It’s British party conference season and pundits are busy analysing politicians’ speeches, assessing the impact not only on those present in the auditorium but also on those watching and listening at home. Ever since these events started being broadcast, speakers have had to consider not only how they put themselves across to the people in front of them but also how well they come over on television and radio at the same time. As if that weren’t challenging enough, these days there is also social media to contend with.
Increasingly, it’s not only politicians who are in this position, as more and more conferences, lectures, training events and other meetings and discussions are streamed online or uploaded to YouTube. And, apart from individual audience members getting out their phones and letting their Facebook friends or Twitter followers know what they think of this talk so far, often this is made official, with someone from the organisational team being given the job of tweeting what unfolds as it happens. Occasionally, the speaker is faced with a gigantic live Twitter feed showing reactions to what he or she is saying, in real time.
I admit I have struggled to embrace all this. I like to be able to give my whole attention to connecting with the people in front of me and I like them to be fully engaged with what I’m telling them, not playing around with their phones. But King Canute was not a helpful role-model, so let’s look at how we can make the best of the new reality and even use it to our advantage.
As far as the broadcast element is concerned, my advice is to think carefully about the external audience as you’re preparing what to say but then to deliver to the audience you can actually see. If you concentrate on the wider audience at the expense of the people who have made the effort to be there, what the viewers at home will see is you addressing the camera, while a disengaged crowd shuffles, sighs, fidgets and possibly walks out.
Social media is a more complex question. I imagine few of us so far have experienced the projected live Twitter feed while we’ve been giving a talk but this may well be the future, so we’d better prepare for it. The big danger is allowing ourselves to be controlled by the Twittersphere, which will rebound badly on us. We must not be distracted by reading comments and wondering what’s coming next. Even more crucially, we must not be undermined by virtual hecklers unencumbered by the sort of qualms potential flesh-and-blood hecklers have. A feature of public speaking that I particularly value is the chance to have my say in full without being interrupted, to be able to paint the whole picture before judgement is pronounced on it. Live tweeting removes this luxury.
The way to emerge triumphant from what may feel like a 21st-century version of an ancient Roman game is to be thoroughly prepared and to stay grounded. I know this is what I say about public speaking in general but what’s great about that is that you don’t need to acquire any other skill, you just need the tools you would have been relying on anyway – though you’ll want to invest in bigger ones.
Thorough preparation involves, as in the case of being broadcast, giving serious thought to how what you’re planning to say will sound to those outside the auditorium. I’m not suggesting you should necessarily change much or pull any punches; I’m recommending you think about it, so you’re not taken by surprise by how people respond.
Thorough preparation also means knowing what you’re going to say so well that there is space in your mind as you’re delivering your talk to encompass feedback being thrown at you unexpectedly.
Twitter users may find it more exciting to attack you than to support you but, if you see that as the sport it in many ways is, you don’t need to feel threatened by it. If you’re guided by integrity and authenticity, you will be doing your best and you have nothing to be ashamed of, so stand firm and hold your head high.
If you’re not confronted with a live feed, remember that people may still be reporting on social media what’s going on and how they feel about what they’re seeing and hearing. I personally would prefer them not to do this until after I’ve finished, but that’s probably the teacher in me (if they’re multi-tasking, they’re not properly learning!). Whether we like it or not, this is the way life is going, so let’s find what’s positive about it.
The huge benefit is the potential for ongoing communication, with your audience and with the world beyond. Instead of existing in a vacuum, your talk becomes part of a bigger conversation. OK, this raises the stakes, but it also vastly increases the prospective gain. Since public speaking is a game not of chance but of skill (ie, your fate is determined by your own behaviour, not luck), the opportunity to reap additional reward for your hard work is surely to be welcomed.