Public speaking throws up many fears and challenges for all of us. As part of High Impact Presentations, one of our public speaking courses, we have been surveying the various participants for the last four years about the types of things they most want to improve. The most common request, from both Japanese and English speakers, is to "be clear when presenting". What do they mean by clear? The speakers want their message to get across to the audience, to be easy to follow, to have some impact from their efforts to get up in front of others and speak.
This is not easy, mainly because we keep snatching defeat from the jaws of victory! There are some errors we make which kill our ability to communicate with the audience. Here are some critical factors to make sure that situation never occurs.
Firstly, we should decide what is the purpose of our talk? Is it to Entertain people, so they leave feeling warm and fuzzy about us and our organization? Is it to Convince them or to Impress them that our organization is reliable and trustworthy? Is it to Persuade or Inspire them to take some action that we are recommending? Is it to just Inform them of some recent data or information that is relevant to their industry? We need to be crystal clear about what we are trying to do with our talk, before we even worry about the design, production and delivery.
Secondly, we need to thoroughly investigate beforehand just who will we be talking to? What is the generational mix, the age demographic, the male/female split? Are they experts, amateurs, dilettantes, critics, supporters, potential clients, etc.? We need to pitch our talk at the right level for the audience – no dumbing down to the exceedingly well informed, insulting them at every turn. We don’t want to be an acronym heaven dweller or a specialist jargon snob, baffling the punters completely. We need to gauge our listener’s level of comprehension and make sure we are talking to them at their level of expertise.
Thirdly, we should rehearse our talk before we give it. Sounds straight forward doesn’t it, except that hardly anyone does this! In sales we always advise, "Never practice on the client". Presenters should heed the same sage like advice. If we prepare the talk in writing, we may find the cadence is different when we say the words out loud, compared to when we read it on a page. We also may find we have misjudged the time completely and be too long or too short. We need to start singling out key words we want to hit harder than others for emphasis. Speaking in a boring monotone is one of the most common errors of non-professional, non-competent speakers.
Some Japanese speakers have complained to me that they are at a permanent disadvantage with public speaking, because the Japanese language is a monotone, non-tonal language. True, it lacks the tonal variety of English but there are two simple changes we can make when speaking Japanese to break out of the monotony. Apply pace to speed up or slooow right down. Another variation is to add more power to a word or phrase or to speak in an audible whisper, removing the power altogether. Both of these techniques will help monotone speakers vary their presentation and maintain the interest of their audience.
Fourthly, get the mechanics of delivery right. The message cannot stand by itself; the quality of the content is not enough; the supreme value of the data is insufficient - if people can’t hear you. Yes, physically they can hear you are speaking, but when the content and the delivery are not in harmony, only 7% of the message is actually getting through to the audience. That is a shockingly low number.
The research on this is quite well established and it makes sense. When the message content is not congruent with the way you deliver the message, we get distracted by how you are dressed, by your body language, by the tone of your voice. As an example, if I said , "I am really excited about the prospects for this new technology" in a totally flat, no energy, barely audible monotone voice, with a bored, unhappy expression on my face and delivered it while looking down at the lectern and not at my audience, only 7% of people would get the message. Many speakers make it hard for themselves because they talk to precisely no one. They look at their notes or the screen or the floor or the ceiling; anywhere, but at that sea of expectant faces carefully scrutinising them.
Engage your audience by using eye contact and keep each person’s gaze for around 6 seconds to make the eye contact meaningful, without it becoming intrusive. Japanese friends tell me "In japan, we are taught not to make eye contact". That may be the case for normal conversation but once you have an audience, you are now in a different role. We need to step it up if we want to have the audience buy what we are saying or to keep interest in our message.
This is where making eye contact for 6 seconds works so well. The members of the audience feel we are speaking directly to them and they gravitate to us as a result, because we have engaged them. Also, get you face involved! If it is good news, then smile; if you suggest doubt, have a quizzical expression on your face; if the information is surprising, have an expression of wonder; if it is bad news look unhappy or concerned. A wooden face, totally devoid of expression is a tremendous waste, when we have so much potential to add power to our words with our facial expression. Japanese speakers can gain a lot here because often they fail to take advantage of the face as a medium of their message.
A well placed pause is a brilliant way to get the audience focused on what we have just said. Often when we are nervous we speed up and start running the ideas together. This makes it hard for the audience to digest the key points, because the points are rapidly overwhelming and replacing each other. A pause also gives us time to regroup our thoughts and calm down a bit, if we found we were getting a bit too fast in the delivery.
Throw in some gestures to add power to the words, but don’t maintain the same gesture for longer than 15 seconds. Utilise your palms, so that they can be seen by the audience. Don’t hide them behind your back, or lock them up protecting your groin or keep them hidden away in your pockets. This is the classic refuge of my fellow Aussie executives. They don’t know what to do with their hands so one slip into the pocket. The really confused CEOs from "downunder" put both hands in their pockets for a stereo effect. A gesture made too low may not be able to be seen by parts of the audience, so make the gesture zone between chest height and head. The gestures should be natural and not Shakespearian or thespian. Leave acting to the experts, be natural, be your "professional" self.
When we know why and who we are speaking to; when we get voice, face and hands working in unison to add strength to what we are saying, we get 100% of the audience to clearly absorb our message. It is quite clear what we have to do isn’t it!