How to be an effective Public Speaker
If you are a leader, a manager or even someone who occasionally speaks to a gathering, I am sure you must have googled the tips for how to improve speaking skills. You may also have spent considerable time on gathering information from various sources on how to be an effective public speaker. Let me start with the bad news first. There’s a term we often use in psychology, its called expert’s guilt. The term means that when you speak to an expert, they will often talk to you at a level where they “expect” you to know the basics. A simple example can be that of a computer engineer trying to explain to you how to use a computer. If you tell them that you don’t know what a VGA cable is or where the power button is located on the keyboard, they will be quite astonished. Because for them, this little piece of information is quite basic. For a computer engineer, “everyone” knows what a power button is, I mean who doesn’t? Now that’s the problem which most of us face as well as commit in our daily lives. What we often ignore are the basic behaviors which catalyze the reactions in our actions. Anyway! To cut to the chase, my point is that if you want to be effective at any skill you want to explore, start at the very basic level of “how” something works, as against “what” works, more so when it comes to how to improve speaking skills.
Coming back to public speaking, whenever you observe an effective public speaker and want to seek guidance, your questions to both yourself as well as to them if you do get a chance to seek guidance, should be “how did they do it?” rather than just “what did they do”.
The mistake with most of the content that I’ve seen on the internet as well as some effective public speaking experts is either the expert’s guilt, or just simply “what you need to do is…” norm that a majority of experts follow.
My experience as a behavioral coach gave me an opportunity to observe some effective public speakers and an insight into the very basic actions, catalysts, stimuli or behaviors which gave rise to their ability to be effective public speakers. I created a detailed study on the subject to arrive at some basic tips which, if used effectively, can turn anyone, and I mean anyone into an effective public speaker. I know it is a tall claim to make when I say “anyone” but so far, my experience in the tips have yielded zero failures; and I hope the trend continues.
In this article, I will discuss some traits that are displayed by some of the most effective public speakers which I have observed, and then I will tell you about how it is, that you too can display those traits. I have refrained from discussing humor, body language and memory in this article because those are quite vast topics and they carry too many variables to list generic practices. In other words, they have a targeted approach to specific people. If you want to learn about them, you must first learn what it is that works for you, and then, you must apply a few practices to check their efficacy. The best judge for what works for you is your own self. Humor, for instance, is often suggested by a lot of experts. I particularly refrain from making such suggestions, mostly because some people tend to lose the objective of their speech in humor. There are times when their audience may laugh, but the point they want to make gets lost because they try too hard at being funny! There are also times when humor may work against a speaker instead of working for them. Body language and memorizing too, do not have a one size fits all approach. If you want to really work on them, I suggest you do a little research on your own to pick a few tips and like I stated earlier, practice them to check their effectiveness.
Following are some of the generic or common traits which we see in effective public speakers. In my experience, effective public speakers are:
- Memorable, or quotable
- Able to build a connect with their audience
- Able to inspire confidence in their audience
Now I will tell about “how” to display all these qualities or traits when you engage in public speaking, and how to improve speaking skills.
I may ignore the chronological order against the above because some of these traits may have multiple catalysts. Also, some actions or behaviors may affect multiple traits from the list and therefore what I will want you to do is, look at the list again, while you’re reading a point to check which action corresponds to what trait.
Develop a distinct style of your own
The best speakers have a distinct style which they’re usually associated with. Distinct style doesn’t necessarily have to be the way you talk. It can be your appearance too. Anything that you wear or carry or how you express something can be used as a tool to develop a distinct style.
I’m not going to quote examples here because, in my experience, most people have certain biases associated with public personalities so I’d like to stay away from any preconceived notions. However, I would want you to recall any notable speaker you admire and start with the kind of clothes that they wear. After that, move on to the words which they frequently use. Remember the way they quote someone and so on. Now think about the trait that you most vividly remember about them. There you go! That’s their style! The key here is to be remembered! Remembered for good things of course! Or so I hope!
Our brain usually works on the peak-end rule. Our memory graphs usually appear where out of a conversation or a speech, we will either remember the most distinct points (peaks) or the end. In your speech, always use quotable phrases, which can be used by your audience. There is one point that you have to remember here, “never overload your audience with information”. Our brain, a little like a computer processor, has limited processing power. Ask any seasoned hypnotist and they will tell you why. The moment you overload your audience with information, their brains usually shut off. Therefore, if you really want to be an effective speaker, not only should you be aware of when your information becomes an overload, you should also have a distinct style of delivering that information in a way that it is remembered.
It is latin, means know your self. There are a lot of us who don’t know what works for us and what doesn’t. What it is that puts us in a good mood, what energizes us, what annoys us or what dulls us down? The are various stimuli to our responses which sometimes even we ourselves aren’t aware of. All I am asking you to do is to take a peek inside your mind to know the things which work for you. These can be the minute incidents or sometimes even certain small practices which reinvigorate your passion for public speaking; or the things which tick you off. For the former, try to know the stimuli and work towards creating situations which can help you keep going. For the latter, if you can, avoid the situations which can bring you to a level that goes beyond your control. A majority of times, what happens before a speech affects it as much as what happens during the speech.
When I say know yourself, I also mean that you know what your strengths are and how you can play on them. Public speaking just like any other skill doesn’t have a one size fits all approach. Never involve yourself in useless practices which you may have seen working for others. You’re different and your style should be distinct too. A common fact that I can vouch for though, is knowing your content. This will help you with your confidence as well as build confidence in your audience about what you say.
Connect with your audience
In order to develop a connect with your audience, you should know your audience first. Now how do we know the audience? By research of course! Some of the most effective public speakers I have observed, know exactly what the challenges faced by their audience are and that is exactly what becomes the center-point of their speech. Our brains mostly jump queues to process information and there are often times when irrelevant information is discarded by our brains as if it didn’t exist. There are various experiments done by some notable cognitive psychologists like Brian Scholl among many others, which prove how our brains instinctively dismiss everything apart from our point of interest in a specific situation. The moment your talk becomes irrelevant to the audience, no matter what you do, you’ll immediately be dismissed by their brains and they will indulge in side talk, observing a point of interest, like a member of the audience from the opposite gender or may even lose you in their day dreaming or something else that is there on the stage.
You have to be able to know where your audience’s interest lies. The only way you can do that is by knowing your audience, and that plays a pivotal role when it comes to how to improve speaking skills. Also, at this point I should warn you about assumptions, a lot of public speakers fall into that trap. Without any research, they assume their audience to be of a certain kind and prepare their speech in a way that “they” think is best suited for the audience. Well! The only justification I can gather for such mistakes is either complacency or over-confidence. I don’t think I need to further tell you how detrimental it can be for you.
A random quote which I remember from my childhood is that “there’s always a better way of doing something, and the best is always unknown”. Your first public speech may go well or even horribly wrong. The key here is to again, not be complacent. If it went well, look back at the speech to identify the things which went well and why. And if it didn’t go too well, ask yourself the same question. Another question which you should always ask yourself is “what could’ve been done better?” I have seen some notable speakers spend a few minutes quietly after a speech to introspect. One of the speakers adopted a practice which I really liked. What he did after every speech was to fill in a sheet of paper which had three columns.
- What did I do?
- What went well?
- What could’ve been done better?
Without naming him, I would like you to know that one, he is one of the notable speakers in the country and two, every time I observe his speech, it’s better than before.
If I were to list the names of a few contemporary successful entrepreneurs, for people who are often admired and respected for their resilience, there is one name that usually comes up, Elon Musk. He says, that if you want to make progress, seek critical feedback from your friends. This is a point which usually everyone agrees upon but finds it difficult to act on. As difficult as it may seem, there is, however, a fact that you will have to be aware of while seeking feedback, do you want to hear praise or do you want to grow? In my experience as a management coach, I had the opportunity of observing various managers while sharing feedback with their subordinates. Interestingly, you could explicitly see the facial expression of the subordinate change the moment anything critical was said about their performance. Well! Delivering feedback is a topic for another day! What I want to share with you is the fact that we don’t often like receiving critical feedback. Incidentally, no matter how much we want to fight the impulse, our guard immediately goes up the moment we hear anything critical about ourselves. I am not saying it will be easy to fight that impulse the very first time, however, try to be as open to critical feedback as you can be. And try to implement the suggestion which is offered.
Of course, you have to be careful about who you listen to, and what feedback you give precedence to, over the other. In other words, always give preference to important things first and try not devoting too much time to activities which may take a lot of effort and yield little results. I will trust you to be a judge of that. My point is, a perspective from another person gives you an opportunity to know the other side of the coin- something you may have completely missed. Respect that fact and if you can, work on it.
Conquer your fears
Fear as is said, is intrinsic. The only effective way I have seen to conquer fear, and looking for a solution for how to improve speaking skills is by facing it. Stage fear, for instance, is one of the common challenges which public speakers face. There are many notable speakers who have given various techniques on how to conquer stage fear. Ivan Raikov’s method called DTI is an effective technique which I sometimes use with my clients to help them overcome the stage fear. There are many other techniques which are quite effective. Associating triggers, for instance, has proven quite effective for some public speaker. Some effective public speakers I know, even keep a totem as a trigger for dealing with stage fear. A notable point here is that we all are different and to check what works for you, you have to first know yourself as I stated earlier. If you’re unable to do so, use the trail and error method or you can also practice the TOTE model which is sometimes used in NLP.
There are various techniques which work for people to curb nervousness etc, which you can find in my other articles; you can either take some tips from there or you can also find quite a few resources on the internet. Try and see what specifically works for you and use it. All of this falls under the ambit of preparation. I cant stress enough on how important it is.
I would like to conclude by stating that public speaking doesn’t end at one speech. It is an on-going process which has no end. The process of how to improve speaking skills may seem a little slow but you have to find ways to keep going. In the end, you’re the one who has to make a decision on how important public speaking for you is. If it’s important enough, you will always find ways to make it work for yourself. Like we learned as children, where there’s a will… you know the rest!
Contributing Author: Din W (Leadership and Executive Coach)