Before I address this question directly, let’s take a minute to examine the extremes on the public-speaking spectrum. At one end, we have those who, whether out of fear or because they just don’t know any better, read word for word from a script. At the other, we have those who, whether out of over-confidence or because they just don’t know any better, believe the talk will work best if they make it up as they go along.
Great public speaking lies in the middle of this spectrum, where careful preparation meets naturalness and authenticity. Speaking from the heart is not about being unprepared, it’s about being sincere.
When I’m driving I tend to listen to Radio 2 and a few times recently it’s been around the time of PopMaster, the quiz on Ken Bruce’s programme. The contestants frequently make the point that, although they normally score highly while playing along at home, live on the national airwaves they suddenly find their brains freezing up. This phenomenon is readily recognised and accepted in the context of answering questions on the radio – so why should it be any different for public speaking?
Something else that highlighted a useful lesson was the positive outcome of a technological malfunction. I was trying to leave a comment on a blog post someone had written about a book I love and the system kept rejecting it. I clicked Submit, the computer whirred and my comment was lost in the ether. On the fourth attempt, I succeeded in making it stick but I realised that with each rewriting my few lines of text had become more focused and pithy. Even though what I wanted to say was quite simple, an emotional reaction to what I’d read, what was finally published was a much better comment than the original version had been. Again, this is the same with public speaking: if you deliver a spontaneous speech or presentation, you may put your point across but you will never do so as concisely and powerfully as you would if you had honed your thoughts in advance.
To engage your audience’s emotions, you need to look at them, talk to them, connect with them. Reading doesn’t cut it – and neither does learning your lines off by heart, because you’re then just reciting from an internal script and you’re still not being natural. On the other hand, gazing blankly out at the sea of faces, while the words you hoped would flow stubbornly elude you, is hardly more inspiring.
You can find detailed advice on my website about how to speak from the heart in a fluent and effective way, so let me leave you with the point I’ve made many times but sums up what I’m trying to say in this post: the holy grail of public speaking is rehearsed spontaneity. Or, to plagiarise from Berocca, what your audience needs to see and hear is you, but on a really good day.