Everyone has probably encountered the influence of a tedious speech as a listener: how time seems to stretch, attention gets distracted, and thoughts start to wander. On the other hand, most of us are familiar with the pressure that arises when we find ourselves in the spotlight – how anxiety takes over and our body as well as mind start playing tricks on us. The fear of public speaking is a widespread phenomenon that affects about 75% of people. By the way, this fear is most effectively fueled by avoiding public speaking situations and amplifying negative experiences in our minds.
But wait, perhaps some people are simply born speakers, while for most, the art of public speaking never seems to emerge? No. Let’s debunk this myth. Engaging speaking is achievable for everyone. All you need is to learn a few techniques, manage excessive tension, and practice with passion and enthusiasm.
Tip #1 – Start preparing your speech from the end: what do you want your listeners to take away from your talk?
One of the most common mistakes, which I’ve personally stumbled upon, is cramming too much information into a presentation. Attention is a limited resource. Overload of information hampers understanding and acts as noise, so reducing attention capacity. Instead, before you begin speaking, make sure to concentrate on the essence of your message, the takeaways you wish to communicate to the audience. One clear point sticks more strongly than many fragments. Your listeners will appreciate it for sure. The same principle is helpful both in preparing the speech and during the presentation, as it helps maintain focus and avoid irrelevant digressions. If you have a strong core surrounded by relevant supporting evidence, you can effortlessly deliver even the most spontaneous speech, and the listeners will be captivated.
Tip #2 – Guide the audience through the story
Stories awaken the human brain and facilitate information processing. Listening to a story activates multiple areas of the brain, making us feel as if we are experiencing the events ourselves and experiencing empathy. Emotional engagement ensures that the information is stored in memory. But what makes a story a story? Just like a captivating play, novel, or film, a good speech works in the same way: you set the scene (“On a rainy Saturday, as we set out with friends…”), guide the listeners through twists and turns (“And then we were hit by…”), and reach the destination (“I now know what true friendship means”). A story is a natural and powerful tool that stimulates the listener’s brain to create connections and acquire information.
Tip #3 – Set and maintain connection with the audience
Just as in everyday communication, the key to delivering a speech is building a relationship with the listeners. No matter how engaging the story may be, it remains distant if the audience doesn’t feel that you are genuinely speaking to them. Make generous eye contact with all – if direct eye contact is uncomfortable, focus your gaze on people’s foreheads. Another tip for effective communication is to encourage the audience to think along, answer questions, and ask them. By doing so, you transform the monologue into a dialogue, which boosts involvement and the feeling of being valued.
Tip #4 – Align your words and body language
According to grand old psychologist Albert Mehrabian, the impact of a speech primarily depends on how it is delivered, and how consistent are words with speaker’s tone of voice and body language. Confident open posture, free gestures, eye contact, a calm speaking pace, clear voice, and well-placed pauses create a powerful foundation through which the message can be effectively conveyed. It is known that people are primarily convinced by the harmony between verbal and non-verbal signals. So, if a serious message is delivered with rapid speech and a broad smile, listeners instinctively perceive an unsettling contradiction – something seems awry in the context. The mismatch between words and physical reactions is often due to the speaker’s subconscious attempt to alleviate their anxiety. For instance, a typical defence mechanism is hiding, manifested by standing behind a table or lectern when it is not necessary, keeping hands locked, avoiding eye contact, focusing on slides instead of engaging with the audience etc. Another automatic response is self-comforting, which can be observed through pacing back and forth on stage, using non-verbal fillers, engaging in repetitive movements like clicking a pen, touching hair, fidgeting with hands, speaking hurriedly, and eliminating pauses.
To truly feel more at ease, it is beneficial to release excessive adrenaline from the body beforehand. Just take a few minutes for personal focusing and calm deep breathing immediately before stepping on the stage. Great power also lies in mental attunement – public speaking is a gift, not a battle.
Tip #5 – Let your tools support your speech, not the other way around
While talking points on paper and/or slides are valuable aids in public speaking, I have also experienced the opposite effect. Delivering text word-for-word from a script might make it challenging to maintain a sense of naturalness and can hinder audience engagement. I suggest rehearsing and committing only the opening and closing sentences to memory while keeping in mind the key points that lead to the main message. Ideally, there should be no more than 3-5 key points.
If you use slides, display one unit of information at a time on the screen and not before you have discussed it. Visuals that support your speech work well. Avoid text-heavy slides and information-packed graphics that compete with your speech. People are unable to divide their attention between two sources of information simultaneously. One or the other will be lost. So, as with many other things in life, less is more.
And most importantly – mastery can only be achieved through practice. I have not encountered any super speakers who were born with that ability. However, I do know quite a few people who have become truly outstanding performers by consistently challenging themselves, cultivating curiosity, and continuously developing their skills.
Author: Eva-Maria Kangro, Partner & Leadership Coach at Miltton New Nordics
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