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Public Speaking 1

Former actor Mike Jenkins with advice on how to speak in public

 

Strategist Public Speaking course

All the world’s your stage

Part 1: How to command the conference stage, and why you should do it

Even the smallest presentation may find a social media audience, while major events are watched by the world. Actor and trainer Mike Jenkins presents an introduction to a series of practical courses that will be offered on this website, and will soon be available from us as one-to-one mentoring courses.

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Editor’s note: Strategist magazine does not endorse any product or service that may be mentioned in video links in this article. Videos are included purely as examples of public speaking techniques.

Having the confidence and skill to speak well in public can change lives and careers for the better, both the speaker’s and the audience’s. But for some people, speaking in public is one of the most nerve-wracking tasks they face.

A confident, assertive manager may be a poor public speaker, while an indecisive second lieutenant may have a natural flair in the public arena that people respond to and engage with. The point is that public speaking and being good at your job are not always the same thing, but many people feel that they are.

When you’re the leader of a team, project, organisation or company, any anxiety you feel onstage can be amplified by the implications of slipping up in front of colleagues, stakeholders, employees, customers, prospects, the press… the list goes on.

Reputations can be made or lost when even the simplest announcement can find a global audience via news sites, blogs or social media memes. But even before that, errors of judgement had an impact.

Strategist Ratner

Gerald Ratner, now more famous for his gaffe than for his business acumen.

The most notorious example was Gerald Ratner’s 1991 gaffe, in which he said: “People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’. I say, ‘Because it’s total crap.’” The full speech is in the following link, and it’s interesting to note how self-conscious he appears throughout, almost as if he knows that he’s about to make a serious mistake.

CLICK: Gerald Ratner’s speech in full

That joke – or moment of unexpected candour, perhaps – brought a business empire close to collapse years before the internet speeded up the rate at which people can fail. So it’s worth remembering that just because something is written in your notes, it doesn’t mean you’re obliged to say it.

Personal fears

Each person who fears speaking in public will have their own unique reasons for it, and those may be rooted in bad experiences. The big anxieties tend to be rejection by an audience, public humiliation, or being judged for some inadequacy – some failing that only the speaker may believe that they have. Remember: the audience is unlikely to share those fears.

Take comfort from the fact that even the most seasoned performers are anxious about appearing onstage. Fear is natural. Human beings may not need to outrun predators anymore, but we may still feel that those predators exist. Those ‘fight or flight’ responses are hardwired into us.

CLICK: Helen Mirren’s BAFTA speech

I’ve probably made you anxious too, but all the above challenges are also why public speaking is so exciting: it’s an opportunity to tell people about your team, your work, and your organisation.

So if public speaking does make you nervous, then consider the challenge in a different way: as an opportunity to speak to your audience’s audience. Don’t worry about the yawning reporter in the front row. Just communicate your enthusiasm and knowledge, because telling that reporter why you care will make his readers care when the quote appears in print. And telling people why you love what you do has another benefit: it will make you feel more confident.

How to make a connection

Social media and the success of TED talks (www.ted.com) have proved that people enjoy sincerity, commitment and a true story that makes a connection with them, or tells them something new, challenging and exciting. But not everyone enjoys the limelight and, in business, most people aren’t hired for their flair as stage performers.

This is where nervous speakers often make their most serious mistake: believing that ‘putting on an act’ is the way to go. It isn’t. The key – as the best TED talks demonstrate – is to present a simplified and focused version of the real you, your work, and your world. Project that person, even if they are naturally modest, quiet, shy, detail-oriented, or obsessive.

CLICK: Sue Austin’s inspiring TED presentation

Many audience members may share those traits too, so acknowledge them – publicly acknowledge what, deep down, may be the thing that makes you nervous. Making a joke about it also saves people the trouble of thinking it. Point out the obvious and move on. You will appear – and become – more confident.

There are some simple techniques that anyone can use to polish up their public-speaking skills and turn in a natural, engaging, and entertaining presentation. Any such presentation will communicate your key messages and help you embody the values of your work or organisation in the best way that you can. (You should have key messages, of course!)

Strategist John Chambers

Cisco’s John Chambers: an effective style in the hall, but less effective when replayed on video.

Hints and tips

The number one key to all great speeches is preparation. That doesn’t mean spending hours designing a PowerPoint deck to distract the audience. Background slickness impresses no one if there’s no content in front of it; indeed, it will draw attention to the absence. Preparation simply means being clear about the purpose of the presentation.

So, the first things to ask yourself are: What do you want to achieve with this speech? What are the most important things to tell people? (Consider simply listing them; they will write them down.) What do you want your audience to think and feel during the presentation? And afterwards, what do you want them to do? Understanding and setting out your intentions will help you craft a presentation that is focused and effective.

People’s attention spans diminish when sat in a room with others, so when a speaker loses sight of their own intentions it’s only a matter of time before the audience sense it and begin to fidget or check their newsfeeds. The lure of the mobile gadget makes the need to hold people’s attention that much greater.

So don’t forget to be entertaining…

CLICK: Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki owns the stage

Read your speech aloud as you write it and only write what is comfortable to say. Not only will it help you become more familiar with the content, but it will also give you an idea of how long the speech is and how confident you feel when giving it.

Most phones come with a built-in recording facility, so it’s easy to capture your final draft as an audio file and play it back. When you do, think like your audience: when does it drag or fall flat? At what point do you lose interest? Could it do with being shorter and tighter? (Yes it could.)

Many people prefer to keep a few prompts on a card deck rather than read a prepared speech, as sometimes the act of ‘reading aloud in class’, as it were, is what makes them nervous, combined with worries about technical failures, laptop problems, and so on.

Monitoring yourself

In either case, pay particular attention to the speed at which you speak. Most people naturally speak too fast. In conversation this is not a problem, but once you are onstage or on camera, the effect will be magnified and people will stop listening to you. Instead, they’ll pay attention to the fact that they can’t understand you.

The same goes for speaking too slowly, where listeners will find an unnaturally slow pace more interesting than the words. Record yourself reading at different speeds and listen to the difference.

Also be aware of how loudly or softly you speak. If you’ve ever seen Shakespeare performed badly, you’ll be familiar with the sort of performers who either bellow or throw away the lines to the point where their meaning is lost.

Public speakers are often told to project their voices (even with microphones some projection is called for), but too much or too little volume can smother the sense.

The point here is that your natural vocal ‘habits’ may distract audiences from what you are trying to say. Once you are aware of speaking too fast, too slow, too loud, or too soft, then you are in a position to change it.

Practice by recording yourself reading a range of texts out loud. Listen also for vocal ‘tics’ – those constant ‘ums’, ‘ahs,’ and ‘you knows’. Teach yourself to pause confidently instead of saying them. In time, this will iron them out.

Strategist Meg Whitman

HP CEO Meg Whitman adopts an informal style. ‘Fireside chats’ with journalists are common in the US IT sector.

Using the stage

Physical habits can damage the effectiveness of a presentation. Pacing aimlessly back and forth is an example of how seemingly insignificant actions are magnified onstage. I see this all the time with conference speakers and the vast majority are not aware that they are doing it, or of how distracting it is.

The same goes for fidgeting on camera. In everyday conversation, these little habits might be charming or go unnoticed, but in front of an audience they become the focus of attention. Worse, they make you look unprofessional.

Some American CEOs have learned to walk slowly and purposefully to different parts of the stage or even into the audience, using lapel or head-mounted radio mics.

This can be very effective in the hall – if it’s tied to the content and makes a dramatic point. However, when replayed on video later it can sometimes seem stagey or evangelical, especially when combined with deliberate gestures, as this example of Cisco’s John Chambers reveals.

CLICK: John Chambers walks and talks

An example that translates much better onto video – because it’s more engaging, funny, and informal – is Professor Moira Clarke of Henley Business School, an excellent public speaker.

CLICK: Moira Clarke on customer complaints

But just pacing about aimlessly is a different matter. Practice reading your speech while standing absolutely still. Move only when it’s a deliberate choice, gestures included.

Walking to another part of the stage can be a powerful way to highlight a change in the mood, direction, or message of your speech. Used consciously and deliberately, it will engage the audience, but only if it is backed up by the content.

The same goes for gestures. Some politicians make a point of including emphatic hand gestures in their speeches and holding them for a split second longer than is natural. The camera flashes that accompany them demonstrate that these are primarily designed for the press photographers around the dais, so that the next day’s front pages capture the speaker being defiant, decisive, or sympathetic.

The speaker may genuinely be those things, of course, but moments like these contribute to a general sense that some politicians are adept stage performers in the more pejorative sense of the phrase. They understand visual media.

Avoiding pretension

A natural performance will always put an audience at ease. Big, ‘stagey’ performances may work in a hall, but are far less convincing afterwards on YouTube or Vimeo.

Remember: most people watch videos alone, and so they respond best to presentations that feel personal. The best TED talks are intimate and engaging and that translates well onto video, where most people see them.

A good contrast is the notorious ‘Steve Ballmer going crazy’ clip, watched by millions of people on YouTube – a moment that may have felt right in the hall but which looks ridiculous on video.

CLICK: Steve Ballmer bids for immortality

The elusive quality that all public speakers long for is that indefinable thing: ‘presence’. It’s widely thought that you either have it or you don’t, but while it’s obvious that some people naturally command attention by walking into a room, presence is inherent in all of us.

The problem is that some people disconnect from it. This is because what we call ‘presence’ is more focused in the body and in the ‘here and now’ than in worries about the past or the future. Put simply, people project a presence when they are most ‘present’, in every sense.

One of the best ways to achieve this is simply by controlled breathing. There is nothing ‘New Age’ about this; simply sitting and paying attention to your breathing roots you in the present moment and interrupts the incessant stream of thoughts that most of us have.

The great thing about this technique is that you can do it for a few moments wherever you are, whether it’s on the train, on a long plane journey, at your desk, or even trapped at lunch with a boring companion.

At first, you may notice just how ‘noisy’ your thoughts are. But with practice and time, it becomes easier to drop into full awareness of the present moment without a constant mental commentary on it. Stepping onstage with that degree of ‘rootedness’ is immensely powerful.

I’ve seen speakers walk onstage and stand for half a minute or more in total silence, not because they’ve lost their notes but because they are completely engaged. Done with confidence, this can captivate an audience and create a sense of expectation. Imagine the dramatic effect of following a dramatic pause with a provocative statement or question, and then pausing again to let it sink in.

Thinking of the audience

Whenever you speak in public, the audience generally wants to hear what you have to say and wants you to succeed; even protestors at an industrial dispute want to be convinced, however much they shout.

But all audiences feel justified in expressing their opinion – nowadays more than ever. So grab the opportunity to communicate your message as best you can. Consciously create the effect and the impact that you intend to have. As long as you achieve what you set out to achieve, you will have succeeded. TS

The Strategist says

Natural performances put audiences at ease. Stagey performances may work in a hall, but are less convincing afterwards on video. Most people watch videos alone, and so respond best to presentations that feel personal. If you’re nervous, slow down. Pause. Take a breath. Draw the audience to you. If you have a particular character trait – perhaps you’re detail focused, for example – tell people about it. Engage their support for the person you really are. Use the stage.

Mike Jenkins is a polymath. He trained as an actor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and during his career appeared (as Michael Mallon) at The Royal Court Theatre in London, Salisbury Playhouse, The Royal Theatre Northampton, and Chichester Festival Theatre, among others. As a theatre lecturer and workshop leader he has run classes and workshops for The Nuffield Theatre Southampton, Resister Theatre Company, and further education colleges in the UK. Over four years, Mike ran an extensive customer service improvement project for Virgin Cosmetics (latterly Virgin Vie at Home), as well as designing and delivering training on presentation skills at the National Managers Seminar and for other corporate clients. He is now a writer, trainer, and website creator working with a range of clients on communicating their message in speech, print, and online.

Additional reporting: Chris Middleton.

 

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