What public speakers can learn from comic books

When the purpose of your speech or presentation is to inform, or even to educate, as opposed to simply entertain, it’s particularly important to package your material in a way the audience can easily take in, understand and remember. The same applies to books.

In a recent study, researchers at Sheffield Hallam University discovered that students who received academic information in the form of a comic book scored more highly in the memory test afterwards than did students who had received the same information in straight text form. This is in keeping with Allan Paivio’s 1971 dual-coding theory, which suggests the human mind retains information in two different ways, verbally and visually. If we receive the same message both verbally and visually, we have twice the chance of remembering it.

visual-aid-or-hindranceFor public speakers, there are two lessons here:

Make sure every signal you’re sending is congruent. As far as your material is concerned, this means if you’re displaying a slide the message it conveys must accurately match what you’re saying. If your audience is seeing one thing and hearing another, this will confuse them and hinder their capacity to remember either one.

At the more subtle level, this means all the non-verbal cues you’re personally giving out must also back up what you’re saying. If you’re telling the audience a fact, the wrong intonation or a conspicuous lack of eye contact may result in them at least subconsciously questioning whether they believe you.

Bring your material to life. For me, another explanation for students learning better from comics than text books is that illustrations interpret the information and give it a living face. However dry the data you’ve been tasked with presenting, it’s your responsibility as the speaker to infuse it with interest. The right images can certainly help with this but mainly it’s about finding an emotional hook to get your audience to care about what you’re telling them.

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Public speaking: it doesn’t have to be funny to be entertaining


Football is many people’s idea of top entertainment

What do you do for fun? Whether it’s shopping, watching football, playing chess, listening to music, dancing, photography, hiking, gardening, painting or even gambling, how many of these activities make you laugh? While everyone enjoys a good laugh, it’s not the only way to have fun. Yet when it comes to making public speaking entertaining, few people seem to think past putting in a few jokes.

For a start, there is a big difference between telling jokes and making your talk funny. Humour can certainly enhance a speech or presentation but it needs to be organic, rather than shoehorned in: set-piece jokes are almost always a bad idea.

But the point I want to make today is that you can deliver an entertaining talk without any comedy at all. Entertaining is not all about laughs, it’s about drawing the audience in so that you have their full attention. In his advice about how to wow a crowd, internationally acclaimed public speaker Brian Tracy doesn’t even mention humour.

The reason so much is made of storytelling in public speaking is that a good story well told is a sure-fire way to engage the audience. People will keep listening if they care what happens next, if they have emotionally bought into your tale.

Humour is only one tool in the entertaining speaker’s toolbox. Human interest, drama and suspense can be equally effective – if not more so – and are often easier to pull off than trying to make people laugh. Next time you’re asked to give a talk, instead of googling “jokes for public speaking”, invest some time in finding the story you can tell that will bring your content to life.

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How long does it take to get good at public speaking?

getting good at public speakingThis is a question I’m asked a lot and people tend to be surprised by my response. For a start, there is no blithely definitive answer such as 10,000 hours; it’s not as straightforward as that. While it’s true that the more experienced you are, the easier you’ll find it to prepare and deliver a successful talk, that is by no means the whole story. There are two distinct phases to the process of getting good at public speaking. The first takes far less time than most people imagine and the second takes rather more.

The first phase is to learn the practical techniques and psychological strategies that underpin any successful speech or presentation. This means: get some coaching! Learning public speaking through trial and error is at best slow and inconsistent, at worst traumatic. The right coaching, on the other hand, is not only effective but efficient. The vast majority of my clients reach a liberating breakthrough in one or two sessions – that’s a maximum of three hours.

The second phase involves preparing a specific speech or presentation. This is the part that people usually underestimate, which is why I always recommend that you start working on your talk as soon as you’ve agreed to do it. If it’s ready with days – or even weeks – to spare, that’s great; you can put it in a drawer until nearer the day. But you don’t know how long you’re going to need to create and rehearse it, so don’t sabotage your success by not allowing enough time to prepare.

This second phase consists of two sub-phases: creating your talk and rehearsing it. You first need to work out what you want to say and how you want to say it. Then, when you’re happy with it, you need to rehearse it until you no longer have to think about finding the words. Depending on the length of your talk, it can be several weeks’ work to beat the content into the right shape. Then you may need to rehearse it 30 or more times until the moment comes when you know you’ve nailed it.

If the stakes are high, you have somehow got to make sure you go through the full cycle of this process, however long it takes. The rewards are so well worth the time and effort.

For low-stakes talks, this is where experience supports you. If you haven’t got time to prepare thoroughly, or don’t feel the occasion warrants the effort, using the practical techniques and psychological strategies, you can still deliver a good-enough presentation. The more often you’ve done this, the better it will be.

However, by putting in the time and effort to complete the process, even a beginner can deliver a talk that will wow the audience.

To return to the original question, how long does it take to get good at public speaking?, the answer is you can learn the techniques in a few hours. If what you’re really asking is how long it may take you to prepare a good speech or presentation, we’re into how-long-is-a-piece-of-string territory. To avoid the stress of having only enough to tie a tiny, insecure knot with it, my advice is to allow time and space for a large ball of twine.

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Public speaking: take control

As 2016 draws to a close, all I seem to be hearing is how terrible this year has been. While the endless negative comments usually contain a sort of subdued optimism (surely 2017 can’t be any worse?!), my fear is that the first sign of trouble in the new year will crush that fragile hope and the pall that has hung increasingly heavily over 2016 will be back in place.

I can’t help feeling this general consensus that everything is awful is in danger of becoming self-fulfilling. The power of the mind is lop-sided in this regard: although positive thinking is inherently good, it’s not sufficient in itself to ensure a positive outcome. Negative thinking, on the other hand, can be all it takes to turn any event pear-shaped.

One of the consequences of national negativity is that people tend to feel less in control of their destiny and more passive about their role in shaping it. From “The world is falling apart and I can’t do anything to stop it” it’s but a short step to “Anything I set out to achieve is doomed to failure, so there’s no point in even trying”. My message to you, on the cusp of 2017, is this: you have far more power than you may realise, to create a bright future for yourself and, yes, even to change the world!

This blog is about public speaking, so let’s focus on that. A negative attitude will sabotage any attempt to deliver a worthwhile speech or presentation, so let go of your preconceptions and hold on to the fact that anyone and everyone can be good at public speaking. A positive attitude will help you feel more confident about addressing an audience but this is not enough by itself. Telling yourself “It’ll be fine… it’s got to be…”, while taking no action, will sabotage your success just as surely as telling yourself it’s going to be a disaster. The way to succeed is by learning the techniques and applying them.


We can all be winners – if we put the work in

I don’t know who said it first but I’m a great believer in the idea the harder I work, the luckier I get. Contrary to popular opinion, effective public speakers are not lucky people who were born with the gift; they are people who’ve worked very hard at honing and polishing their content and delivery.

Gloom can be stultifying but we can dispel it by standing up and taking control of our lives. If public speaking is a worry for you, you can change that in a few hours, by confronting it and learning how to do it well. Losers tend to reckon things can’t be done, whereas winners know they can reach their goals because they take the necessary action to get them there. As we enter 2017, let’s remember, we are all capable of doing this.

Happy New Year!

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Public speaking: how to sound natural and make an impact

At one end of the public-speaking continuum, we have the tight speaker who reads from a script. At the other, we have the loose speaker who improvises delivery. In most situations, what we’re aiming at is to strike the happy medium between these two extremes, to know exactly what we’re going to say, yet to deliver it in a way that sounds natural.

happy-mediumIf you begin by writing a script, even if you go on to speak from brief notes (or none at all), the risk is that you’ll still sound as if you’re reading, because you’re reciting something that was originally written, rather than spoken. On the other hand, speaking off the cuff is never going to be as focused, clear and effective as delivering something you’ve prepared and practised.

For inexperienced public speakers, a large part of the problem is the language that’s commonly used to describe the preparation phase: writing a speech is surely a contradiction in terms. Yes, there are those who excel at this task, particularly for formal, set-piece occasions (such as political speeches), but there are also people who can write novels or plays and most of us would not assume we could do that without training – or not for public consumption, anyway.

The happy medium between writing a script and improvising is developing your talk organically, by speaking out loud.

Think of a story from your life that you’ve recounted many times over the years. When you first narrated that incident, it probably wasn’t as well crafted as it is now. Over the course of repeated tellings, you’ve honed your wording, cut out any waffle and fine-tuned your punchline, so as to have maximum impact on your audience. This is exactly the process you need to apply to your speech or presentation.

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Public speaking: not the arena for multi-tasking

When I was a student, I used to be able to do a Russian translation and follow a play on the radio at the same time. Over the years, my capacity for multi-tasking has dwindled to almost nothing: these days even scrolling through Facebook with the Today programme on in the background makes my brain ache. Apparently, feeling drained by multi-tasking is scientifically explained by it using up oxygenated glucose, and it certainly makes sense to me that doing two things at once is more demanding than doing one at a time. When we choose to do it, it’s not because it’s more efficient, it’s usually because we want some inducement to get on with something that’s quite hard work.

mono-taskingHowever, it’s only a strain when the two tasks are similar (both cognitive or both physical): listening to the radio while I’m washing up or ironing is a completely different matter. As the BBC’s Claudia Hammond points out, “If the tasks are different enough then multi-tasking can even improve your performance”. What helps and what hinders us varies from individual to individual, as well as on the intensity of the tasks. According to Ms Hammond’s article, about 2% of the population are natural multi-taskers, while for the rest of us performance can benefit from it sometimes and suffer at other times, depending what we’re trying to do.

Most people find it easy to walk and think at the same time. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman says, “Indeed, I suspect that the mild physical arousal of the walk may spill over into greater mental alertness”. Yet when the task is to walk as fast as possible, it is much more difficult to think coherently. Conversely, if the mental task is too taxing, we stop walking because all our energy is focused on solving the question we’re thinking about.

Now let’s introduce stress. Putting aside any flashes of genius that have come to people whose backs were hard up against the wall, I imagine most of us would agree that, under pressure, we don’t think as clearly and as well as we do when we’re relaxed. If this is true anyway, how much more challenging is it to be multi-tasking under pressure?

The reason I’m discussing this here is, of course, to relate it to public speaking. If you’ve never looked at it this way before, here is the truth: expressing yourself coherently is one task; connecting with your audience is another. Yes, in everyday conversation we achieve both simultaneously without turning a hair – but don’t underestimate how different it is when you’re the only one speaking, a) for an unnaturally long time and b) to a big group.

Some degree of multi-tasking is unavoidable (even desirable) in the normal course of work and home life. When you’re making a speech or presentation, however, there is no room for multi-tasking. If you’re trying to find the right words at the same time as you’re trying to connect with your listeners, one or other task will suffer. It’s usually the latter, meaning all the effort going into the former will be largely wasted, since the audience won’t be listening. Where a speaker favours connection over finding the right words, the risk is of saying something he/she will regret.

And let’s not forget, a modern audience is accustomed to multi-tasking. If they’re not fully engaged with the talk, they will soon be surreptitiously checking their messages, possibly believing they are still listening, though actually they will retain little or nothing of what the speaker is working so hard to tell them. If you don’t want your audience to be multi-tasking, you mustn’t be doing it either! The cognitive effort to work out exactly what you want to say needs to be made in advance, so that on the day you’re free to concentrate entirely on the all-important task of connecting and communicating with the people in front of you.

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Don’t confuse authentic with unprepared

The pros and cons of the digital age have thrown up a big question for public speakers: how polished should your performance be? On the one hand, since there’s always a chance a snippet of your talk will end up on YouTube, you want to avoid doing anything that may come back to haunt you. On the other hand, audiences are increasingly mistrustful of speakers who appear too slick and rehearsed.

In a culture of soundbites and media manipulation, authenticity has come to be a highly prized quality in public figures. Jeremy Corbyn’s authenticity is respected by his supporters and detractors alike – and Donald Trump’s popularity is largely ascribed to his authenticity (though I’m less convinced of its accuracy in his case).

It was Mr Trump’s performance in the debate with Hillary Clinton on Monday that prompted me to write this post. For whatever reason, the Republican candidate had not prepared effectively for this event and found himself on uneven ground, often on the back foot. While some have criticised his quirky and difficult-to-pin-down public speaking style, Mr Trump and his supporters characterise it as ‘telling it like it is’, being authentic, speaking from the heart, and many applaud him for it. Yet on Monday evening his approach let him down. A debate, by its interactive nature, is different from simply making a speech but I would have imagined that, for someone who prefers to speak spontaneously, it would be easier rather than more difficult.

The big lesson we can all take from this is that, even if you don’t care about expressing yourself in a considered and coherent way, even if you believe it’s better not to choose your words carefully in advance but to wait and see what comes out in the moment, you still can’t afford not to plan the points you want to make. Under the heat of the spotlight, if you haven’t prepared what you want to say, let alone how you want to say it, however supremely confident you are, you’re going to struggle.

And if you’re not supremely confident, beware! Standing in front of even ten people waiting to hear what you’ve got to say, if you don’t know exactly what that is, don’t expect it to come to you as you stand there. The ideas you discuss so eloquently over the dinner table or in the pub desert you in your hour of need and your mind goes blank: an experience I would not wish on my most ardent political opponent.

While I agree that passion is more important than polish, public speakers don’t have to choose one or the other. Too polished and you risk becoming robotic or plasticated and you’ll lose your connection with the audience. But this doesn’t mean you should go to the other extreme. An improvised speech is never going to be as articulate and effective as a speech that has been well prepared.

What I always advocate is rehearsed spontaneity. Of course, you need to sound natural and sincere, but you can still do that if you’ve worked out what you want to say and practised it. Honing and rehearsing your talk doesn’t make it any less true or heartfelt. Authenticity lies in the content, not the delivery.

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