Ripley’s “Believe it or not!” documents the case of a dumb rabble-rouser in British-ruled India who had such stage presence that he could whip up crowd fury in minutes, simply using sign language! Not all of us are blessed with such a gift, nor, perhaps, do we wish to wield such power. However, it does pay to be a good presenter or public speaker, especially as one mounts the corporate ladder.
As one climbs higher in an organization, the demands to speak in public become more numerous and more crucial. From simple welcome speeches at induction programmes for new employees or management trainees to more complex sales presentations to speeches made at public forums, the manager is almost constantly being asked to stand up in front of a crowd of people and say something, hopefully something that makes sense and preferably something that inspires.
In the course of my career, I have had occasion to observe several speakers. Some speakers I have seen have had the power to sway crowds, turning a hostile mob into a group of sensible adults willing to consider another’s point of view. Other speakers have turned a simple welcome speech into a major shambles, making themselves the cause of merriment of staff for weeks afterwards.
What goes into making a good speech? What is it that a good speaker does that keeps the audience on his side? The purpose of this article is to find out what it is that these speakers do right, that helps them keep their audiences in the palm of their hand.
Tools of the trade:
Most good speakers have spent time and effort developing the tools of effective public speaking. Among these tools are:
Voice: Most effective speakers have good voices. Their accents are clear and easy to understand. This does not mean that they do not have regional accents. It simply means that they have taken the time and the effort to slow down their speech, making it that much easier for their audience to understand. Effective speakers are also loud enough to be heard right up to the last row in the audience. A notable exception to this is V. K. Nulkar, ex-Principal of Ness Wadia College, Pune. Nulkar always spoke softly, but with such conviction, that everyone in the audience maintained pin-drop silence, making him one of the most effective speakers I have seen. Incidentally, Nulkar made no attempt to shed his regional accent, yet is remembered by all Ness Wadians as an excellent speaker.
Expression: Good speakers are alive! They speak with conviction, conveying their belief in what they are saying to the audience. Some speakers do this through gestures, others through their facial expressions, still others through enthusiastic and expressive voices. The most effective speakers are those who use a judicious mix of these, carrying their audiences with them.
Confidence: Good speakers are confident. Audiences are quick to sense unease or trepidation in a speaker, and appear to interpret this as a sign that he is not telling them the truth. No one listens to a speaker who appears unsure about what he is saying. That is not to say that good speakers do not hesitate, or mentally search for the right word – they do. Yet their hesitation is forgiven, even appreciated by their audience. The audience may like their home-grown approach, as long as they come across as confident in the content of what they are saying.
Content: The audience may forgive a speaker who doesn’t have a good voice. It may forgive someone whose speech sometimes lacks expression. But it will never ever forgive a speaker who is unprepared. This is especially true of corporate audiences, who expect that their time be respected. To waste the time of an audience with half-truths, unsubstantiated statements and empty words is a highly criminal act. And be warned: that audience will never trust the speaker or the company he represents – again.
A good speaker has all his facts right, has organised them well, and has practised delivering them – several times. There is no such thing as a truly extempore speech. Those who speak excellently extempore are generally those who have spent a major part of their lives practising, until they have a vast repertoire of facts, figures and stories to hang their speeches on to. All good speakers agree that the more they practise, the better they become. And all speakers, including the best, admit that they have made mistakes. But they have pressed on regardless, learning as they went along, making a conscious effort to do better each time.
Style: All good speakers have a style that is uniquely theirs. Some use humour, others are serious, but all, without exception, are recognisable by their own way of speaking. They admit that they have drawn inspiration from others, but they put in the time and the effort to develop their own approach, melding different styles and moulding them to their own way of speaking. Very rarely can a person who is habitually serious tell a rib-tickling story when he faces an audience. If a speaker’s friends don’t enjoy his jokes, it is highly unlikely that his audience will.
What good speakers avoid:
Good speakers, in addition to developing good speaking habits, also avoid bad ones. Some of the things good speakers never do are:
Read their speeches: Good speakers never read their speeches. They may keep their speeches or notes with them, but they always give the impression of speaking from the heart. When a speaker reads his speech, he gives the impression that he is not prepared, and worse, that someone else has prepared his speech for him. There have been numerous cases of speakers who doggedly ploughed through their speeches, reading them throughout, only to look up at the end of their speech and realise that they have lost their audience, sometimes physically. Those who read out their speeches also risk making mistakes, as in the classic case of the pastor who began a gospel reading with, “…And Adam said…” and, realising that the next page was missing, nervously told his congregation, “My God! The leaf’s missing!”
Fail to maintain eye contact: All good speakers maintain eye contact with their audience, without staring. A lack of eye contact signals nervousness and may be interpreted as a sign of deceit.
Fail to respond to the moment: It is true that audiences come to listen to speakers. It is also true that audiences have a life apart from the speech. In other words, speakers who realise that their audience is getting restive either enliven their speech or cut it short, preferably both. Being responsive goes beyond being sensitive to the audience’s time, however. Good speakers are flexible enough to respond to the moment. The unexpected does happen. The PA system may fail. Or the fans may stop working. Or some smart aleck may try to heckle the speaker. There are literally a hundred things that could go wrong. Audiences appreciate speakers who don’t lose their head and respond appropriately to the exigencies of the moment.
The common thread running through all examples of good speakers is experience. Good speakers do not simply stand up and make a good speech the first time. As in most skill related activities, experience counts. But good speakers do not wait for the right opportunity to be presented to them. Most good speakers started off small. When an induction programme ended, they were the ones who took the opportunity to stand up and thank the HR people. When someone made a presentation, they were the ones who raised their hand and asked the question everyone wanted to ask but was afraid. George Bernard Shaw is credited with once saying that he learned to speak in public the way a child learns to ride a bicycle or a man learns to skate; by constantly making a fool of himself in public until he got it right.
If GBS could make a fool of himself, who are we to hesitate?
Craig is the founder of LifeGuider, he is dedicated to improving not only himself but also others in being more physically fit and mentally capable of handling life’s challenges. He is not your regular life coach, no fancy clothes or fast cars, just a regular “Ole Joe” who has experienced the ups and downs of life like everyone else.
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