Public speaking (Part 2): Inform

Somewhere between the start and the end of my teenage years, I went from being terrified at the thought of public speaking to relishing it. I’m not sure when my attitude changed – or why. But, by the end of my first term at university, I had spoken at least twice at the Oxford Union Debating Society and really enjoyed the experience – both times!  

At that age, I was mostly focussing on the information content of my speech. All I knew at that early stage was that, if my opening remarks had succeeded in engaging the audience’s attention, the speech itself needed to meet the expectations I had created. It would be a while before I realised I needed to spend time thinking about the manner of my delivery.

Knowing what your goal is

Sometimes the primary objective of a presentation is to inform the audience about a topic. Sometimes I’m there to instruct them. Sometimes my goal is entertainment. Knowing which type of speech I am aiming for (information, instruction, entertainment etc) helps me to determine the structure that will give me the best chance to capture the audience’s attention – see Finding More Tools in the Box.

Experience also taught me that some presentations are inherently easier to devise than others. A funny speech will hold the audience’s attention more easily than a serious one (so long as the material genuinely is funny). And, for a different reason, when speaking in a debate, it is easier to hold an audience than when delivering an uncontested talk. The conflict between the two sides of a debate creates excitement of its own. In effect, my opponents are doing some of the work for me. So it helps to have good opponents! 

The presentations which pose the greatest challenge are often those given in a work context. One reason is that the audience members don’t always want to be there! It may be part of their work obligations that they are required to be in attendance.

At a multi-speaker event, the audience may have chosen to attend because they want to hear someone else on the list. Many are the times that I have found myself sitting through speakers I am bored by, simply because they are followed by someone worth waiting for. That’s why, when I’m going to be one of several speakers, I try to remember that I may be addressing someone else’s audience, rather than my own. I make it my goal to do everything possible to ensure that, by the time I have finished my presentation, as many as possible of the attendees want to be part of my audience in future.

Another reason why presentations relating to work can be challenging to compose is that a topic we are working on ourselves almost always seems so much more interesting to us than it does to others – precisely because we have spent so much time working on it and getting to know all its nuances. So, unless your audience is known to share an interest in the subject already – perhaps because they work in the same field as you – it’s important not to forget that you may have to work hard to maintain the audience’s interest throughout your speech.

That is why it is so important to think about the audience. Who are they? Why are they there? What are they expecting from you (and what expectations have you created)? A speaker ignores those questions at their peril.

Having a theme

The most effective speeches are built around a theme. The speech may go through different stages as a story is told, or an argument is developed or an objective is mapped out, but a strong speech stays loyal to a central theme from start to finish. If there isn’t a theme, you may struggle to hold the audience’s attention.

If you don’t know what your theme is before you start composing a speech, you should probably think about it before you go much further. What is the one single thought that you most want the audience to take away from your speech when it’s over? That is quite possibly your theme. It could be as simple as: he’s a great guy (for a best man speech or the leaving party for a colleague). It could be as complex as: freedom of speech needs to be reigned-in in the age of the internet.1Or the opposite: freedom of speech is more important than ever in the age of the internet. I’m not taking sides, here. Or it may be a subtle undercurrent running through a speech – perhaps a thought (or an emotion) you want to place in your audience’s mind without ever saying it explicitly.

If you’re not sure what your theme is, or what it should be, ask yourself why you are giving the speech (or why you were asked to give it). That should help you identify a theme.  

Once you have the theme, everything should relate to it in some way. Don’t wander off at a tangent, just because you have remembered a great story you want to include. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon a humdinger of story because it’s not obviously on point: find a way to link the story back to your theme and use that link to build the story in.

The same goes for those parts of a speech that look like the opposite of your theme. Take the best man speech as an example. It’s expected that there will be some stories – hopefully, very funny stories – of mistakes the groom has made along the way. The theme, “he’s a great guy”, doesn’t mean that he is perfect. It would probably be a dull marriage if he was flawless – and certainly a very dull speech if it makes him look like he is. And, of course, a mistake can also be used to highlight a positive trait (“He may have been top of our class every year in school, but he also asked some of the dumbest questions you ever heard. My favourite was when he asked …”)

Easily made mistakes

Successful public speaking usually comes from doing things right. That’s why the majority of this page (and, indeed, this website) is focussed on the positive. But there are a couple of mistakes I have seen all too often and which deserve special mention so that you can avoid them.

1) The audience has bought, but the speaker is still selling

Instead of enlightening their audience – and delighting them – with whatever they have come to say, too many speakers make the mistake of trying to “sell” themselves to the people who are already sitting in front of them. They keep the audience waiting for the real substance whilst they recite their credentials at the start of the talk. I think this tendency comes from a lack of confidence: speakers often think the audience will pay more attention if the speaker bigs themselves up. But the way to convince an audience that your presentation will be interesting is to say things that are interesting, rather than offering reasons why the talk is going to be interesting once you get properly into it.

And the best way to convince the audience that you know what you are talking about is to talk knowledgeably, rather than listing your qualifications for giving the talk. The time to advertise your experience is in the information the audience sees before you speak, for example in any sales material which might influence who attends the presentation.

If you want to mention parts of your career history that you didn’t get the chance to publicise in advance, you can always drop them into the talk, one at a time, as you go along. Take this website as an example. Quite a number of the pages contain pieces of information from my career which are designed to reassure you that I am writing about topics that I have put into practice in a credible way. Each of those career titbits forms part of the exposition, rather than occupying paragraphs at the start of a page.

In Public Speaking (Part 1), one of my examples incorporated a passing reference to the fact that I taught communication skills at business school. Strictly speaking, that’s only half-true: I have taught the subject at a couple of business schools (see what I did there?). And, at the end of the page, I offered examples of presentation openings which I described to you in ways which included references to the sort of audiences I have given presentations to.2I mustn’t overstate things: I haven’t addressed the United Nations or done the opening monologue at the Oscars. If you are preparing a speech for either of those venues – or perhaps both? – you’re OK to keep reading, but it would do no harm if you referred to Billy Crystal or Barack Obama for some additional tips

2) A joke that says “I’m not funny”

The worst experience I have ever seen a speaker endure was a joke that went bad – horribly, horribly bad. The speaker was a colleague of mine, giving an after-dinner speech at a major business event in front of 600 people, very few of whom actually knew him. They didn’t know he was an accomplished speaker with (usually) a strong command of his material and a powerful delivery. They didn’t know that, over the next 15 minutes, he would enrapture them with fascinating insights. I knew that because I had been shown a draft and asked for my comments. I had said it was a great speech, but he needed to cut the opening joke.

That’s what I knew. But the only thing the audience knew, 15 seconds in, was that the speaker had just told them he was a mathematician and he had a “numerical joke” to tell them. I could foresee with absolute certainty that the joke would never work. What I had not foreseen was the extent of the adverse reaction. The audible groan, before the joke had even started, was not a good sign. But it would have been bearable if a groan was all it had been. Never before, or since, have I seen a speaker in a formal setting lose an audience so quickly or so spectacularly as on this occasion. Around the vast dining room, 300 men in dinner jackets and 300 women in ball gowns started talking amongst themselves whilst, at the font of the room, the speaker was attempting to use the power of the microphone to overcome them – and failing hopelessly.

It took time – it must have been nearly thirty seconds, during which time the speaker carried on with his joke – before the audience stopped their chatter and started listening to him. The speaker won the audience back. But it took guts and determination to hold out through the babble and the disrespect. The joke should never have been attempted with this audience.  

Of course, humour can help to build the audience’s rapport with a speaker. But the humour needs to convey to the audience “I’m on your side – I want you to have fun whilst I’m speaking.” There are very few audiences for whom a mathematician telling a joke about numbers sends out that message. Often all it needs is a humorous aside, rather than an out-and-out joke with a punchline. If I’m not feeling confident that the audience will see the line as funny, I don’t make it obvious that I’m hoping for a laugh. If the audience doesn’t laugh, no one (except me) need be any the wiser that it was intended to be funny.

Nailing the delivery

I think we all know, from sitting in an audience, that the manner in which a speech is delivered can have a real impact on our ability (or inability) to stay focussed on the speaker. A good delivery makes it easier for us to take in what we are being told. A really good delivery can even add to our enjoyment of the presentation. And, of course, it can go the other way. Good content can be undermined by a bad delivery.

I don’t think I have ever been instinctively good at delivery. I had a tendency to be too self-conscious. But, with training, I picked up some good habits and learned to eradicate some bad ones. And then it was just a matter of practice. Fortunately, I was given a lot of opportunities, fairly early in my career, to practice the same material (with a different audience each time), so I quickly learned what makes a positive difference.  

I learned to think about five aspects:

  • body
  • voice
  • speaker’s notes
  • visual aids
  • timing

Being physically comfortable when you speak is a simple point, but easily overlooked. Most speeches are given standing up, which helps to project one’s voice and appear authoritative. Take advantage of both those features. Stand comfortably. That probably means setting your feet slightly apart, so that you balance in a relaxing manner. If your body is tense, you won’t breathe naturally and your voice won’t flow freely.

If there’s space to move around, it’s OK do that, so long as you aren’t walking away from a fixed microphone. You might, for example, choose to move closer to the audience when making a key point. If walking takes you away from your speaking notes, make sure you don’t do that when you are going to need them!

If you are taking a question or a comment from the audience and they are speaking quietly, try to resist the temptation to move towards them. Instead, take a couple of steps back. The audience member will very likely raise their voice if they see you retreating. I went for years doing the opposite until a university lecturer from Harvard taught me that neat trick. If the questioner raises their voice, the whole audience benefits, not just you.

It’s natural to make hand gestures when speaking. It’s so natural that even blind people make hand gesture when speaking to other blind people. But be aware that if you do a lot of random hand-waving as you try to explain something difficult, it is a pretty strong giveaway that you know you aren’t explaining your point well. That’s why the term “hand-waving” is an idiomatic metaphor for something unconvincing or poorly explained (unless you’re giving a talk about jazz hands ()). If you find yourself waving your hands about inappropriately during a crucial part of your presentation, it’s a good idea to stop, take a deep breath and have a second go at the explanation. 

If yours is the only voice the audience hears, it needs to make an interesting sound, not a monotone. When giving a presentation, it’s a good idea to vary the tone of your voice slightly more than you normally would, add a little extra emphasis to key words and speak a shade more slowly than a normal speaking speed.

To see an example of what that looks like, just watch a standard news bulletin or this slightly tongue-in-cheek video () about it.3You can also read-up on newsreader-speak. If you haven’t given the matter any thought, you have probably never noticed, but newsreaders almost all do exactly that. For an actor’s depiction of a character making a powerful oratorical point in newsreader-speak and then the same character debating with a colleague in ordinary speech, watch this extract () from The Newsroom.

Your rhythm and intonation form part of the speech pattern known as prosody. It is especially important to maintain good prosody when reading from a pre-written script or else you’ll slip into reciting the words without giving any thought to them. It’s also very helpful to the audience if you pause (ever so slightly) between distinct thoughts so that the listener knows when one point has concluded and the next is starting. The pause is the auditory equivalent of a full stop or a paragraph break.

A big decision I have to make with each presentation is whether to work from a script or use notes – or speak off the cuff. Having a script allows me to hone the words and be precise about the timing. That can be important when speaking with a time limit. One organisation I was a member of for many years used to hold meetings where speakers from the floor would be allowed a strict limit of five minutes – and sometimes only three minutes – in which to make their argument. In a situation like that, you don’t want to lose your thread or miss out a point: there probably won’t be a chance to correct it later.

But preparing a script isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Speaking is different from writing and you need to frame the words differently. Look at the following sentence taken from a written report on the BBC website on the morning after the US Open women’s singles final in 2019:

Although the crowd was unsurprisingly backing Williams throughout inside an incredibly noisy [stadium], the manner in which Andreescu coped and reset after seeing her double break in the second set disappear was remarkable.

Now try reading it out loud. The 16 words placed in between “the manner” and “was remarkable” makes it very difficult to figure out how to vocalise the end of sentence. It’s by no means impossible, but it’s not a sentence you’d want to run into during a speech without any pre-planning. If it had been written for a newsreader, I’m sure that sentence would have been composed differently – like this, for example:

Unsurprisingly, the crowd inside the incredibly noisy stadium was backing Williams throughout the match. That made it all the more remarkable that Andreescu coped – and then reset herself – after seeing her double break in the second set disappear.

Here’s another example (from the Sunday Times) of something which was written to be read, although this time the problem is a different one:

This might seem a strange move for a celebrity whose status verges on national treasure, who has sold millions of cookbooks, and whose influence means that every time she makes roast potatoes on TV, we all trot out to buy goose fat so our spuds are as crispy as hers.

Although the sentence is on the long side, it’s very easy on the eye (which is what it was written for). But where would you catch your breath if you were going to include it in a spoken presentation? Try this subtle change:

This might seem a strange move for a celebrity whose status verges on national treasure. She has sold millions of cookbooks and her influence means that every time she makes roast potatoes on TV, we all trot out to buy goose fat so that our spuds are as crispy as hers.

The minor change from “who” to “she” (after “national treasure”) makes all the difference. The change alters that one syllable from the start of a sub-clause to the beginning of a new sentence – with a new breath and a change in emphasis.

The simple lesson I learned is that, when scripting a presentation, it is essential that I do a practice run, reading it out loud before settling on a final version. Any passages that are difficult to read out loud must be un-bundled into something my mouth and my lungs can easily cope with.

Using notes instead of a script normally forces one into a more natural speaking style. But some people fear that, if their notes don’t contain sufficient mental triggers, they might forget what comes … er … next. I’ve been there. It happened because I hadn’t thought through what I would say in amplification of one of my notes. I had just assumed that something suitable would occur to me when the time came. It’s an easy mistake to make because, most of the time, we converse fluently without needing any preparation. But addressing a silent audience is not the same as having a multi-person conversation.

I have learned that any time I use notes, I need to weigh-up the content and the detail that I put into my notes according to how well I know the material I am planning to speak about and also how much it matters to me that I will remember to include specific points. If I know the material so well that I could speak off-the-cuff, my notes might be no more than a few sparse reminders so that I stick to the intended topics.

On a couple of occasions when the speech was really important to me, I went to the opposite extreme. I wrote out a full script word-for-word and then, after rehearsing it, I reduced the material to note form. By forcing myself to give the speech from notes, I could be sure that I would remain “in the moment”. But, as a result of first writing out a script and then rehearsing it, I was confident that I would know the right words to use at key moments.

Ever since Microsoft bought PowerPoint and put it into their Office suite of programs, slides have been a staple of business presentations. But it wasn’t too long before the way we use slides came in for criticism. A typical complaint is that PowerPoint slides often contain “too much information for the human mind to handle… [B]usy backgrounds, endless bullet points, and a tangle of diagrams … shut down understanding, instead of opening it up.

You can read whole books on how to make good use of PowerPoint and, if you want to create top-notch slides, that’s probably a good use of your time. Alternatively, you can think through some simple pointers which will help you to produce slides that are good enough for most purposes. I start by asking myself what the slides are for. And this is how I answer that question.

    When using slides:

  • to reinforce what you are saying in order to aid the audience‘s concentration, the slides can have quite sparse content. Think, once again, about news and other factual broadcasts and notice how little visual reinforcement they need.
  • as graphics to amplify a point that you are making in words, keep the graphic very simple. If that’s not possible, talk the audience through the graphic so that your words and their brains are following the same train of thought. If you have moved on to your next point whilst the audience is still figuring out the graphic, they have stopped listening to what you are saying.
  • as material the audience can keep for re-reading later, write the slides as if for someone who missed the presentation altogether. If a slide is to be a visual aid during the presentation and provide self-standing material later, it will need to re-explain everything the audience forgot after you left the building. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Alternatively, just distribute a handout to take away which is different from the slides used to accompany the actual presentation.
  • with no idea what they are for (“I thought I had to have slides”), you should abandon them – or else come up with a clear purpose.
  • for reasons which aren’t covered in this list, think carefully about how you compose them. It can be great fun to produce whizzy slides. But ask yourself if you are doing it to improve the audience’s understanding or to show off your creative genius. Better still, show your slides to someone else and ask them.

If I have been given a pre-set amount of time, I always have a plan for making sure I don’t run over. The simplest plan is to time how long it will take to give the presentation and, if necessary, edit it down to fit. But that only works when speaking from a script. For a presentation delivered from notes, I need a plan B.

So many speakers don’t seem to have a plan A, let alone a plan B, for this eventuality. They tell the meeting chairperson: “I’m nearly finished.” Or they plead: “Just a few more minutes; this is really important.” Or, perhaps worst of all, they talk faster. (And, for the avoidance of any doubt, I don’t regard any of those choices as a “plan”.)

Talking noticeably faster is never a good idea. If you have been speaking at a rate that was a comfortable listening speed for the audience, it’s pretty obvious that going conspicuously faster is going to be uncomfortable for them. If the material is important enough that you want the audience to hear it, is there any point in speaking so fast that they can’t absorb it?

The only solution, when there isn’t enough time to say everything, is to say less. You will need to decide – in advance or on the hoof – what can be left out. Perhaps there is a passage of self-contained material that you can skip past. Or you might cover every topic, but omit some of the details. In some situations, you may be able to direct the audience to a source where they can read-up the material you didn’t have time to go over. (If it’s appropriate, you may be able to offer your email address for them to contact you for the missing content.) Alternatively, if you have a well-planned ending for your speech, you may be able to summarise the omitted passage in your closing remarks.

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