The Number 1 tip for Public Speaking
The number one tip to improve your Public Speaking is to practise regularly!
There- that was not much of a surprise, was it?
I imagine if you asked for the number one tip in virtually any field, the answer would be pretty similar.
Malcolm Gladwell tells us that 10 000 hours spent on any endeavour will make you an expert in that field
and repetition is always going to be a major part of developing any skill.
However, we do need to remember, despite all that we might have heard:
‘Practise does not make perfect.’
‘Perfect practice makes perfect!’
10 000 hours developing bad habits may not lead you to success at all, they may only lead you to frustration.
Jascha Heifetz, in his time regarded as the greatest violinist of any generation, said that any more than four hours a day spent practising the violin would become counter-productive, as a few hours of properly focused practice will always be much more effective than many hours of unfocused playing around.
Happily, becoming proficient in Public speaking will not take nearly as long or nearly as much effort.
Therefore, rather than just saying: ‘Practise,’
let me offer 7 tips on how to practise and what to practise.
How do you practise being spontaneous? It sounds like a contradiction.
Some of us are going to be more comfortable thinking on our feet than others and so some of us may need more structure than others to support us as we prepare.
The goal is to produce a presentation that flows naturally and there will be some circumstances where that is going to be easier to achieve than in others.
If we are delivering a set speech to an audience, it is possible to stick to a chosen path and all we need to do is to make sure that how we deliver our speech does not come across as mechanical and over-rehearsed.
If we are required to interact with our audience, answer questions and adapt to changing circumstances, we need to be much more responsive and therefore capable of much greater flexibility.
I remember playing in an orchestra for a conducting competition and one candidate had clearly rehearsed so much in front of the mirror that he was expecting the orchestra to respond exactly as he had imagined and had prepared for again and again in his own home. When the orchestra did not respond in quite the way he had assumed, he was completely thrown.
I wonder how many of us have rehearsed a difficult conversation in our mind, working out what we would say and the possible ways that the other person might respond, only to find that in reality, the other person said something that we had not anticipated and all control and confidence was lost.
So however you choose to prepare, make sure you highlight your key points (planning) and build in however much flexibility you may need to for the unpredictable circumstances you may face (spontaneity)
Start with the end in mind
Therefore the first step is to work out what sort of presentation we will need to deliver.
Is it a set speech that can be delivered in a similar way, regardless of the make-up and attitude of the audience, or does it need to be much more responsive?
It was very noticeable that when Theresa May became the leader of the Conservative Party, she was much more comfortable delivering prepared words than responding to questions from an audience or an interviewer.
Her solution was to avoid interactive environments. That is always going to be a problem for a Democratic politician! You will often hear lawyers or politicians who knowing they are in an uncomfortable situation will deliver their set speech and then avoid answering questions because as long as you are speaking, you will still be in control.
So therefore the first step is to work out to what degree your presentation will need to be able to adapt to the circumstances in front of you.
Vocalise, don’t memorise
I remember whenever I was preparing for a speech contest, I knew that all I needed to do was deliver a ‘good’ speech. I did not have to respond or adapt, particularly to the audience.
Therefore my preparation was fairly straightforward.
I did not want to come across as over-rehearsed and therefore stiff and wooden, so I took the opportunity each day before the contest to ‘walk through’ either parts of the speech or if I had time the whole speech.
I would talk it through in my mind or out loud. If I got my words mixed up, rather than stopping and trying again, I would fight through to get back on track again. With many repetitions of this exercise, I would either recognise where I was getting confused before I got there or else I would work out another route to avoid the problem. After a few times, I developed the confidence to know that I had a variety of routes through my speech. If I found myself using a certain word or phrase I would follow a different route, but through repetition I would always find my way back on track.
This meant that I was no longer scared of ‘getting lost’ because whatever route I took, I knew my way forward. Over time I made an interesting discovery: by having different routes through my speech I was no longer afraid of taking ‘a wrong turn’ and because I was no longer afraid of taking a wrong turn, I usually ended up taking the same ‘best’ route every time.
Someone listening to me deliver the speech on different days might think it was pretty much the same word for word, but if that was how it seemed it was not because I had learnt every word, it was because I was comfortable enough with the content of my speech that I ended up mostly choosing the same words – and there is a big difference between the two.
Today with so many news channels on TV it is possible to hear the same politician being interviewed on the same subject by different reporters. They will probably have prepared a few key phrases and messages, but the rest of how they respond may appear to be the same each time, but that is because they reach for a similar set of comfortable words each time, not because they have learnt all the exact words from memory.
How comfortable you are with your material or with the whole concept of speaking in public will decide to what degree you take this next step.
I have warned against too much practice in front of the mirror. The main danger is that what should be natural becomes calculated and self-conscious.
When I was learning to play the ‘cello, I was advised to practise in front of the mirror, as it would allow me to observe whether everything was looking correct. Unfortunately, I practised too much in front of the mirror, so I ended up ‘putting’ things in the right place rather than allowing them to ‘find’ the right position.
I ended up with a tense shoulder and discomfort in my back. I told my ‘cello teacher and he replied:
‘…but it looks great!’
With speakers it becomes obvious when the delivery has been over-rehearsed because the gestures and even the tone of the voice no longer seem to flow out of their words; instead the words seem to mechanically follow the gestures or tone of voice. So as you practise, don’t choose a gesture that might go with the words, look for a gesture that naturally grows out of the words (– and a good tip here is to use words that imply movement, emotion, size or change of state).
Choose your words
Maybe a more correct way of expressing that is to say:
‘Let your words choose themselves’
As you vocalise your speech on a regular basis, you will become aware of sets of words or phrases that sound more natural to say, which in turn makes them easier to deliver and easier to remember.
Harrison Ford said of the Star Wars scripts that often they were given lines that were the sort of thing that someone might write, but no one would ever say. Consequently, they were very hard to internalise and then deliver.
There is one line in Mark Bezos’ TED talk that I love to analyse
‘in our town where the volunteers supplement a highly skilled career staff’
This is a great line to analyse because it says so much about how he planned and prepared.
The way he delivers the line flows nicely and sounds very natural, as does his whole presentation.
However, look at the words!
The is no way that someone would come up with a line like that ‘on the fly’
Maybe you would start with:
’in our town where the volunteers volunteer to help the much better trained full-time professional fire-fighters’
but that – although nearer to the sort of language we would use spontaneously is a bit of a mess and so the line is refined and rehearsed until the best words are found or reveal themselves until he can say them in a way that sounds closer to natural spoken language, while still maintaining the neatness and efficiency of expression.
My guess would be, he ‘vocalised’ his presentation until ‘supplement a highly skilled career staff’ took shape.
He decided it sounded good and then retained it as his chosen set of words for that stage of the presentation and then if he chose to rehearse in front of the mirror he would have realised that the best word to focus on for a supportive gesture was ‘highly’ as it allowed him to express an element of degree and emphasis, which he could then further support with his voice.
Your notes are there to support you.
If you vocalise your presentation regularly, you might find that you only need a few headings to keep on track or maybe you realise that you don’t need any notes at all!
However, you may still want your notes as a comfort blanket, even if you do not intend to look at them.
If they act like a lucky charm and not having them will make you anxious, then please keep them.
I have seen many presentations where the speaker has decided not to come out with any notes because he or she thinks that looks very impressive and the subsequent presentation, although it went well, feels like a tightrope act where the speaker could fall off at any moment.
Therefore the only real tip for notes is, like a pair of trousers, choose either to have them on or off, not halfway in between!
If you feel OK going on stage with no trousers on – feel free!
If you are not sure, create notes that are as simple or as precise as you feel you need to perform well.
Make the print big enough and the layout clear enough that you can use them easily- and then make that part of your vocalising or rehearsal regime.
A presentation or a speech will never be perfect. That is not in the nature of communication.
But once you have taken the steps above, the more you can walk through or vocalise your presentation, the more comfortable it will be to deliver, the more confident you will appear and feel and therefore the more impact your words will have on your audience.
And that only comes if you practise regularly!