I remember sitting in my Clinical Psych class in college terrified to answer the Professor’s questions, even though I was confident I knew the answer. One day, I forced myself to raise my hand and speak. I didn’t explode, nor did I shrivel up and disappear. In fact, I added value to the conversation. Then, I forced myself to raise my hand the next day, and the day after in a history class, and so on, until I got comfortable speaking in small and large groups.
I recognize public speaking on any level causes some great anxiety. While some people exude confidence when they speak from a podium or up on a stage, I can assure you, they developed that confidence over time. There are three key elements to successful public speaking:
Understanding your audience
You wouldn’t speak to a group of nurses about the life settlement industry, but you might very well speak to them about wound care. If the nurses in the audience deal with a wide variety of patient types, then your address needs to reflect that. If those nurses focus on geriatric patients, then your address needs to be specifically tailored to that group and the needs of their respective patients.
Familiarity with the content
I would never be able to speak to a group of doctors about the latest developments in cardiac surgery. Sure, I could read something, but I wouldn’t sound too knowledgeable. However, it takes more than simply being knowledgeable about a given topic. For example, I have listened to more speakers who may be familiar with the overall content, but not the order in which it is meant to be delivered.
Practice is important for a couple of reasons: first, without practice, it is virtually impossible to gauge the timing of the presentation/address; in addition, practice helps the speaker to familiarize him/herself with the content order and other nuances of the presentation. This allows him/her to spend more time making eye contact with the audience.
What about the “art” of public speaking?
The art is only possible when the three elements I have outlined above are achieved and then combined with: rapport with the audience, an occasional anecdotal story to emphasize a point, consistent speed (not too fast, not too slow) combined with appropriate pauses, plenty of eye contact, and movement—never stand in one place like a slug.
You build rapport with an audience because you know who they are, what they need, and how to deliver your message to them. Some speakers tell a joke, and others begin with an anecdotal story. I was at a conference a few years ago, and the speaker started by telling the audience how his train got delayed. At first, he was frustrated and annoyed. But then, while he waited, an idea for a book came to him. During the delay, he laid out the chapters of the book – the very same book he was speaking about at the conference. This story immediately engaged the audience.
Consistent speed doesn’t mean never deviating. You should deviate – speed up, slow down to emphasize points, respond to the audience, etc. However, you don’t want the deviation to be so noticeable that it becomes distracting to the audience. Pauses are also a crucial element in public speaking. Not only do they give the speaker the opportunity to breathe, but they also let the audience catch up and digest the information being presented. They can’t be too long – no longer than four seconds. Practicing where to insert pauses can make you more comfortable employing them and ultimately make you sound more natural.
Eye contact lets the audience feel connected to the speaker. Let’s face it, it’s boring when the speaker has his or her head buried in their notes. It also makes it extremely difficult to feel connected. Finally, movement is also important. While I am sure there have been plenty of engaging presentations made by people standing behind a podium or sitting on a stool, it is extremely difficult to pull that off. Movement on stage or away from a podium keeps audience members awake; it helps to keep them focused on the presenter. It also allows the presenter to speak more directly to different sections of the audience – making everyone feel more welcome and engaged.
For most of us, effective and engaging public speaking is a learned skill. If you are new to public speaking, then force yourself. Practice. Practice more. And, perhaps equally as important, if you have people under you who lack effective oral presentation skills, be a mentor. Talk with them about it and be encouraging while pointing out areas for improvement. Your whole team will benefit.
Anne Converse Willkomm
Director of Graduate Studies