Public speakers: How to confidently interact with any audience

It's not as daunting as you think. Photo: public domain

WASHINGTON, May 2, 2013 – When it comes to delivering a speech, my recommendation is to never write out a speech and simply memorize it. Drafting a speech, committing it to memory, and then performing it before a live audience may be appropriate for actors who are playing a part. But this approach can prove counterproductive for speakers who are trying to deliver information or inspiration while still remaining themselves. 

An additional observation: unlike most public speakers, actors are usually interacting with each other while the audience observes them. Even when actors interact directly with an audience, they are still portraying a character, meaning that they are deliberately choosing to take on someone else’s personality, actions, appearance, and style to conform to a world that the playwright suggests and the director creates. 


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In my opinion, that’s not the right approach for public speakers, whose most important task is to interact directly with audiences as themselves—not a character or persona. However, if you’re concerned about speaking to a group and you’re not yet ready to speak extemporaneously (meaning entirely without notes), it’s perfectly okay to do one of two things: You can use a small set of note cards, sketching out key ideas and phrases in order to keep you on topic, on time, and on track; or you can actually write out the speech and read it from a printout, manuscript, or (if you’re a politician and need to be unnaturally precise) from a teleprompter. 

Either way, as with any kind of planned communication, it’s important to plot out in advance what you’re going to say, and then to practice it, preferably aloud, even if you’re just delivering it to your dog or to a photograph of a random group of people that you downloaded from the Internet. 

Equally important is to learn as much as you can in advance about your audience and their expectations, preferably before you even sketch the outline of your speech. For example, if you deliver a keynote to a large business convention audience in precisely the same that you might deliver a lecture to a college class, your chances of success are immediately limited. 

One size doesn’t fit all on the speech and lecture circuit. You may be delivering the same information again and again to the same type of audience. But, as politicians always know, you still need to press different buttons and trigger different responses when speaking before an audience in the proverbial Peoria as opposed, to a considerably different audience assembled to hear you in Georgetown University’s venerable Gaston Hall. 


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You can deliver the same information and the same points of view in any number of different ways to different audiences. But in order to do this well, you have to know in advance what kind of people will likely be listening to you. Otherwise, you, the speaker, are just random guessing about what might work. And a bad guess ruins success. We’ve seen this many times. 

The worst case scenario we can recall occurred a number of years ago when a hired speaker delivered an obviously canned, generic speech to a large gathering of—wait for it—technical writers. It bombed disastrously as the writers immediately recognized it for what it was. Worse, they were clearly and obviously irritated at the carelessness and condescension of the speaker, who clearly thought he could get away with a shoddy retread of an old speech while collecting a substantial fee for his appearance. 

With regard to your own speaking engagement, whether you decide to use note cards or read the speech, the fastest way to learn how to do it well without an assistant is to record yourself delivering your speech as you rehearse it. Take notes during playback. Then change what you don’t like and record it again. 

While you are playing your recording back, here’s a trick: listen for music in your voice. If there’s no expression in it, no life, no normal up and down as you experience in everyday speaking, you may be dealing with one of a speaker’s worst nightmares: the boring, sleep-inducing monotone. 


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There are two quick ways to fix a deadly monotone delivery: The first way is to vary the length and type of your sentences. Use short and long statements, and ask questions, some rhetorical and perhaps some you’ll challenge the audience to answer. The second repair technique is to be aware of and make use of the natural word and syllable stresses in English, which are much more common than they are in many other languages. This doesn’t relate to speaking volume necessarily, but rather an emphasis on key phrases, words, and syllables. 

While we’re on the subject, we’d observe that many people, especially individuals who are normally non-public speakers, don’t take advantage of the possibilities that English offers for expression, so they sound boring even if their information is interesting. Twenty-first century speakers don’t have to employ the extremes of old-fashioned oratory the way speakers did in the 19th and early 20th centuries. (You can hear these older methods on vintage recordings made early in the 20th century).

Today’s speakers can instead discover a happy medium of self-expression that works for them while making it easy for audiences to understand and appreciate even the most complex thoughts, ideas, and opinions.

Frances Ponick’s bookOnly Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available in paperback from the author and is now available at Amazon.com. She coaches written and verbal communications and is the writer’s block expert at AllExperts. Feel free to ask questions there, or connect with Frances at Twitter, Facebook, and/or LinkedIn 


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Frances Ponick

Fran Ponick is a speaker, author, commentator, teacher, and coach. She has decades of experience in technical, business, marketing, and proposal writing and editing, and has won awards in journalism, formal poetry, and acting. She has also served as a consultant to DoD. Her book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available from Amazon.com.

 

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