Communications Insight For More Inspiring Leaders An Introduction To Public Speaking

An Introduction To Public Speaking

 1st Jan 2016

When was the last time you were in an audience listening to a presentation and wished… you were somewhere else?

Equally, have you ever had the same feeling when about to give a presentation?!

Achieving impact when speaking to an audience poses a tough challenge, even for experienced communicators. All the more daunting, then, if you’re someone who finds the experience nerve-wracking.

Yet the ability to stand up and speak in front of a group is more important today than it has ever been. I meet countless leaders in both the corporate and voluntary sector, at varying levels of seniority, who comment on its value as a key to promotion. At my speaking club in Victoria, London Cardinals, we regularly receive guests seeking an introduction to public speaking and wanting to join for precisely this reason – they need a place to practice for career reasons.

So, why is public speaking important in today’s professional world? Well, for me there are two main reasons:

1. To distil value from a mass of raw material, information and data. The sheer volume of ‘information’ being generated in modern professional life is increasing at an extraordinary rate. A professional’s ability to distil key messages and short-cut hours of reading for an internal audience of senior colleagues, for example, is of tremendous value to the organisation.

2. To engage the hearts and minds of colleagues, clients and customers. A ‘top-down’ command approach to organisational dynamics might have been fit-for-purpose in the late 19th and 20th centuries, but today, the knowledge worker poses a quite different leadership proposition. It’s not enough simply to ‘issue instructions’. People have to be engaged.


Part of what makes public speaking (or ‘presentations’ if you prefer) challenging is the simple fact that the written word and spoken word function has very different communication mediums. This simple truth helps to explain many of the most common issues faced by public speakers – and also offers some clues as to how to get better at it.

Transmitting Information

The written word is a wonderful medium for achieving this. Think of the average word count of the Financial Times. Huge! A vast array of (potentially valuable) data and rational information is available in each edition. If you’re in a position to sit down and focus for an hour or two, your brain will also be capable of absorbing a very significant quantity of information.

Now imagine a TV news bulletin – and compare the word count. Rather less, wouldn’t you agree? Let me hazard a guess. If you were to read the FT cover-to-cover, it’d take you several hours. Yet you can absorb TV news items in a matter of minutes. Just think of the volume of data that must be left out by broadcast journalists.

So what? Well, the fact is that the spoken word is a poor medium for transmitting information. Yet so often, presentations and speeches are written and then delivered! The result? You end up with a speech which was meant to be read, not said.


An Introduction To Public Speaking – Top Tips

Treat your speech as a conversation, not a ‘presentation’. Each and every one of us has the capacity to talk in conversation – we do it all the time (and notice, there’s no script!). Why not adopt the same mindset for your speeches?

Have a SIMPLE structure. To keep both you and your audience on track, even if your ideas are complex, your overarching flow must be simple. Otherwise, there’s a very high risk of getting lost or losing your audience. A maximum of three key points is plenty, even for a speech of up to 45 minutes.

Focus on clarity in your preparations. I see too many presenters dedicating their preparation time to staring at screens tapping out drafts. This is fine in moderation. But I find the most time-efficient and valuable way of preparing is to talk it through with someone – either face-to-face or over the phone. You’ll get clearer faster. And if you’re clear, you’re much better equipped to do a good job for the audience – and less likely to be preoccupied with worrying about nervousness.

What I've appreciated most has been the increased thought the team has been putting into how they come across and what they say. Colleagues in other teams have already commented on the improvement in both skills and confidence.


Emma Truswell | Deputy Head of Services, Open Data Institute (ODI)

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