When you do need to ad-lib

The secret to successful public speaking is thorough preparation. A genuinely impromptu speech or presentation is fraught with danger, as is deciding to embellish your talk in the heat of the moment. As I’ve said before on this blog, beware of ad-libbing – unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Distracted public speaker

If there’s a distraction, acknowledge it

Circumstances in which you may need to improvise include technical failure, external interruption (such as a pneumatic drill starting up outside your window), heckling and those nasty moments when you sabotage your own performance by tripping over a cable or dropping the microphone. However well prepared we are, we can never fully eliminate the unexpected and if it happens, on a big enough scale, we have to react to it. Falling off the stage and carrying on with your presentation without breaking your syntax is impressive at one level but, at a more important and realistic level, your audience will no longer be listening. Taking a moment to address what has happened gives everyone a chance to process it. There’s no point in going on until people are able to give you their attention again.

Sometimes life appears to be illustrating your talk and in these cases failing to make some comment to that effect is at the very least a wasted opportunity. If your fall off the stage occurs as you’re discussing health and safety, this irony cannot be ignored. At the Pint of Science festival, a speaker’s obliviousness to a similar irony made the difference between making a strong, memorable point and, as it turned out, just being a bit amateur about his public speaking.

The purpose of being really well prepared and rehearsed is precisely so you won’t be oblivious to what’s going on around you. Once you know your material so well that you don’t have to think about finding the right words, you’re free to connect with the audience. Contrary to what many speakers seem to think, public speaking is not about just getting your stuff said, whether anyone is listening or not. It’s about communicating a message. If circumstances are hindering communication, it’s your job as speaker to sort that out. If you find yourself in a parallel process, unexpectedly illustrating your message, calmly and briefly articulating that can turn a distraction to your advantage.

 

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What can public speakers learn from a department store?

Is there anything on this rack for me?

Sir Ian Cheshire, Chairman of the department-store chain Debenhams, was talking on the radio about why profits are down. He said one of the reasons is the shops have been offering too many items for customers to buy. A lot of choice may seem like a good thing but customers are overwhelmed by the amount of stock and struggle to sift through it all to find what they want. They prefer less stuff, clearly displayed.

When I heard this, I was immediately struck by the parallel with public speaking. To give our message the best chance of being heard, understood and remembered, here are three lessons we can learn from the retail industry:

  1. It is not the audience’s responsibility to rummage through a lot of waffle to discover the message that’s in there somewhere. It is the speaker’s responsibility to identify what is most interesting and relevant to this audience and to present it clearly. Be focused and concise: less is more!
  2. In order to perceive and appreciate what’s on offer, people need time, space and the right environment. Make sure conditions are right for your audience to be able to concentrate on what you’re saying (they can easily hear you, no distractions, etc), then speak slowly and pause between your points. If a shop is overstuffed with goods, customers can’t properly see what’s for sale and will soon get fed up. A tightly packed talk delivered at high speed will have the same effect.
  3. Present your message with confidence and enthusiasm. Look at the difference between a charity shop and a car-boot sale. Second-hand products are second-hand products, but the charity shop makes them seem so much more attractive. The purpose of your talk is not to off-load a pile of stuff you want to get rid of (although to listen to some speakers, one suspects this is indeed their primary aim) but to give your audience a positive experience and something worthwhile to take home with them.
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What public speakers can learn from comic books

When the purpose of your speech or presentation is to inform, or even to educate, as opposed to simply entertain, it’s particularly important to package your material in a way the audience can easily take in, understand and remember. The same applies to books.

In a recent study, researchers at Sheffield Hallam University discovered that students who received academic information in the form of a comic book scored more highly in the memory test afterwards than did students who had received the same information in straight text form. This is in keeping with Allan Paivio’s 1971 dual-coding theory, which suggests the human mind retains information in two different ways, verbally and visually. If we receive the same message both verbally and visually, we have twice the chance of remembering it.

visual-aid-or-hindranceFor public speakers, there are two lessons here:

Make sure every signal you’re sending is congruent. As far as your material is concerned, this means if you’re displaying a slide the message it conveys must accurately match what you’re saying. If your audience is seeing one thing and hearing another, this will confuse them and hinder their capacity to remember either one.

At the more subtle level, this means all the non-verbal cues you’re personally giving out must also back up what you’re saying. If you’re telling the audience a fact, the wrong intonation or a conspicuous lack of eye contact may result in them at least subconsciously questioning whether they believe you.

Bring your material to life. For me, another explanation for students learning better from comics than text books is that illustrations interpret the information and give it a living face. However dry the data you’ve been tasked with presenting, it’s your responsibility as the speaker to infuse it with interest. The right images can certainly help with this but mainly it’s about finding an emotional hook to get your audience to care about what you’re telling them.

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Public speaking: it doesn’t have to be funny to be entertaining

entertainment

Football is many people’s idea of top entertainment

What do you do for fun? Whether it’s shopping, watching football, playing chess, listening to music, dancing, photography, hiking, gardening, painting or even gambling, how many of these activities make you laugh? While everyone enjoys a good laugh, it’s not the only way to have fun. Yet when it comes to making public speaking entertaining, few people seem to think past putting in a few jokes.

For a start, there is a big difference between telling jokes and making your talk funny. Humour can certainly enhance a speech or presentation but it needs to be organic, rather than shoehorned in: set-piece jokes are almost always a bad idea.

But the point I want to make today is that you can deliver an entertaining talk without any comedy at all. Entertaining is not all about laughs, it’s about drawing the audience in so that you have their full attention. In his advice about how to wow a crowd, internationally acclaimed public speaker Brian Tracy doesn’t even mention humour.

The reason so much is made of storytelling in public speaking is that a good story well told is a sure-fire way to engage the audience. People will keep listening if they care what happens next, if they have emotionally bought into your tale.

Humour is only one tool in the entertaining speaker’s toolbox. Human interest, drama and suspense can be equally effective – if not more so – and are often easier to pull off than trying to make people laugh. Next time you’re asked to give a talk, instead of googling “jokes for public speaking”, invest some time in finding the story you can tell that will bring your content to life.

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How long does it take to get good at public speaking?

getting good at public speakingThis is a question I’m asked a lot and people tend to be surprised by my response. For a start, there is no blithely definitive answer such as 10,000 hours; it’s not as straightforward as that. While it’s true that the more experienced you are, the easier you’ll find it to prepare and deliver a successful talk, that is by no means the whole story. There are two distinct phases to the process of getting good at public speaking. The first takes far less time than most people imagine and the second takes rather more.

The first phase is to learn the practical techniques and psychological strategies that underpin any successful speech or presentation. This means: get some coaching! Learning public speaking through trial and error is at best slow and inconsistent, at worst traumatic. The right coaching, on the other hand, is not only effective but efficient. The vast majority of my clients reach a liberating breakthrough in one or two sessions – that’s a maximum of three hours.

The second phase involves preparing a specific speech or presentation. This is the part that people usually underestimate, which is why I always recommend that you start working on your talk as soon as you’ve agreed to do it. If it’s ready with days – or even weeks – to spare, that’s great; you can put it in a drawer until nearer the day. But you don’t know how long you’re going to need to create and rehearse it, so don’t sabotage your success by not allowing enough time to prepare.

This second phase consists of two sub-phases: creating your talk and rehearsing it. You first need to work out what you want to say and how you want to say it. Then, when you’re happy with it, you need to rehearse it until you no longer have to think about finding the words. Depending on the length of your talk, it can be several weeks’ work to beat the content into the right shape. Then you may need to rehearse it 30 or more times until the moment comes when you know you’ve nailed it.

If the stakes are high, you have somehow got to make sure you go through the full cycle of this process, however long it takes. The rewards are so well worth the time and effort.

For low-stakes talks, this is where experience supports you. If you haven’t got time to prepare thoroughly, or don’t feel the occasion warrants the effort, using the practical techniques and psychological strategies, you can still deliver a good-enough presentation. The more often you’ve done this, the better it will be.

However, by putting in the time and effort to complete the process, even a beginner can deliver a talk that will wow the audience.

To return to the original question, how long does it take to get good at public speaking?, the answer is you can learn the techniques in a few hours. If what you’re really asking is how long it may take you to prepare a good speech or presentation, we’re into how-long-is-a-piece-of-string territory. To avoid the stress of having only enough to tie a tiny, insecure knot with it, my advice is to allow time and space for a large ball of twine.

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Public speaking: take control

As 2016 draws to a close, all I seem to be hearing is how terrible this year has been. While the endless negative comments usually contain a sort of subdued optimism (surely 2017 can’t be any worse?!), my fear is that the first sign of trouble in the new year will crush that fragile hope and the pall that has hung increasingly heavily over 2016 will be back in place.

I can’t help feeling this general consensus that everything is awful is in danger of becoming self-fulfilling. The power of the mind is lop-sided in this regard: although positive thinking is inherently good, it’s not sufficient in itself to ensure a positive outcome. Negative thinking, on the other hand, can be all it takes to turn any event pear-shaped.

One of the consequences of national negativity is that people tend to feel less in control of their destiny and more passive about their role in shaping it. From “The world is falling apart and I can’t do anything to stop it” it’s but a short step to “Anything I set out to achieve is doomed to failure, so there’s no point in even trying”. My message to you, on the cusp of 2017, is this: you have far more power than you may realise, to create a bright future for yourself and, yes, even to change the world!

This blog is about public speaking, so let’s focus on that. A negative attitude will sabotage any attempt to deliver a worthwhile speech or presentation, so let go of your preconceptions and hold on to the fact that anyone and everyone can be good at public speaking. A positive attitude will help you feel more confident about addressing an audience but this is not enough by itself. Telling yourself “It’ll be fine… it’s got to be…”, while taking no action, will sabotage your success just as surely as telling yourself it’s going to be a disaster. The way to succeed is by learning the techniques and applying them.

winner-cup

We can all be winners – if we put the work in

I don’t know who said it first but I’m a great believer in the idea the harder I work, the luckier I get. Contrary to popular opinion, effective public speakers are not lucky people who were born with the gift; they are people who’ve worked very hard at honing and polishing their content and delivery.

Gloom can be stultifying but we can dispel it by standing up and taking control of our lives. If public speaking is a worry for you, you can change that in a few hours, by confronting it and learning how to do it well. Losers tend to reckon things can’t be done, whereas winners know they can reach their goals because they take the necessary action to get them there. As we enter 2017, let’s remember, we are all capable of doing this.

Happy New Year!

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Public speaking: how to sound natural and make an impact

At one end of the public-speaking continuum, we have the tight speaker who reads from a script. At the other, we have the loose speaker who improvises delivery. In most situations, what we’re aiming at is to strike the happy medium between these two extremes, to know exactly what we’re going to say, yet to deliver it in a way that sounds natural.

happy-mediumIf you begin by writing a script, even if you go on to speak from brief notes (or none at all), the risk is that you’ll still sound as if you’re reading, because you’re reciting something that was originally written, rather than spoken. On the other hand, speaking off the cuff is never going to be as focused, clear and effective as delivering something you’ve prepared and practised.

For inexperienced public speakers, a large part of the problem is the language that’s commonly used to describe the preparation phase: writing a speech is surely a contradiction in terms. Yes, there are those who excel at this task, particularly for formal, set-piece occasions (such as political speeches), but there are also people who can write novels or plays and most of us would not assume we could do that without training – or not for public consumption, anyway.

The happy medium between writing a script and improvising is developing your talk organically, by speaking out loud.

Think of a story from your life that you’ve recounted many times over the years. When you first narrated that incident, it probably wasn’t as well crafted as it is now. Over the course of repeated tellings, you’ve honed your wording, cut out any waffle and fine-tuned your punchline, so as to have maximum impact on your audience. This is exactly the process you need to apply to your speech or presentation.

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