When your job is to influence an audience, to persuade them to change their ways or to follow a particular course of action, your public speaking skills need to be well honed. More than communicating a message, you’re motivating people to do something – and for that, you really have to connect with them.
When you’re preparing a persuasive speech, it’s even more important than usual that you know your audience. Who are they? What do they know about the subject? What is their attitude? What are the obstacles – practical and psychological – they would have to overcome in order to do what you want them to? The answers to these questions will help you work out how to pitch your message most effectively.
You also need to know exactly what your message is, what you want your audience to do. Any ambiguity will cause confusion and undermine your effectiveness. Keep it simple and clear: this is not the time for nuance, nor for a lot of detail. If you feel details would be useful, put them in a handout, not in the talk.
Whatever the circumstances, treat the people you’re talking to as your equals: they may not know anything about the subject in which you’re an expert, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. If you patronise them, or if they feel manipulated, your speech will be counter-productive.
Speak in language your audience can understand and relate to, use examples from their world. Bring the subject to life for them. Although your argument must be sound and logical, that’s not what’s going to swing it for you: it’s crucial to engage their emotions. Influence is about hearts, not minds.
Prepare a vivid talk with a strong ending and a clear call to action. Remember that, however serious your subject is, your talk doesn’t have to be heavy. A bit of levity, sensitively conveyed, will support your cause.
Don’t write a script but create your speech by saying it out loud – this way, you know what it will sound like to the audience and you know you’ll be able to deliver it easily. Then rehearse it until you no longer have to think about finding the words. Again, this is even more important than it normally is, because you really need all your energy and focus for connecting with the audience.
You must respect your audience if you want to influence them, but you also need them to respect you. You are the expert here and your demeanour must reflect that; otherwise there’s no reason for the audience even to listen to you, let alone be persuaded by you. It’s not about being superior, it’s about demonstrating you’re worthy of their attention. You’ll achieve this by:
- speaking slowly and pausing between your points
- standing firm and not fidgeting
- making eye contact with every member of your audience (or as many as you realistically can).
It goes without saying that you believe in the message you’re communicating, so let your sincerity shine.