The seven elements of effective public speaking
When we watch celebrities, politicians, or business leaders speak effortlessly in public, they seem so at ease with themselves it would be tempting to believe they were born that way. However, no one is born a great public speaker, they have to learn to be so. This can be achieved by taking formal presentation skills training or by watching others, learning what works and putting it into practice. If you don’t have time to do either, here are the seven elements of effective public speaking that I’ve developed as a checklist in my role as a communication coach.
1) Don’t strive for perfection
Perfect presentations aren’t that interesting! If you watch some of the highest rated TED talks, you’ll notice that the presenters are often a bit imperfect or offbeat. Sometimes they trip over a word or fluff their lines. So what? Even the most accomplished public speaker will make a mistake at some point.
When I finish delivering training sessions, I’ll often ask the group how many mistakes they heard me make that day. Sometimes they’ll have noticed one or two, often they’ll say none. Of course I’ll have made dozens of minor mistakes during the course of the session but because I haven’t drawn attention to them or let them throw me off course, no one notices.
Keep in mind that you’ll notice your mistakes far more than your audience will. It will help you to worry about them less – and that’s important. Making mistakes is not the problem, worrying you’re going to make them is because it inhibits your spontaneity and causes you to make more mistakes. You’re not striving for a perfect performance; you’re striving for realness.
2) Prepare for success
Confidence comes from feeling well prepared, so spend some time working out the structural building blocks of your presentation. Clarify the key points you want to make, arrange them into a story and work out how to link from one slide to the next. Knowing what your main messages are and how they link together as a story will help you to maintain your flow.
The reason most people forget what they are going to say during presentations is not because they’re nervous, it’s because their story doesn’t flow logically or their points don’t link intuitively. During public speaking events, if you have a clear story to tell, it’s much easier to keep your flow. And if you feel confident about the story you’re telling, you’re more likely to feel confident about delivering it.
A big part of your preparation is practice. This is probably the most important of the seven elements of effective public speaking, I would suggest you practice in two ways. First, practice the presentation out loud. Practising in your head is no help at all. You need to get a ‘mouth feel’ for the words you want to say and how they flow. In particular, practise delivering your opener, as a strong start will give you confidence right at the moment you need it most.
As well as physically practising, visualising yourself giving the presentation is also helpful. Visualisation techniques have been proven to help with performance in many different arenas. Salespeople envision themselves closing the deal; actors picture themselves delivering a scene effortlessly; athletes imagine themselves winning the race. The technique also works for businesspeople. Picture yourself delivering the presentation clearly and confidently. If we believe we will do something well, we’re more likely to be successful.
3) Speak to serve
Remember, the presentation is not about you, it’s about the audience. You are not the star of the show, you are the audience’s mentor, or as Nancy Duarte put it in her The Secret Structure of Great Talks, you’re not Luke Skywalker, you’re Yoda. You are there because you have something the audience needs. The information you have will help them to make a decision, do their job better or improve their lives.
Always consider how your content relates to your listeners. What do they want to know? How can you help them achieve their goals? Give yourself a strong point of view (to challenge, warn, excite, etc) and keep in mind throughout the presentation that your job in this moment is to put that information across to the audience as effectively as you can.
By thinking about what you’re talking about and why it’s relevant to your listeners, you’ll endear yourself to the audience and make your presentation infinitely more successful.
And taking the focus off yourself and shifting it to your audience is sure to take some of the fear out of public speaking.
4) Tell a story
Public speaking is most often about delivering information, but successful presenters go beyond this. They aim to tell a memorable story that touches hearts as well as minds. A story that connects to the audience’s values, desires or emotions will be more memorable than a list of bullets and is also more likely to compel people to action. This means you should use all the conventions you see in bestselling novels and Hollywood blockbusters – interesting characters, a sequence of events that builds to a conclusion, suspense, conflict and a clear message at the end.
Persuasive speakers know that by telling the audience a story that “reveals” their message it will have a far more compelling effect than simply saying what they want listeners to know or do. When we listen to a story we identify with the characters and feel what they are feeling, their message becomes our message. The same goes for an example. An example that shows people how something works is far more memorable than an explanation of a process. If you want people to buy into an idea or initiative, show people them the impact it will have on them, don’t tell them. This is one of the most important of the seven elements of effective public speaking,
5) Choose your words
Words matter. Successful speakers choose words that will resonate with their audience, speaking in pictures rather than in sentences laden with jargon.
‘We intend to put a man on Mars by 2024,’ said Elon Musk when he launched the Space X programme in 2002, conjuring a powerful mental image that ensured every member of the audience understood the power and scope of his vision. ‘We intend to become the leader in the space industry through technological innovation, team-based incentivisation and strategically targeted initiatives’ would not have had quite the same impact. And yet this is how many business leaders speak. But if people can ‘see’ what you mean, they’ll understand your idea more easily. And they’ll be far more likely to remember it.
Think about words that will connect with your audience and draw them into your world. Avoid jargon and overly technical language (unless you’re speaking to a technical audience). Above all, avoid filler expressions like ‘basically’ and ‘actually’ as well as hedging language like ‘kind of’, ‘sort of’ and ‘quite’, which will diminish the impact of your message.
6) Interact with the audience
The best speakers thrive on interaction with the audience. It’s a balancing act that can take years to perfect but it’s worth working on.
Interaction is especially important in the virtual space. When giving a presentation online you need to stop more frequently for questions, encourage comments in the chat box and break up the flow of information with discussions. There are far more opportunities for your audience to get distracted when you’re presenting virtually, so remember to give your audience a break – literally – from listening.
Staying connected with the audience is also important for real-time self-evaluation. Accomplished public speakers are able to notice the early signs that attention may be slipping. Then, they think on their feet, change tack and turn the performance around.
7) Hone your delivery
It doesn’t matter how interesting your content is, if your delivery isn’t clear, fluent and engaging. Your posture, body language and use of gesture are of paramount importance if you want to establish trust. So is your vocal delivery. In studies on what makes a presenter persuasive, the three areas of delivery that are always mentioned are frequency of pause, variety of delivery and flow of delivery. If you’re going to work on anything, work on those areas first. Rehearse often and out loud. And try recording yourself to see what your body language tells you. It will allow you to objectively critique your performance and iron out any ineffective habits.
Finally, remember that less is more
In addition to the seven elements of public speaking mentioned above, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from my years as a presentation skills coach is that less is more. As a colleague once said to me, “Nobody ever complained that a presentation was too short.” In fact, in a 2016 study by Stanford Business School analysing 100,000 individual presentations, researchers discovered that the more concise the message, the more likely the speech was to be rated ‘effective’. Always make your presentation just long enough – but never too long.
If you follow the seven elements of effective public speaking I’ve outlined here, you’re guaranteed to become a better presenter. However, if you want some assistance from a professional coach, check out our courses here or get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.