general principles that you want to convey.
5. Understand the principle of empathy. Whether you know it or not, your listeners tend to mirror the attitudes and feelings you project. If you project a demeanour that’s relaxed and confident, they will also feel at ease. If you smile at them while speaking, they will smile back at you. And most important, if they’re convinced you are sincere and trustworthy, they will pay attention to what you’re saying and evaluate it on its own merit. Empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy says, “I know how you feel”. Empathy says, “I feel how you feel”. Your goal should be to get your audience to feel how you feel about an issue. This is particularly important when your presentation is focused on appealing to the emotions of an audience, say, if you’re trying to raise funds for a cause, or trying to prompt action from people in positions of influence. If you’re only delivering cold, hard facts, your audience may agree with you, but to get them onboard, you’ve got to engage their emotions.
One of the most effective ways to get your audience emotionally engaged and involved in the story of, say, a stranger who’s in a sad situation, is to personalise it by taking them to a time in their own lives when they experienced a similar situation. In effect, they’re putting on the shoes of that stranger and walking in those shoes. For instance, let’s say you’re speaking at an awareness event to raise funds for a home-away-from-home project next to a children’s hospital, where parents coming from long distances can stay for the duration of their child’s hospitalization.
Ask your audience if they can remember back to when they were children if there was ever a time they were separated from their parents and they were afraid and lonely. Maybe they have their own hospitalization experience to remember and draw upon. Did they feel abandoned? Anxious? Unhappy? If you can get them to remember a similar experience, you’ll have their support because now they really know what you’re talking about! You have made it personal. And that is the fountainhead of empathy.
6. Aim to be natural, spontaneous. Today’s favoured speaking style can best be described as “amplified conversation”. It’s much more informal than the grandiose style that characterized public orators in years past. The emphasis is on communication and the sharing of ideas – not on performance or sermonizing.
7. Channel your nervous energy. In fact, being nervous before a speech is, to a certain extent, healthy. Many of the world’s top speakers and entertainers admit readily that they are nervous before a performance. But they also know the tried-and-tested remedy for that: breathing low and slow – from the diaphragm – before they go to stand before an audience. That diaphragmatic breathing subdues the adrenalin-driven breathing that happens when we are under stress. It induces the relaxation response in the body.
But true fear, the kind that ruins a public performance, is a different kettle of fish. It works on three levels: mental, emotional and physical. The first two are conquered by the self-assurance that is a by-product of preparation and experience. However, physical fear can best be controlled through the conscious use of gestures and body movements (see the next point) which help you harness your nervous energy and make it work for you, instead of against you.
8. Be aware of the signals your body is sending out. When you’re making a speech, your voice is transmitting a verbal message, but a vast amount of information is also being conveyed visually by your appearance, gestures and movements. Research has found that over half (i.e., about 55%) of all human communication takes place at the non-verbal level, via body language.
In public speaking, body language can make or break your presentation. The eyes are the most important vehicle of body language. When you make eye contact, your audience will feel more engaged and will pay more attention to what you’re saying. The formula is well established by now. Begin by selecting one person and talking to him or her personally. Hold that person’s eyes long enough to establish a visual bond – perhaps for 5 to 10 seconds. Then shift your gaze to another person. The basis for this approach is that, when you speak, you are communicating with a group of individual people – not performing before a single unit. Using eye contact will help you establish a bond at this individual, personal level.
All good speakers use gestures – and there are sound reasons for that. Gestures are an evocative mode of non-verbal communication that enhance your speech-making in several ways, including by :
Clarifying and supporting your words
Dramatizing your ideas
Conveying your feelings more emphatically than the words you say
Enhancing audience attentiveness
Helping to dissipate your own nervous tension
Every gesture you make should be purposeful and carry conviction. If it does not, the outcome can be wooden, artificial and sometimes comical.
9. The no-no’s of body language. There’s a truckload of these, but some of the worst are:
Crossing your arms. This is one of the “barrier gestures”, a defensive posturing that conveys that you are not open to others. Overall, it sends a “Keep away” message, and that’s not the message you want to send out to your audience.
Staring at a single spot in the audience. Staring fixedly at one spot is never a good idea because people notice that you’re not making eye contact with them; it makes you look like you’re not sure of yourself.
Standing in the same position for an entire presentation. The human brain needs movement to stay alert. Good speakers know that moving in the space around them is a powerful way to keep an audience attentive. (Don’t overdo it, however. If you’re constantly walking, or if you’re walking too fast, people will get the message that you’re nervous, and they’ll begin to get worked up, too).
Repeating the same gesture ... a lot. Your gestures should serve to emphasize your messages, and should not be a crutch when you don’t know what to do with your hands.
Fidgeting. Pulling at your ear, running a finger down the side of your nose, playing with your ring, scratching your neck – all these send negative messages to your audience. They will perceive a lack of self-control and lose confidence in you and in what you’re saying.
When you’re delivering a presentation, you should come across as approachable. And you should look as if you have confidence in your message. To achieve this, keep your back straight (but not ramrod-stiff), your head high, and your chest and arms open.
10. Monitor feedback. Are your listeners’ faces indicating pleasure, interest, close attention? Or are they looking distracted, bored, puzzled? You can gauge the audience’s reactions to what you say, then adjust your presentation accordingly.
Later, do a post-mortem. Confidence comes from experience. Every time you get up to speak to an audience, try to make your presentation better than the one before. Once you begin to approach public speaking in an organized way, you’ll find, as thousands of speakers before you have found, that you make rapid progress, and that public speaking is not a skill gifted to only a few lucky individuals. It can be yours if you’re ready to do what it takes.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)