I’m surprised how many teachers, fearless when surrounded by potentially hostile teenagers, are terrified at the idea of addressing a group of adults. Teaching skills are fundamental to successful public speaking, so if you’re a teacher worried about public speaking, take heart! And if you’re not a teacher, have a look at your presentation from a teacher’s perspective and see how it helps you.
The big advantage teachers have as public speakers is understanding that the process is not about them, it’s about the students. In business, I’m saddened by how often a speaker considers success to lie in having put the information out there, no matter whether anyone took it in or not. At school, saying “We covered that last week” doesn’t cut it: if Johnny doesn’t understand or remember, you have failed in your mission.
Here are some lessons we can lift from the classroom and apply in the public speaking arena:
Be realistic about how many facts and figures the audience can absorb in one go. Instead of drowning them in detail, make sure they grasp the key concepts. Take yourself back to a history or a maths lesson at school – how much would have been too much?
Make your talk interesting. Ditch the jargon and any ‘public speaking’ pomposity; instead use everyday language and vivid imagery. Tell a story, engage the audience’s emotions as well as their intellect. Do all this with enthusiasm. Which of your teachers inspired you? How did they do it?
Give your talk a shape. A purely linear presentation offers no opportunity for repetition or reinforcement. A good lesson consists of several phases making up a cohesive whole, allowing the teacher to keep returning to the central theme and to facilitate the students’ learning through various activities. While your presentation may not lend itself to much in the way of audience participation (see next point), you’ll make more impact by structuring your material in a lesson-like shape.
Make your talk as interactive as possible. Where circumstances permit, getting your audience to carry out a practical task can be an excellent way to help them understand and remember what you’re telling them. If this isn’t suitable, you can always make your listeners feel as if they’re taking part in the narrative. Eye contact is crucial to this, as is body language, but you can also ask questions to keep the audience focused and stimulated. You may or may not want them to answer out loud; the point is to get them actively thinking.
Connect with your audience. Watch their faces and check everyone is with you before you move on. You may remember from your schooldays the frustration of being left behind as the teacher forged ahead – I certainly do. The last thing you want is to leave your listeners feeling stupid or irritated. As all good teachers know, if the students are paying attention but not understanding, this is your fault for not explaining it properly. (And if they’re not paying attention, why is that?)
Thinking of public speaking as a form of teaching is useful on several levels. It helps you to plan, structure and deliver your talk in a way that the audience will respond to and remember. It also reduces the fear element, by shifting the focus away from you and on to the audience.