By Marcus Grodentz, Toastmasters International
I was sitting in my office overlooking the Docks in Gloucester in the UK. It was winter and freezing cold. The water in the docks was frozen and the seagulls were skating across the ice. My telephone rang. The voice at the other end of the phone was breathless and sounded in a panic.
“Marcus,” he said. “I need your help – we have to save a life.”
That was my introduction to Snowy the chicken and the start of a nine-month publicity campaign.
If you are giving a talk you need to immediately capture the attention of your audience. You want to grip them, arouse their interest, and get them involved from the very start. I could have started the above talk by explaining that I was working as the Head of Public Relations for Gloucester City Council and that I was going to give them a talk about how to run a publicity campaign and keep it going for nine months.
Image: Yay Images
I could have explained the background of the campaign and what led up to that telephone call.
That is your standard approach. Starting at the beginning and laboriously working your way through your ‘story.’
Public speaking is an art and like lots of arts, it is made up of a number of supporting skills sets. These are what I consider to be my top nine tips for improving your public speaking.
1. Don’t rush in
If you are giving a talk whether in person or online don’t jump straight in. Wait. Wait until your audience is settled. Wait until they are all looking at you and then and only then start talking.
2. Construct your talk with care
Any TV or film drama you watch starts with a cliffhanger of some sort. It can last several minutes. Only then do the titles roll. Start your talk with something dramatic. Grab attention. Get your audience engaged. Then take your audience on a journey that arrives somewhere. You need to make sure that your ending has some relationship to where you started. Complete the circle. Leave your audience feeling complete.
3. Begin with the end in mind
It is an old adage but nevertheless true. What sort of talk are you giving? What do you want it to achieve?
4. Understand your audience members
Who is going to listen to your speech? That is important because to some extent that dictates the type of language you use. Many speakers use technical terms or acronyms unfamiliar to their listeners. That means that you lose them. They are too busy figuring out the technical stuff to keep listening to what you have to say.
5. Leverage your language
The language you use is important. You have the whole lexicon of the English language to help illustrate and describe your story. For example, there is a world of difference between ‘taking an opportunity’ and ‘grasping an opportunity.’
6. Vary your voice
Vocal variety is another key element. How many talkers go through their entire story at the same pitch. It becomes monotonous, even tedious. Varying the pace of your story and the pitch of your voice is another weapon in your arsenal of techniques.
If you have something dramatic to say you might want to speed up and perhaps raise your tone. If you have something sensitive, you can slow down and lower your tone. And, if you have some important information to share then take a pause.
Allow your audience time to absorb and digest it. Pausing is also a great way to cut down on the number of times you say Um and Ah.
7. Don’t use slides to hide
One of my pet hates is the use of PowerPoint as it is almost always unnecessary. Speakers use it as a prop to hide behind. Death by PowerPoint is the hallmark of a poor speaker in my opinion.
Visual props are good but only if they are an integral part of your talk. If you are a speaker then you want your audience to look and concentrate on you. That is the whole point of being a speaker.
8. Use movement
Incorporating body language into your talk raises it to another dimension. If we were meeting in person, we would never dream of giving a talk sitting down. With covid and lockdown restrictions we now meet often on Zoom. Because we are on Zoom it is apparently OK to give talks sitting down. I am from the school which says if you are a speaker you stand. It actually isn’t that difficult to rearrange your desk and camera angles to enable you to do that. It just takes a little effort. Sitting down with your face filling the screen robs you of the ability to use your body and to take advantage of your screen stage. What you do get is the occasional disembodied hand.
If you are unable to stand for any reason, then you can move your chair further back from the camera so that the audience can see more of you and that again enables you to take advantage of using body language to engage with your audience.
9. Make time for rehearsal
It is essential to practice your talk – and to time it. You need to know what you want to say and how long it will take you to say it.
By working on just some of these aspects and skills, your talks can be raised to a whole new level. It will elevate you from being just a common or garden talker to a consummate, articulate, and engaging speaker.
I cannot leave this piece without another mention of Snowy the chicken.
Snowy was hatched in a Rare Breed Centre during a snowstorm and was the only one of his clutch to survive.
The call to me as the City Council’s PR Chief was to launch a media appeal for a donation of other chicks that he could ‘huddle’ with to help him survive. They were received and he became such a media celebrity that we used him in a whole variety of ways to promote the council and its services. He had a happy career and went into retirement at the center.
Snowy is now one of the regular talks I give. It isn’t just about saving a chicken. It is about how you can take one story and approach it from a different angle to keep it alive and fresh.
As a speaker, you need to be authentic and passionate about your subject. Approaching it from a variety of different angles is a personal reminder of the myriad of different reasons you have for loving what you do or what you are speaking about. And most importantly your audience will love listening to you as well.
Marcus Grodentz is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organization 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 program to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit Toastmasters International.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog post or content are those of the authors or the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer, or company.