Making Yourself Clear

Public speaking throws up many fears and challenges for all of us. As part of one of our public speaking courses, High Impact Presentations, we have been surveying various participants over the last four years about the things they most want to improve in public speaking.

The most common request, from both Japanese and English speakers, was to “be clear when presenting”. But, what do the respondents mean by clear?

Those surveyed want to get their message across to the audience, and for it to be easy to follow. They also want to have some impact from their efforts to get up in front of others and speak.

This is not easy, mainly because we keep snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. There are some common errors that kill our ability to communicate with the audience. Here are some critical tips to make sure that situation never occurs.

First, we should decide the purpose of the talk.

For example, is it to entertain, so listeners conclude the event feeling warm and fuzzy about us and our organisation? Is it to convince or impress on them that our organisation is reliable and trustworthy? Is it to persuade or inspire them to take some action that we are recommending? Is it to inform them of some recent data or information that is relevant to their industry?

We need to be crystal clear about what we are trying to do with our talk, before we worry about its design, production and delivery.

Second, we need to thoroughly investigate beforehand exactly to whom we will be talking. For example, what is the generation mix, age demographic and proportion of males and females? Are they experts, amateurs, dilettantes, critics, supporters, potential clients or someone else?

We need to pitch our talk at the right level for the audience; no dumbing down of the exceedingly well informed, insulting them at every turn.

We do not want to dwell in acronym heaven or be a specialist jargon snob, baffling the punters completely. We need to gauge our listeners’ level of comprehension and make sure we are talking to them at their level of expertise.

Third, we should rehearse our talk before we give it. This may sound straightforward, but hardly anyone does so. In sales we always advise, “Never practice on the client”. Presenters should heed the same sage advice.

If we prepare the talk in writing, we may find the cadence is different when we say the words out loud, compared with when we read them on the page. We also may find we have misjudged the time completely and the talk is too long or too short. We need to start singling out key words we want to hit harder than others for emphasis.

Fourth, get the mechanics of delivery right. The message cannot stand alone. The quality of the content is not enough and the supreme value of the data is insufficient if people cannot hear you. While physically they can hear you are speaking, when content and delivery are not in harmony, only 7% of the message is actually getting through to the audience. That is a shockingly low number.

When the content of the message is not congruent with the way you deliver it, we get distracted by the speaker’s dress, body language and tone of voice.

For example, if I said, “I am really excited about this technology” in a barely audible, monotone voice that was lacking energy and was delivered while I looked down at the lectern—and not at my audience—with a bored, unhappy expression, only 7% of people would get the message.

Many speakers make the task hard for themselves because they do not address the audience. They look at their notes, the screen, the floor or the ceiling; anywhere, but at that sea of expectant faces scrutinising them.

Engage your audience by using eye contact. Keeping each person’s gaze for around six seconds makes the eye contact meaningful, without it becoming intrusive.

Moreover, get your face involved in the delivery. If the topic is good news, then smile. If you suggest doubt, have a quizzical expression. If the information is surprising, have a look of wonder.

Throw in some gestures to add power to the words, but do not maintain the same gesture for longer than 15 seconds. Utilise your palms, so they can be seen by the audience. Do not hide them behind your back. Neither should you lock them up protecting your groin, or keep them hidden away in your pockets.

A gesture made too low may not be seen by some members of the audience, so make your gesture zone between chest and head height.

When we know why, and to whom, we are speaking, and get voice, face and hands working in unison to add strength to what we are saying, we will get 100% of the audience absorbing our message.