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.

djt-speakingIn 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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It starts with having something to say

Every successful speech or presentation has a clear message. Ideally, that is the starting point for the whole process: there is something the audience needs to know and your mission is to enlighten them.

A brave young woman called Jessica Clark got past her trepidation about public speaking because the drive to speak out about sexual abuse was so strong. As a public-speaking coach, I would have advised her to take a different approach to preparing the speech we hear in the video, so as to have even more impact and to make it much easier for her to deliver, but that is not to detract one iota from her courage. Despite the rather stilted delivery, the audience is paying attention, because the message is so important.

public speaking: woman with a microphone

Having something worthwhile to say will help you find your voice

Even if your subject is less momentous than Jessica’s, having something worthwhile to convey will give you confidence to speak up, as getting the message out there trumps your reticence. If you’re hovering with these needs finely balanced, concentrating on the content of what you want to share with the audience is a great help with overcoming nerves. It takes the spotlight off you: think of your talk not as a performance but as communicating something the audience needs to know, and automatically the focus shifts.

If you’re starting from the other end – ie, you’ve been asked to make a presentation but you don’t really know what to talk about – the first thing you need to do is to identify the core message you want the audience to take away. This will give your talk meaning and purpose, which already sets it apart from a distressing number of presentations.

The next step is to prepare your material in a way that allows your passion to shine through as you deliver it, but that’s another story. The message for today is that successful public speaking starts with having something to say.

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Using notes effectively in public speaking

bigstock-Business-conference-smallerWhat is all this rubbish about notes undermining a speaker’s credibility? I hear this a lot and I can only assume the speakers in question are using their notes as a script and that what their audiences are objecting to is not the notes as such but the fact that the ‘speakers’ are reading their ‘speeches’. It’s not public reading, folks, it’s public speaking, and reading is no way to engage or build a rapport with the people you’re there to talk to.

Without a script, how are you supposed to remember everything you want to say? Let me first draw your attention to what NOT to do:

DON’T design your PowerPoint slides to double as notes. Your notes are prompts for you; the audience doesn’t need to see them. In any case, if you’re not sure what’s coming next until the slide is displayed to everyone, you’ll always be on the back foot, instead of one step ahead.

DON’T settle down to memorise your talk. This is very nearly as bad as reading it; reciting from an internal script allows you to look at the people in front of you but you’ll still sound stilted. Also, the effort of remembering it will soak up all the energy you need for connecting with the audience.

Public speaking should not be a feat of memory. If you’re going to be saying more than a very few words, notes are the way to go. Properly used, they save all sorts of stress and help you do a much better job – just knowing they’re there will prevent you worrying about your mind going blank. If you refer to your notes only between points, at least half the audience won’t even register you’ve got them, though it really doesn’t matter if they do notice. What is insincere or shabby about wanting to deliver a clear, focused talk in the order you planned it? Far from reducing your credibility, it shows you’re organised and care about giving the audience your best.

That is, of course, if you use your notes sensibly and are not seen to be looking up the name of your company’s managing director or the product you’re trying to sell.

Clients often ask me what their notes should look like. The answer is, it’s completely up to you. Everyone is different and finds different styles of prompt useful. Most people have some variation on bullet points, with a word or two for each one, just enough to remind them what the point is that they want to make. When you start preparing your speech or presentation, you’ll probably have copious jottings, including elements of how you want to express your ideas, as well as what you want to cover. This is fine at the beginning (though beware of writing sentences because they can so easily turn into a script) but, as you refine your talk, cut down your notes so that you’re left only with the what.

Depending on the circumstances in which you’re going to be speaking, the best thing to write your notes on is usually index cards. A sheaf of A4 paper is too much of a barrier between you and the people you’re talking to and an iPad or tablet is too heavy. Write only on one side of the card, for ease of navigation, write clearly and large enough that you can read what you’ve written without having to strain or reach for your glasses. I recommend punching a hole in the corner of your assembled cards and tying them loosely together. Even if you’ve numbered them, if you drop them just before you’re due to speak, it’s just too flustering.

Instead of memorising your talk, say out loud what you’re planning to say until it flows smoothly and consistently. This is how you come to know how you’re going to express yourself: you’ll say it like that on the day because that’s how you always say it.

Your notes are in your hand to act as a map, to keep you on track and make sure you don’t miss out any stages of the journey. The crucial guideline here is that you should never consult your notes while you are actually speaking. All the time you’re talking, you should be looking at the audience. Finish the point you’re making, then, after a couple of seconds, look down at your notes to see what’s next. This is a pause, during which your audience will be thinking about what you’ve just told them, so you’ve got plenty of time. When you’re ready, look up and start speaking again.

As you rehearse, practise looking at your notes between your major points (ie, look at each point you’ve made a note of). If you don’t build this in, on the day you may get carried away and not look at your notes until you get stuck. Not only is this a pity, since notes work best as prevention rather than cure, but you may also find it difficult to locate where you’ve got to, now you’ve gone ahead of your cards.

The only complication is when you’re using a microphone, simply because of not having enough hands. Where possible, check with the venue in advance to see if you can wear a lapel mic. If it’s got to be hand-held, make sure you rehearse with a hairbrush or something similar, so your hands get used to being full and you don’t fumble every time you turn a card.

Don’t be put off by what you hear. When speakers are criticised for using notes, the notes are getting the blame for a badly delivered speech or presentation, when the real problem lies elsewhere. Discreet use of notes, as outlined above, will do nothing to harm your reputation as a confident, effective speaker. In fact, I maintain, it will help to create and strengthen that reputation.

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How to strengthen and improve your public speaking voice

A powerful, compelling voice is a great asset in public speaking. If yours is not like that, let’s have a look at how you can strengthen and improve it.


Vocal warm-up before public speaking

Breathe, warm up, relax… You can find your voice.

In the few minutes before you begin your speech or presentation, take some deep breaths. Breathe into your abdomen, rather than your chest, and focus on the action: breathe in slowly through your nose, then out even more slowly through your mouth. This will calm you (breathing is an excellent tool for reducing anxiety) and bring in more oxygen to stimulate your brain. Feeling more relaxed will automatically give your voice more strength.

Throughout your talk, remember to speak slowly and to pause between your points. This not only makes it much easier for the audience to follow what you’re saying, it also allows you to breathe. Tight and shallow breathing makes for a strained and feeble voice.

Be aware of your posture

Make sure your posture is not inhibiting your voice. If you’re hunched and tense, your vocal cords will have a hard time transmitting your message, so straighten your back and loosen your arms.

Project, don’t shout

Forcing your voice in order to make yourself heard will damage your vocal cords. This is already enough reason not to do it but anyway it won’t make the impression you want it to. The way to project is to keep coming back to the people furthest away as you make eye contact with your audience: if you’ve got the people at the back in mind as you’re speaking, once you’re doing everything else on this list, your voice should naturally rise to the occasion and reach them. If the venue is too big for that, make prior arrangements to use a microphone.

Nurture your voice

Always have some room-temperature water to hand, to keep your vocal cords lubricated. If you suffer from throat dryness or mucus, it’s worth taking some precautions in the days leading up to an important speech or presentation – for example, by cutting right back on caffeine, alcohol, smoking and dairy products and by getting enough sleep and drinking lots of water.

Before a big speaking engagement, it’s useful to warm up your voice. For guidance and inspiration, have a look at how National Theatre actors warm up for their performances. Practise some tongue-twisters, stretch your facial muscles and connect with your body for maximum resonance.


As already mentioned, tension will weaken your voice. As part of your warm-up, you might find some gentle body (as opposed to purely voice or facial) exercises useful in helping you to relax. This video shows you the kind of thing:

Make a conscious effort to relax – it will make everything better and easier, both for you and for the audience. Smile, be positive, enjoy your talk and your voice will find its power.

This is all good advice that will help you to strengthen and improve your public speaking voice, but there’s one crucial factor we haven’t yet looked at and that is…

Be thoroughly prepared

It may sound obvious but trying to find the right words while 10, 20, 100 people are gazing expectantly at you is not only difficult, it’s pretty scary. You can’t possibly do yourself justice in these circumstances and it will have an adverse effect on your voice, both physically because you’ll be tense and psychologically because you’ll be tentative about what you’re saying.

Hone and practise your talk until you know exactly what you’re going to say and how you’re going to express it. If this doesn’t strengthen and improve your public speaking voice to your satisfaction, it may be that some longer-term speech therapy would be the answer. I had a friend with a voice like a little girl’s, who worked with a speech therapist and got great results. I believe in the process, where it’s needed, but most people don’t require that level of intervention.

If you’re wanting to strengthen your voice, I recommend you begin by having some public speaking coaching. Whenever my clients have been unhappy with their voices, learning to prepare thoroughly, so they don’t have to think about what they’re going to say, has freed them from that worry. The key to powerful, compelling delivery is confidence, and confidence comes from knowing exactly what you’re doing.

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Public speaking: it’s nothing to be afraid of

Some degree of nerves at the prospect of addressing an audience is useful, because it drives you to put some effort into preparing a good talk. However, once you’ve honed your material and rehearsed it so that you no longer have to think to find the right words, if you’re still experiencing a high level of anxiety, it’s worth spending some time rationalising your fear. Like all demons, irrational fear of public speaking will shrivel up when you expose it to the light of scrutiny.

When my sister and I were in our early twenties, we each spent a few days in Paris alone. I’m a keen explorer and had no qualms about jumping on the metro and dashing all over that beautiful city. I enjoyed the challenge of negotiating a new system in a foreign language, working out how to buy tickets and make sure I got on the trains that would take me where I wanted to go. When it came to mealtimes, though, my adventurous spirit sagged and I could not summon the courage to go into a restaurant by myself. My sister, on the other hand, couldn’t face the complexities of the metro and confined herself to exploring on foot. But, when it came to gastronomy, she had wonderful experiences, walking through doors I would never have dared to open, discussing menus and asking the patron to recommend wine to go with whatever glorious French dish she was eating.


When we compared notes, we were both surprised by the other’s reactions and took strength from the fact that the other had done without turning a hair that which we had been too scared to do ourselves. Without consciously realising it, we had each assumed that the way we felt was the way it was (I’d assumed going into a Parisian restaurant alone was objectively more difficult than travelling on the metro; my sister had assumed the opposite). Understanding that this was just one interpretation made us question whether either of these feats was actually, genuinely, too frightening to be done.

The reason I’m telling you this is that the same principle applies in public speaking. Some people find small audiences more intimidating than larger ones, others vice-versa. Some people get much more stressed about addressing strangers than colleagues, others vice-versa. Amazingly to me, some people would prefer to sing in public than to speak.

All this shows there is no objective danger in public speaking. As long as you’re well prepared and rehearsed, it’s no more scary than riding the metro in Paris or having a delicious dinner in a little bistrot there.

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When you need to put the bottom line at the top

In a novel I read over the holidays, a woman was on tenterhooks, wondering if the man she’d been seeing had decided to end the relationship. He embarked on a long monologue about how inadequate he felt not working and how he’d been offered a job in another city and, although it wasn’t exactly what he’d thought he wanted, it might be a great opportunity for him. She sat there tensely, waiting for the axe to fall but not wanting to hasten it by interrupting him. He was disappointed by her lack of support as he poured his heart out and began to doubt whether asking her to move away with him was a good idea after all.

Such are the dangers of poor communication. This couple came within a splinter of breaking up over a misunderstanding and, having experienced the woman’s anxiety with her, I reflected how situations like this are occurring all over the world every day – as much in business and other organisations as in our private lives.

Whenever you’re preparing a speech or presentation (a monologue by another name), it’s essential to consider what questions are at the forefront of your audience’s minds, then plan the most effective way to tackle those questions. If you’re nervous about speaking in public, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the people you’re going to be talking to are people, like you and me. They have expectations of what you’re going to say and, if they’re worried about any aspect of it, that will filter their experience of your talk.

psychoI went through similar vicarious apprehension as I listened to a client’s 15-minute address to the workforce at his factory. He discussed the financial problems the company was facing and put those problems into national and international context, then he praised the employees for their hard work and thanked them for their loyalty and dedication. Only at the end of his speech did he get round to saying that, because they’d all made such an effort, productivity had risen and, in spite of the aforementioned economic problems, the factory was making a profit and might even expand.

Luckily, it was a rehearsal I was listening to. When I asked him why he’d chosen to withhold the good news until practically the last line, my client told me he wanted the workforce to listen to everything he had to say and if he answered their burning question straightaway they’d be likely to tune out the rest of the talk.

It doesn’t work like that. If people believe you’re about to announce redundancies, propose a major relocation, make radical changes to an established system or tell them anything else that will have a significant impact on their lives, the question mark looms too large for them, it takes up too much space in their minds; they are unable to put it to one side and calmly take in what you say as you paint an elaborate canvas before putting your audience in the picture.

Answer the big, barrier questions at the beginning. Bad news only gets worse the longer you put off making it official, while good news can be spoilt by being postponed, so that the audience assumes the worst and resigns itself.

I understand where my client was coming from. As every good storyteller knows, if properly used, suspense adds drama and draws the listeners in, so that they’re hanging on every word. This is a great way to get your message across, but it works only when your audience feels sufficiently secure to be able to enjoy the ride. If all they care about is the destination, you need to get straight to the bottom line.

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