In every area of life, it can be useful sometimes to go back to first principles and assess why we do things. In the case of public speaking, it may seem obvious what the point is – and yet a client told me recently she had never thought about her presentations from the audience’s perspective: she had always been too concerned about herself to think about them.
This perceptive admission by my client goes right to the heart of why public speaking is so widely considered difficult and scary – and why it is so often done badly. Yes, there are skills and techniques to learn, just as there are in acting, singing and everything else we might perform in public but, in the end, it’s not about us, the speakers; it’s about them, the audience. With all the hype about public speaking (90% of the population would rather die, etc), it’s no wonder the objective sometimes gets obscured by the miasma of stress that surrounds it.
Public speaking, like private speaking, is supposed to be communication. The purpose of your talk is not to get through it as quickly as possible so you can get out of the limelight. Neither is it to show off. The purpose is to connect with the people in front of you and inform, enlighten, move, entertain, persuade them, as the situation requires – and you will never achieve this if you don’t think about it from the audience’s point of view. Once you start to tune into what your audience needs, it actually becomes much easier to prepare a successful talk because suddenly it’s clear why it’s such a bad idea to pack too much into a short time, to make your entire presentation sound like one long sentence, to speak over slides dense with text, and so on.
My friend Iain, who is one of the country’s leading close-up magicians, told me something once that I feel sums up what I’m trying to say here. He said he had laboured for many years, in his youth, under the mistaken impression that success was the smooth execution of intricate methods and complicated moves. Actually, he came to realise, the tricks that really excite people are the ones with the strongest, most direct effects – which are often those with the simplest secrets to them. It’s not about what you, the performer, can do. It’s about what they, the audience, will understand, appreciate and remember.