Public Speaking

Speaking in public on behalf of an organisation can take place in a number of situations. This might include:

  • giving a speech to a large group of people external to the organisation
  • giving a briefing about future thinking to people who are part of the organisation
  • giving a phone interview to a blogger, journalist from a magazine or a radio station
  • giving a television studio interview

Research suggests that very few individuals like speaking in public settings, but leaders in particular are faced with having to do it more often than ever. In such circumstances the more a person prepares and practises, the less stressful the experience will be.

One quick and easy way to start to prepare and get better at presenting in public is to record your efforts and to carefully analyse what you see and hear. Most of us are completely unaware of just how we come across to others, and recording the experience can give you invaluable feedback on your performance. A common finding for many is that a speech can sound monotonous when it is played back. It is therefore important to ensure that there is clear enunciation and some variety in your voice. What can sound low-key to a few like-minded peers can sound dull and boring in a public speaking situation.

In all public speeches time is often constrained (sometimes to just a few minutes or even seconds if it is a media interview for example) and there is consequently a great need to get your message across without waffle or too much technical detail. Broadcast journalists sometimes speak of “grabs” – short, succinct phrases that an editor can “grab” or easily identify and select from an interview recording. So, in essence, good speeches give good grabs. Bad speeches drone on, often pacing themselves as if the person has all the time in the world.

A good grab is characterized by:

  • short sentences
  • fairly short and commonly used words
  • colourful, imaginative language, including perhaps an analogy or metaphor or figure of speech or humour
  • personal perspectives
  • expressions which help to summarise a complex situation
  • variety of pitch and tone

Anyone involved in public speaking needs to realise that, even in an extended interview situation, you will not have time to get across all of the points you want to get across. A speaker therefore should quickly reconcile him or herself to the brutal reality that, in an interview lasting a few minutes, you will be fortunate to get three brief major points across, especially if they require considerable technical explanation. In other words, in media interviews in particular, if you don’t learn to edit yourself, then you will end up being so severely edited that you may not recognize your speech when others quote it back to you. This is why preparation is all important.

In general networking and relationship-building we are often encouraged to prepare what is called an “elevator speech.” An elevator speech is a single sentence or most a short paragraph which (at least in theory) you could trot-out when you are in an elevator with another person who asks you who you are and what you do. Of course, in a short elevator ride you will only have that person as a captive audience for thirty seconds at the most (and probably more like fifteen). Elevator speeches are very similar to speaking in grabs (or making one pithy major point at a time) and we can therefore use it to develop the few points we want to get across in a speech – whether it is just a one-minute interview or a fifteen minute presentation.

Another way to prepare to make a public speech of any kind is to determine what you absolutely must say, what you would like to say (if there is time), and what can be said additionally (if there is time but also by giving an audience a hand-out for example). But don’t forget that in the final analysis, this is always a priority-setting exercise. You rarely get the chance to get all of the information you would ideally like to share in a 30-minute presentation, let alone a fifteen-second grab. An individual therefore needs to know what his or her first priority is or his/her one, two or three “must-says”.

Don’t forget that any public speaking will only work with as much preparation and practise as you can do – even if you have to do it in the mirror until you have to do it for real.

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