Improved Public Speaking: 5 Good Habits for the New Year
Among your New Year's resolutions, why not include a few concerning improved public speaking? Your communication skills will help drive your success as much in the coming year as they did in the year you're leaving behind. (To speak with greater influence and impact, download my free cheat sheet, "4 Characteristics of an Influential Speaker.")
Here are 5 new habits that can make you a more dynamic and effective communicator next year, and for each year afterwards:
Change Your Perspective. You can benefit in two ways from changing your viewpoint about public speaking. First, remind yourself that the speech or presentation you're about to give probably isn't as important as you think it is. In the grand scheme of your life, one speaking appearance really doesn't matter very much. Few people's jobs or careers ever hinged on a single presentation, and it's helpful to remind yourself of that fact.
Second, a changed perspective concerning your relationship with your audience can make you a more confident and successful speaker. This is especially true if you suffer from fear or public speaking, but this isn't advice that's only applicable in such a case.
Self-consciousness and the bright spotlight of public performance can make you occupy center stage in your awareness. But it's your audience that deserves that position. By making the audience the center of everything as you conceive and deliver your presentation, youll be much more likely to achieve your purpose of positively influencing listeners. Learn how to conduct an audience analysis to help you do so. And at the same time, you'll lift an enormous burden off your own shoulders.
Think Visually. You live in a visual age unlike any previous era, and that certainly isn't going to change with the arrival of the New Year. Audience members—viewers—have been trained by television, the Internet, and constantly intrusive advertising to expect important information to be delivered visually. Some would argue that your listeners now think much more visually than in the past. Here's more on how audiences think and respond visually.
As a presenter, you must respond to this state of affairs by both incorporating visuals into your presentations and by speaking visually. Remember three things, then: (1) Your most important visual is yourself—and you must dress, groom, and hold yourself accordingly. (2) Audiences will expect a visual component of your message, and you must think in terms of satisfying that expectation. (3) By "painting word pictures" in your listeners' minds, i.e., by speaking visually, you'll be tapping into your audience's visual mind set. Images that audiences see in their mind's eye also carry powerful emotional components that will increase their reception and retention of your message.
Consider two versions of a famous speech:
“Our enemies will discover what it means to attack a democracy. We are united in our resolve, and nothing will deter us from protecting our nation. However difficult the times ahead may be, we shall prevail until the end. Let us vow that we will learn from our mistakes, and make ourselves stronger. Since we will be defending our homes and our families, we will be able to draw upon strengths yet undiscovered. Wherever and whenever we meet our enemy, we shall triumph. Our cause is just and our might is unequaled. Let us now meet this challenge.”
“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France. We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”
The first version is my consciously rhetorical version of the speech. The second is what Winston Churchill actually said concerning the Nazi threat to Great Britain during World War II, filled with powerful visual imagery.
Get Your Body into the Act. Among the sins you may make as a speaker is to focus on the delivery of information, to the exclusion of everything else in your presentations. Content is king—or so most of us believe. But the truth is that audiences are responding to a deep reservoir of influence when you present that we call nonverbal communication.
You are not a brain broadcasting data to audiences through the ether—you are a body performing in space, usually right in front of your listeners. By learning the 5 key body language techniques of public speaking, you'll demonstrate that powerfully. In other words, what you show your audiences matters. How you hold yourself tells an audience how you feel about yourself; and confidence looks very different from nervousness. Both of those attributes contribute to your credibility, along with the other ways you display who and what you are to listeners.
More than all of this, your body is an excellent and indispensible tool of communication. Find ways, experiment, with using space effectively, moving with purpose when you speak, and combining gestures with the points you're making. Occupy a different place in your performance space for each talking point. Approach a questioner or your PowerPoint screen at appropriate moments. And make your gestures clean and spare, amplifying what you're saying by the power of that singular movement.
Serve Up Bite-Sized Pieces of Information. Another "information error" frequently made is to deliver one's entire content without breaking up the data sufficiently. An audience's attention wavers easily, and a 30-minute presentation (before Q & A) is in danger of delivering information too relentlessly for listeners to retain much of it, or even make sense of it.
Explore ways instead of breaking up your information into smaller pieces that your listeners can accept, process, and be infiuenced by. Do this both in terms of organization and delivery. Find the natural breaks in your content, and include internal summaries (of what you just spoke about), internal previews (what you're about to include), and transitions to lead from one to the other: "Now that we've looked at the severe drought conditions in the Horn of Africa during the last two decades, let's examine how food shortages have affected negative population growth in the area."
Now practice pacing your presentation and including pauses to allow your audience to "take a mental breath" and be ready for the next segment. Give them a bite-sized piece at a time, so they can chew it and digest it before the next portion comes their way. There's a reason that a food metaphor is effective in explaining all of this.
Be Conversational. For centuries, as far as we know, public speaking was highly rhetorical, with standard postures, fingers waving in the air, and codified vocal effects. No more. In fact, speaking styles continue to become more informal at a rapid pace, as anyone listening to today's public figures compared with a recording of John F. Kennedy can tell immediately.
The key difference is in how conversational today's speaking is compared with the past. You probably recognize this and understand how you should sound when speaking publicly. But self-consciousness and anxiety intrude; and you can easily slip into a too-formal mode of speaking. Speeches with a capital "S" and presentations with a capital "P" can keep you off your game by making you sound unlike who you really are. The more you can sound like yourself, the greater your success with audiences will be. Here are 4 easy ways to become a more charismatic speaker.
So work toward the standard of conversationality, even in your most formal presentations. Speak like a Colin Powell, who probably sounds no different across the table from speaking to an audience of 5,000. Here is a tool to help you do so: Imagine that, even in front of large audiences, you're talking to someone close to you whose opinion you care about concerning your authenticity. Your voice and your mannerisms will take on the color of the "you" who wants to succeed in that person's eyes.
Your audience will respond with engagement, interest, and trust. And that sounds like the beginning of a very good year for you as a speaker!
Key takeaways from this blog:
- One talk isn't that important, and neither are you compared with your audience.
- You must not only show visuals but speak visually to move listeners.
- Your body is an important tool of oral communication. Learn how to use it!
- Learn to "break up" your content into bite-sized, digestible pieces.
- The more conversational you sound, the more audiences will trust you.
Need some inspiration for an upcoming talk? Reach for Dr. Gary Genard's groundbreaking book on better presentations: How to Give a Speech. This concise guide features 75 quick lessons for more dynamic and influential performances. Whether you present weekly or occasionally, this 158-page paperback is your portable speech coach. Use it to "charge your battery" and hone your skills for more dynamic appearances!
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