Online or in-person what skills do you need for sincere public speaking?
By Lyn Roseaman, Toastmasters International
To ensure that you give a presentation or speech that has the impact you want you need connection, change and confidence. With these in place you are well on the way to being a skilful and sincere speaker. What does this mean for us as we put together and then deliver presentations that demonstrate both skill and sincerity?
If you can’t connect with your audience, you might as well be talking to yourself:
‘They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’
— Carl W Buehner, General Authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1952–1961)
And if that connection feels inauthentic, people will be suspicious.
Think about how you connect with people socially. You probably smile, make good eye contact, talk in a friendly conversational style, etc; in short, come across as likeable. What you say is also important and the fastest way to create a connection is to talk about things which you care about and which are interesting to the other person, i.e. try to be relevant and focus on them. And it’s the same when we give a speech or presentation.
Picture yourself sitting in an audience. This applies whether the people are in the room with you, or sitting at their own computers at home having dialled in to listen to you. Your audience has set aside the time, maybe even spent money to attend. They are all wondering ‘What’s in it for me?’ As a speaker, it’s your job to answer that question. To do that, you need to ‘deep research’ your audience. It’s not just about their name and job title. Depending on whether you’re talking to a larger, conference-style audience or debriefing a project team via Zoom, key questions might cover the goals of the event, other speakers, audience profile, what they do/know/expect/how they talk and what do they most want from you.
‘The more you know about your audience, the stronger your ability to connect with them and influence their thinking and behaviour on their terms, i.e. answer their ‘What’s in it for me’ question.’
— Lyn Roseaman, author of ‘Now You’re Talking!’
And it’s not just about the content of your speech. Knowing your audience will also give you strong pointers about delivery – whether or not you need slides and how many, relevant stories you might include, appropriate levels of energy, vocal variety, body language and so on. And yes, body language still applies even if the audience can only see your head and shoulders via a video link.
Speaking is a privilege, an opportunity to share your knowledge in a way that positively impacts others. There is no point in speaking if you are only going to tell people what they already know:
‘The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.’
— John F Kennedy, US President (1961–1963)
Having researched your audience, you will have a good idea of what information and message they’ll value.
All too often, we confuse audiences because we start assembling content or making slides without even thinking about our message and its value to our listeners. When preparing a speech, try starting at the end. What do you want your audience to think, feel or do differently after they’ve heard your talk or presentation? What is the single most important message you need them to take away? Jot it down in large letters in fewer than ten words and keep it visible. Any content you try to include that doesn’t support your message doesn’t belong in this particular talk or presentation.
Confidence matters because it is part of your authority and credibility as a speaker:
‘Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings.’
— Samuel Johnson, English writer and lexicographer
If you don’t feel confident in what you have to say, then why should your audience? When audiences sense you’re nervous, they will often be more concerned about your wellbeing than about what you’re saying. Confidence allows your listeners to relax and engage with what you have to say; your message, not how you’re feeling.
Confident speakers are frequent speakers, so take every opportunity to speak up, be it to a small group of colleagues, in a video meeting, on the phone, in a pitch or presentation. Get comfortable with speaking and use the opportunity to practise different techniques, e.g. voice projection, storytelling, opening a speech with impact, etc. Invite people to give you specific feedback on what they liked and any improvements they would welcome to improve their experience.
We shouldn’t, however, assume being confident means being extrovert. People often say to me that they can’t be a good speaker because they are introverts and feel uncomfortable trying to show up as some high-energy, gregarious, perhaps larger-than-life version of themselves. Maintaining this persona is untenable and exhausting. It’s also unnecessary.
Public speaking isn’t about being a ‘big’ presence. When you are yourself and talking about something that matters to you and your audience, people will listen. Quiet confidence is still confidence. People like Bill Gates, JK Rowling and Mahatma Gandhi are all testimony to how introverts can be great speakers, not least because they understand that speaking is about their audience, not about them.
Of course, different audiences and speaking situations may well require a different speaking style. For instance, if you’re talking to a technical audience, they tend to favour visual aids and ‘data’ to support your message. That’s not to say that they don’t appreciate a story or anecdote, but they also value an evidence-based focus.
If your intention is to inspire, you probably need to share your story and invite your audience to adopt your experience and learnings into their own lives. In these situations, slides can be an obstacle and undermine the emotional connection of a story.
Whatever style you deem appropriate to connect with, and delight, your audience, remaining ‘true to you’ is crucial. If you try to conceal the real you behind some persona, your audience will know and wonder what you’re hiding. So how do you remain authentic?
How can you remain true to you?
When you talk about something you care about, your personal passion and enthusiasm for your subject shine through. It is yours and, assuming you’ve taken care to choose a topic that’s relevant to your audience, they will happily connect and engage with you. As far as possible, choose to talk about subjects that you care about. Granted, this may not always be possible. In such situations, try to find angles that are important to you and matter to your listeners.
Storytelling dates back to prehistoric times when people shared stories around the campfire. Not only was this part of ‘belonging’, but also a way of staying together and safe within the group. Storytelling connects us as human beings. Opening a speech with a well-crafted and relevant personal story will captivate an audience. And because it’s personal, it’s authentic and uniquely yours to tell. Stories not only create a sense of belonging, but they are also memorable and far more so than facts and figures. So, judiciously used stories and anecdotes that are relevant and presented in the appropriate speaking style for your audience are invaluable in making an impact.
Your voice is part of who you are. Your accent is part of your identity. Authenticity is not about trying to hide or change your voice. It’s about being proud of your voice and learning how to use it effectively so that you bring both ease of understanding and interest to your listeners. If you stumble over certain words, don’t use them, or practise tongue twisters to make them easier to say. Think about the pace, pitch and volume of your voice and how to project it so that your words are clear, interesting and meaningful. Use pauses for impact or, for instance, to give your audience time to reflect on what you’re saying.
If your words don’t match your facial expressions or hand gestures, audiences will believe what they see over what they hear:
‘When the eyes say one thing, and the tongue another,
a practiced man relies on the language of the first.’
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, essayist
You can finesse your body language for a presentation or speech. For instance, an excess of hand gestures and arm waving can become distracting; try dialling it down by letting your hands relax at your side from time to time. You want to use gestures and expressions that feel natural and reinforce your words and meaning. Be aware of your body language in everyday conversation and bring that authenticity to your speeches and presentations, scaling up or down for the size of your audience and the platform (scale it up for a large conference style, dial it down for a smaller video meeting).
Nowadays, we live in a world that values authenticity. We encourage transparency and openness. We want to hear each other’s stories and we embrace vulnerability. The bonus of being authentic is that you don’t have to work out how to be someone you’re not. Furthermore, it often feels as if there is so much information available to us that it’s difficult to come up with something new and interesting to say. Being authentic in everything you say and do helps you come across as original and unique.
For skilful and sincere public speaking authenticity brings the 3Cs to life. They will enable you to deliver powerful, memorable message to your audiences whether you are delivering ‘in the room’ or online.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lyn Roseaman, DTM is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org