How to be an effective public speaker

Many people – even acknowledged high performers – are terrified of public speaking. But by mastering a few simple techniques, anyone can learn to become an effective and polished speaker.

A managing director shortlisted for an award recently confessed to me his desire not to win; he was so scared of having to make a speech that he would rather someone else took the accolade. Such is the power of the fear of public speaking.

If you share these fears, don’t despair. As someone who turned down the opportunity to become a school prefect in order to avoid having to read in assembly, I sympathise. But recently listed in the ‘100 Best Business Speakers in Britain’, I know that anyone can become an inspiring speaker if they are willing to learn some key techniques and put in the practice.

First you need to understand that the spoken word is very different from the written word. You might start out drafting a speech, but you must then ‘translate’ it into real speech. In my experience, the order of words when spoken is often different from a written equivalent.

Preparing for public speaking therefore requires some hard work. I always follow the same key steps. First I write out a basic draft. Then I rewrite it, perhaps ending up with two or three versions before translating the best one into a ‘spoken word’ version. The next step is to actually start speaking it, changing the text again as necessary. Finally I record myself making the speech, so that I can play the tape back over and over again to memorise it.

This is no overnight task, but it’s worth the effort. You don’t necessarily need to memorise the whole speech, but the better you know it the more likely you are to speak fluently. It does help, however, if you really do know the first two minutes by heart. In this way you get yourself off to the best possible start. Comedians know that if their first couple of jokes go well, they’re on a roll. Similarly, I know that if my first two minutes are word perfect, the rest of the talk will flow too. There’s no better confidence booster.

In terms of content, there are some handy tricks you can apply to keep your audience interested and help them remember what you say. For example, alliteration can be useful. When talking about the spread of email, I might say: ‘We spend two hours a day

Receiving, Reading and Responding to emails.’ The repetition of the letter ‘R’ makes a powerful impact on the listener. Similarly, use of rhyming words also enlivens speech. When talking about team-building, I might ask whether the audience members really understand their people: ‘What makes them sad, mad and glad?’ Contrasting images and words can also be effective, as in this statement: ‘Soft skills are the hard stuff of business.’ And don’t underestimate the power of the pause   –   it can really help to get an important point across.

When preparing your content, think carefully about your audience – what level of knowledge they have, and what they are hoping to gain from listening to you. Identify three key messages you want to get across, rather than aiming to cover every possible relevant fact or issue. Try to be passionate and enthusiastic – there’s no better way to get people on your side. Think carefully about your use of audio visual material. PowerPoint may seem like a useful tool, but it can kill your speech. Too often people try to cram excessive amounts of information onto a slide, sometimes even admitting they don’t expect the audience to be able to read it. It’s far better to use your slides merely to highlight key messages or phrases. And keep the numbers down. For an hour’s talk 10 or 11 slides are quite enough.

Great speeches and presentations can change the course of history. Sebastian Coe’s speech to the International Olympic Committee is thought to have clinched the 2012 Olympics for London. David Davis, initially favourite to win the leadership of the Conservative party, saw his chances fatally damaged when his poor speech was compared unfavourably to the sparkling performance of unknown challenger David Cameron.

Public speaking is an art, but one that can be learnt. Don’t limit your opportunities by giving in to your fears. Prepare, practice and put yourself in the limelight. If you’ve done the right preparation, you can be confident of making a good impression on the public speaking stage.

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