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Improve your public speaking

Published on: 2 Aug 2017

Public speaking_istock [square]Speaking in public is never likely to top a planner’s list of enjoyable work activities – standing up in a packed council chamber to put the case for or against an application is a nerve-wracking experience for many. Trevor Morton explains how to lessen the nerves and improve performance. 

Whether presenting to an audience, making a pitch or leading a debate in council chambers, the key thing to remember is that you are persuading people to share your vision even though they may not initially be enamoured with the idea.

Clearly not everyone relishes being the centre of attention during a presentation. Consider the pinnacle of debating, Prime Minister’s Questions, where the wit and focus of the members in the Commons is enough to frighten even the most accomplished performers.

James Callaghan was known to be grumpy beforehand, Margaret Thatcher carried a Scotch with her and Tony Blair took a melatonin pill to guarantee six hours’ sleep the night before.  

Debates aren’t necessarily a foregone conclusion, as points need to be made and the opposition won over. Presenting and arguing a case is an art requiring skills that need to be learned and built upon, and even the most seasoned professional can benefit from brushing up on them.

Four steps to making a stronger case

1. Set clear objectives

Successful presentation and debate arises from preparation and confident delivery. Of course, it helps to have a strong case. To begin with, determine the purpose of your presentation and identify your objectives. If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, it’s impossible to prepare arguments; and without knowing your arguments, you’ll convince no-one.

The English Speaking Union (ESU) recommends brainstorming points to be made and anticipating the opponent’s point of view in each case. It helps to be familiar with the arguments that may defeat your motion – remember, barristers never ask a question to which they don’t know the answer. If you cite any facts, make sure that you know where they come from and that they are accurate.

2. Structure your presentation

With any speech, a great deal of information is being delivered to an audience in a short time. Breaking your information into small sections makes it easier for the listener to take in. Keep points succinct and follow the ESU’s recommendation not to include more than three or four arguments in any speech. You need the audience to be able to follow the issues and see how you build your case.

Your introduction should seize the attention of your audience by telling them your major point and putting the topic into context. Follow this with your point-by-point argument along with supporting evidence. Any evidence you present should feel integral to a good deductive argument, rather than a series of seemingly disconnected facts.

Round off with a conclusion that links all the elements together and clarifies and reinforces your objectives for your audience.

3. Engage and persuade

It’s important to relate the subject to your audience and hold their attention. You might illustrate with appropriate statistics, for example. The ESU suggests telling a story because listeners often respond well to a narrative – especially if it’s personal.

Your credibility matters a great deal. It’s important that the audience believes that you are making the presentation for the right reasons, that you are exercising sound judgement and that you are qualified to speak on the topic. Evidence and personal experience can be very persuasive tools in your presenting armoury.

Humour can be a useful tool for getting an audience on your side. But use it judiciously: offensive and inappropriate comments will undermine your persuasiveness and credibility.

4. Prepare and deliver, with confidence

By definition, good delivery of a speech is essential and factual errors, along with slips in grammar and tense, can undermine your message. Writing out a speech word for word is never a good idea as it requires you to keep your eyes on a page, rather the audience. It also makes deviation – whereby you can demonstrate your expertise on the hoof – difficult. However, where evidence is key, good notes will help, as will good graphics.

The ESU recommends practicing the speech in full beforehand and even recording it, to help you determine an effective speed of delivery and where to pause for impact. During the speech, it’s worth varying the tone and volume of your voice, so that you don’t sound monotonous. Consider, too, that slang and technical terms can confuse and turn off an audience.

Remember that presentation isn’t just about what can be heard, but also involves what can be seen. The ESU believes that some gestures and movement add emphasis and interest. Eye contact, too, builds rapport with the audience.  

Finally, as planning meetings can have strict time limits, keep an eye on the time. But as the ESU suggests, even if you run out of time and are interrupted by the bell, take just a few seconds to sum up in one sentence; don’t just stop talking and sit down.

The English Speaking Union’s tips for a good presentation

  • Start by grabbing the audience’s attention with your opening words – perhaps with a rhetorical question, a quotation or a personal story.
  • Vary your tone and pace during your speech to help keep the audience’s attention. Project your voice clearly.
  • Structure your speech around a few key points Don’t rush – take pauses to let each point sink in.
  • Consider both sides of the topic but ultimately show that your line of reasoning leads to one clear conclusion.
  • Bring in some humour where appropriate but make sure it is inoffensive and relevant.
  • Leave time for a good conclusion.
  • Give brief but relevant answers to questions. Where appropriate, introduce new material that wasn’t in your speech.

Trevor Morton has held marketing, consultant and management positions with Gartner-rated vendors in the UK and USA. He has spoken at conferences worldwide and writes about business performance and management.

Photo | iStock