Your reputation might entice bodies into the seats; but it will take an effective delivery to keep their minds in the room. Even if you’ve written the best speech ever, all can still be lost at the delivery stage.
There are four forces at work during your delivery: your words, your voice, your face (particularly your eyes), and your body. They must all be consistent. Try looking in the mirror and saying “I love you” with a hateful, angry look on your face and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.
Tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language are as important as your actual words. Some audiences will react more to your non-verbal signals than to your words. When your words, facial expressions, tone of voice and body language are not consistent, the audience is receiving a confusing and ineffective series of signals. Your believability suffers the most. The words should have been taken care of during the preparation stage, so we’ll deal here with the other three forces: voice, face and body.
Always use a conversational tone. The secret to looking and sounding natural and confident is to be conversational. This does not mean speaking in a monotone. It does mean speaking with the same pace, timing, pauses, inflection and emphasis that you would use in an animated conversation with a bunch of friends around the dinner table.
Never slip into a monotone. Always be sure to emphasize what needs to be emphasized. To understand the importance of this point, repeat the following sentence six times, emphasizing a different word each time: I never said he stole money. The same six words will have six different meanings. If you have a microphone you don’t need to speak more loudly than normal; if you have to speak more loudly than normal then you should have a microphone.
If you want the audience to enjoy themselves, you have to look like you’re enjoying yourself; and you can’t do that with scowls and frowns. Natural smiles, at the right places, are the smiles that work. Never stifle a smile or a chuckle unless it’s a smile or a chuckle at someone else’s expense. As with your tone of voice, try to use the same facial expressions you would if you were in conversation with a few good friends.
You’ve got to care about your audience and you have to let them know that you care about them. One of the best ways to do this is with eye. Use your eyes like a rifle, not a shotgun. You should pick out a person and look right at him or her for a couple of seconds and then move on to another person in another part of the room. Be sure to include all areas of the room, but don’t get into a fixed pattern, such as left-front, left-back, right-back, right-front. Keep them guessing as to who will be your next target. This not only makes your eye contact more natural and effective but, because they don’t know who you’re going to look at next, it helps you to keep the entire audience’s attention.
When it’s your turn to speak, approach the lectern confidently with your head held high and your shoulders back. When you get to the lectern, stand erect. Don’t slump. Don’t tense your shoulders. Don’t sway. Don’t rock. If you have any of these bad habits, work hard to break them.
Over the many years that I’ve been a student and instructor of public speaking, the subject on which I’ve consistently seen and heard the worst advice given is “gestures” -- what you do with your hands and arms.
The problem with gestures is not that people don’t know how to effectively use their hands and arms; the problem is that when people get in front of an audience, they tend to do things that prevent them from gesturing spontaneously and naturally.
Perhaps the most egregious thing that speakers do is putting a hand in a pocket and rattling coins. Do this and in no time the audience will be thinking, “That’s a dime or two, perhaps a nickel, a couple of quarters….” instead of paying attention to what you’re saying.
Another gesture-destroying move is locking your hands behind your back; still another is to grip the lectern as if you, or it, is in danger of flying away.
Here’s the best way to break these habits. When you’re starting to speak, or if you catch yourself falling into a bad habit during your presentation, rest your fingertips lightly on the lectern and then forget about them. Your natural instincts will take over and your gestures will become natural, spontaneous, and completely appropriate. Nearly everyone gestures naturally while conversing at a party with friends, and it need be no different in front of a group. Just let your arms and hands do what comes naturally.
Audience participation is always effective, so if there’s an appropriate, non-disruptive way to engage them, do so. Remember you can have audience participation with large groups simply by asking rhetorical questions or by asking for a show of hands. Anything that gets an audience thinking along with you is beneficial in building a rapport with them.
But never make fools of an audience. I once saw a speaker think he was getting effective audience participation by asking everyone to turn around and shake hands with the person behind them. Of course, this is impossible because everyone is turned around. All he succeeded in doing was to insult the audience.
A delicate type of audience interaction arises when someone begins to heckle you. It’s difficult to generalize about heckling, but you rarely come out ahead by getting into a mud slinging match with a heckler. The audience will usually start out on your side; but if you begin to argue with the heckler your support will soon start to splinter. Be firm and courteous with hecklers, but keep control of the situation. A good technique is to suggest to the heckler that you’ll be happy to discuss matters one-on-one after your presentation. Then ignore him. If this doesn’t work you may have to resort to asking whoever is in charge of the event to have the person cautioned or, in an extreme case, removed.
Never hesitate to let your emotions shine through. Good speakers bring personality, excitement and passion to what they’re saying. Audiences are interested in you as a person, so don’t be afraid to show them your heart as well as your face.
Audiences appreciate and respect speakers who clearly believe in what they are saying. The audience may disagree with you, but they will not become hostile if they believe in your sincerity. If you consistently demonstrate to the audience that you feel strongly about what you’re saying you can pretty well stop worrying about any other speaking technique. Say what you know and show how you feel.
Pauses are an essential and effective part of any speech. Utilize pauses, timing and pacing to make an impact. In addition to being a strong form of emphasis, pauses allow an audience to catch up with you while you catch your breath. Remember, though, there’s a difference between a pause and a silence. Pauses should never be more than a few seconds.
Never talk over applause or laughter, always wait them out.
When time is short, don’t talk faster; talk less. Edit as you go along. End with conviction and never introduce new material near the point where your talk should end.
Using word whiskers (expressions such as “er”, “um”, “ah”, the ungrammatical use of the phrase “you know” and the word “like” or ending sentences with “OK?”) sends a message that you either don’t know your material very well or that you are an inarticulate person, neither of which is a very favorable portrayal.
Trite phrases (overused expressions which, although meaningful at one time, or in a particular context, have, through overuse, become meaningless generalizations) should also be avoided. They tend to be used by speakers who are too lazy to search for an accurate, descriptive word or phrase. Trite phrases are always boring and cheat the audience out of a clear explanation of the message you’re trying to convey.
Examples of trite phrases currently popular with business executives and professionals who are too lazy to search for and develop the specific meanings they want to convey include
- At the end of the day
- Going forward
- Best practices
- Value added
- Ramp up
- Tone at the top
- Thinking outside the box
- Tipping point
- In terms of
- Ahead of (or behind) the curve
If there is a set time for adjournment, end before that time, even if the master of ceremonies has told you that it’s okay to run a bit late. If by the time you get up to speak there isn’t enough time left to adequately cover your material, make as many points as you can before the time set for adjournment, apologize on the organizer’s behalf for the fact that you don’t have enough time to deliver your whole speech, and sit down.
Never tell the audience how much longer you’re going to speak or how much material you have left to deliver. You may not be able to live up to the promise, and you can depend that the audience will be holding you to it.
With one exception which I’ll mention shortly, there are three reasons why you should not hand out copies of your speech beforehand.
- People can read a lot faster than you can talk. If they have a copy of your presentation you can depend that they will read it, and they will not be reading it in synch with your speaking.
- If they have copies of your speech you will be disinclined to depart from the written version, thereby eliminating the possibility of spontaneity or instant editing; both of which are potential advantages that you should not relinquish.
- Your presentation was written to be heard, not read, so the audience can’t get the true meaning of your words simply by reading them. They need to have the advantage of your inflection, timing, emphasis, pauses, facial expressions, body language and gestures.
There are only two situations in which you should read your speech verbatim. One is when your lawyer insists upon it. The other is when you may be getting TV coverage and the camera and sound crew will have already picked out the part they want to record, so you need to stick to the script. In this latter situation it’s okay to give the production crew a copy of your speech but, even though you’re going to be reading it, you should still not allow the general audience to have copies for the three reasons outlined above.
When reading a speech it’s important to mark up the script with cues for pauses, pacing, and word emphasis. You need to pause frequently, especially after every sentence and every key point, and use tour pauses to make eye contact with your audience.
Be well-groomed and dress just a little bit better than the occasion calls for, but always make sure that you feel comfortable (both physically and mentally) in what you’re wearing. If you’re going to err, err on the side of conservatism; but remember that audiences are more apt to accept and like speakers who look and dress much like they expected that they would.
If you need glasses, wear them; but be sure they fit properly. Constantly having to push up your glasses is annoying and distracting for everybody. Jewelry can be distracting and noisy, often reflects light, and can be cumbersome, such as a bracelet hooking onto your notes and spilling them onto the floor.
This is probably a good time to mention that you should never take off your watch and place it on the lectern in front of you. Many speakers think this sends a message that they care about finishing on time. The message it actually sends is that the speaker is unprepared, unrehearsed, and has no idea how long the speech is.
I’m often asked, especially by senior executives and professionals, what their delivery “style” should be. The answer is “just be yourself”. Many executives and professionals are trained to think that they have to conform to an image based on a model of perfection. That’s inconsistent with being a good public speaker. The executives’ and professionals’ idea of perfect public speaking usually results in dull, uninspiring presentations. If they tried as hard to be human and ordinary as they do to be perfect, they’d be much more effective speakers. An audience will always prefer a possibly imperfect but interesting speaker to a technically perfect bore.
Be consistently yourself, at your very best, in every situation. Be basically the same person whether you’re giving a speech or engaged in a conversation. Of course you may have to be a little more or a little less formal depending on the situation. For example, luncheon presentations tend to be relatively informal, whereas corporate annual meetings are usually highly structured, formal events.
One “style” every speaker should aspire to is to be likeable. Here are some rules you should never break
- Don’t whine and complain
- Don’t dwell on trivialities
- Don’t be self-centered
- Don’t talk down to people
- Don’t try to please everybody; you’ll likely end up pleasing no one.
- Do become sincerely interested in other people.
- Do be optimistic.
- Do laugh easily, especially at yourself. If you goof, own up to it and continue on your way; the audience will love you for it.
If the audience likes you they’ll forgive almost anything you do wrong. If they don’t like you, you’ve got a very tough row to hoe no matter how well-prepared and technically perfect you may be.