7 steps for improving speaking skills
Seven Steps to improve speaking skills
Before we even start with the ‘Seven Steps to improve Speaking Skills’, let me give you a useful tip to aid memory; a simple way of creating a scheme to help remember the key points of a presentation
Can you find a simple acronym or pattern of letters that you can use to help you remember the key points of structure of your talk?
I am about to outline Seven Steps - and seven is obviously a lot to remember – so can I come up with an acronym to help me remember the key section headings of the Seven Steps that will help free me from relying too heavily on notes or slides?
In this case I have decided to use the word SPEAKER as the organising principle, and so, as you will see,
each of my seven tips starts with a consecutive letter from the word SPEAKER
which means that when I deliver these tips as a presentation from stage, I have an easy aid to memory.
Any little pattern you can find that can help establish a route through the content for you is going to be useful. It might be the letters of a word, or it might be a significant sequence of letters like: BBC, or MSN or RSPCA. In fact anything that helps you remember the structure of the presentation..
…which leads us straight to the first letter of the word SPEAKER:
S = Structure
Speech structure needs to be simple. If it is too complicated it will confuse the audience and probably confuse the speaker as well. Typical advice therefore is to have no more than 3 key points, sections or headings to your presentation. Now you might be thinking:
‘No more than three points?!’ – and yet you are presenting Seven Steps?’
There will always be exceptions!
However, there needs to be a good reason for the exception (for instance in this case there are quite simply 7 key steps that need to be addressed!)
And yet even with these seven points, I am still inclined to simplify further and see if I can group them together into three sections.
In this case, as you will see
Section 1 S = Structure
Section 2 PEA = Delivery
Section 3 KER = Content
The overriding tip for a good structure is to ‘keep it simple’ (which is in fact the letter K and fifth tip from the word SPEAKER.
Therefore in the simplest terms when thinking about Structure, start by having a clear or strong opening, a middle of up to 3 points and a clear message at the end.
P = Pitch, Pace, Power…and Pause
This is all about your voice and learning to vary it.
A monotonous tone is very hard to listen to and be aware that whenever you are too reliant on reading from your notes or from your slides, your voice will always be in danger of slipping into monotony.
Vary your voice by moving it in three directions:
(i) Up and Down means varying the Pitch, so taking your voice higher or lower (asking questions, making strong statements, consciously choosing to start a sentence higher or lower than the end of the previous one)
(ii) Side to Side means Pace, which is varying the speed (building up to a climax, to express excitement or passion, using a slow delivery pace to emphasise key words, to add gravity or clarity)
(iii) Back and Forth means Power, which would be choosing to speak louder or quieter (for dramatic emphasis, to express awe or surprise, or to catch attention)
And obviously you can mix the three together into an endless range of expression.
‘Pause’ simply means Silence
If vocal variety means creating contrast in the voice, the greatest possible contrast to sound is silence!
With a bit of thought, the possible variations can also be almost endless:
pausing to let a point sink in
pausing to allow a Rhetorical Question to sink in
pausing to create a dramatic tension
or simply pausing to gather your thoughts before you move on.
E = Eye Contact
Good eye contact achieves three things
(i) it keeps the audience engaged (If you look at me I feel you are talking to me)
(ii) it makes you seem confident (Eyes to the floor or shifting around appear less certain)
(iii) it makes you seem honest (‘Look me in the eyes and tell me that!’)
Divide the audience into 4 sections and move your eyes from section to section to make sure you are gathering everyone in as you speak.
A = Animation
This is where you make sure your body supports your delivery
Hand gestures (which could be a subject for a seminar in itself)
As a speaker it is important to make the mental connection between your hands and your voice,
thereby recognising that one way to enhance your vocal variety is with effective use of gestures:
Gestures to help emphasise a key word or phrase
Gestures which help paint a picture or support a number, a division, a direction
Gestures which express an emotion or feeling
Your face is also a means of expression. For instance:
Wide eyes for surprise, excitement, horror
Furrowed brow for anxiety, strain or consideration
Pursed lips for thought, doubt, determination
Gestures can both lead and reflect the variety in the voice
K = K.i.s.s
Keep it Simple Speaking (which is a bow to Lockhead Martin’s famous ‘Keep it simple stupid’)
In some ways this goes back to the structure, but it also looks forward to the content.
Rather than bombarding your audience with too many words, images, examples and statistics, try to find one or two key images that you can tie your messages to. On the one hand a powerful case study, example or metaphor is much more likely to lodge in your audience’s mind and on the other, it makes it easier for you to remember.
Often we hear presentations that are heavy on numbers and statistics and the effect can be overwhelming.
Can you find one killer statistic that sums up everything your argument is leading to; one set of numbers that will help to embed your point in the audience’s memory
When it comes to presentations, clarity is all important. Therefore do not overload your audience
Remember the saying:
Less is More.
E = Enthusiasm (and / or maybe Expertise)
Step 6 should help answer the audience’s question:
‘Why should I listen to you?’
Knowledge or expertise in a subject is important, particularly if you are trying to inform, educate or persuade someone. However there are a lot of very boring experts on the surface of the earth.
Therefore Enthusiasm if often the key
One of my favourite phrases is:
‘Attitudes are contagious – is yours worth catching?’
Your enthusiasm should metaphorically ‘infect’ the room
We should now be beginning to realise that Structure, Delivery and Content all tend to the same thing, because your varied voice, gestures and animation will bring out that enthusiasm
and if you are fortunate enough to already have a natural level of enthusiasm then you may find you do not need to worry about the techniques of delivery as they will all already be there.
My experience with speakers who are passionate about their subject is they do not need much coaching, (apart from possibly slowing down and simplifying their message), because their passion automatically translates into a lively and engaging delivery and simple stories and anecdotes often already have their own structure.
R = Rehearsal
Again – rehearsal and preparation are worthy of a full seminar by themselves.
All I would say here is :
Avoid trying to memorise your words, it will make you wooden will kill any spontaneity
So, instead of memorise, vocalise!
This means regularly talking through the presentation (if not to another person, at least to yourself).
Focus on the key messages like they are stepping stones to get across a stream. All you need to focus on is getting to the next stepping stone, rather than obsessing over the exact words.
As you regularly talk through the presentation, you will learn to be more relaxed about getting from stone to stone. In fact you may find you have different routes to get from one to the other.
Remember that your audience will never remember all your words, so you want to be sure that they do remember your key points.
Therefore in the end, a successful presentation is more about:
‘Did I put across my key messages?’
‘Did I say all the right words?’