The Art and Craft of Public Speaking
Also known as the secrets of how to appear calm & in control when everything is shaking
Us humans are communicative creatures. It’s literally in our DNA. Whether it’s expressed in cave paintings, chanting, story-telling by a camp fire, lullabies sung to our children or a formal yet witty and engaging wedding speech delivered just so, there are so many ways we exchange information and emotions in some kind of public setting.
And that can be terrifying.
Have you ever been in a educational, work or even personal situation where you’re asked to speak in public? Most, if not all, have. And how does that make you feel? As a musician, teacher and guide I have years of experience of public speaking and performances, yet it still fills me with that all-too familiar adrenalin rush some might call fear. The fear of making a mistake and appearing like a fool. The fear that no one will find you interesting and will lose interest. The fear of even hearing your own voice.
But, that adrenalin can be channelled and used. It is such a powerful hormone and ultimately, no great performance truly can reach another’s heart and mind without an element of that energy. I am a firm believer that every single one of us can learn to be in these uncomfortable feelings and every time we do so, we expand our comfort zone, literally creating a new reality for ourselves.
Everything can be broken down, understood, digested and tackled with our intellect so we can achieve this more expanded state we all wish for deep inside, in some way. So, let’s take a brief look at some of the different presentation types, styles and the skills needed for them.
Formal: This might take the form of someone speaking on a stage or podium of sorts in front of a large audience for a workshop or educational lecture. It might be in the arts for a ceremony of sorts or even for a wedding, but this latter obviously includes a cross-over of formal and informal styles. It might be pertinent in a business setting to (potential) clients or employers, which might be to a smaller audience but of certain importance for your work. Often it includes visuals, slides or videos even and sometimes a Q & A at the end. Usually there isn’t much discussion or interaction.
Informal: These are generally more personal and with more interaction with the audience. They might be impromptu settings. In educational settings, seminars are usually held in a classroom and have more open, informal, discussion-based interaction. It might be in a business setting in a client feedback session, talking back and forth.
Personally, when I think of my work in the travel industry, I used to work for a travel company where public speaking was of paramount importance and over the 15 years I was with them, as a guide accompanying affluent clientele around Europe, I had to learn and execute varying presentations, some formal with crucial information for the smooth-running of the trip, often meeting legal safety requirements as it was in active travel. Others needed a more informal approach, for example speaking at dinner in smaller groups, wanting to initiate conversation and generate warm rapport.
Knowing the style you want to use can help enormously with nerves. Knowledge is power. Clarity gives us focus and vision. Then it’s just a question of manifesting that engaging talk you know you have inside.
Visual: The use of slideshows, videos, photography and imagery as a whole can be very useful for large audiences. It can complement and highlight your content and help explain the subject matter more clearly. In business, often people use a combination of graphs and charts to give a focus to their talk and clarity for their audience. There is no end to sub-styles in this genre, including PechaKucha, which is a storytelling format where a presenter shows 20 slides for 20 seconds of commentary each. There are PechaKucha evenings and this could be a great way to hone your presentation skills and get over stage fright.
Story-telling: We’ve mentioned this a couple of times already, but essentially this is a more conversational and informal style, good for teaching, especially children, great in travel and talking about history, yet it is to be avoided in the discovery phase in business, as it is best to keep it on the client and not on yourself.
Free-form: This is my personal favourite. I love going with the flow and allowing for what needs to be expressed to come through. It is impromptu, unplanned, can involve story-telling, humour, usually are for short presentations and are most successful, if you’re extremely familiar with your content. The less rehearsed and more conversational style makes it more engaging and there’s certainly a fair amount of spontaneous energy.
Elevator Pitch: The name says it all. Something you can say concisely, in the time it takes to travel from one floor to another in an elevator. It is often spontaneous, short, memorable. It can be used for impromptu meetings and networking events and usually involves persuasive language. It is good to have in mind as it is very useful to have. This is not my forte but I am working on it.
Now that we’ve looked at types and styles, how about our performance? There is a lot we can look at here which can help enormously to get over bad nerves and to make sure our talk is as engaging as possible, for if no one is listening it doesn’t matter how well you know the subject.
Non-Verbal: These skills are subtle and key. It involves open, relaxed body language, paying attention to not flailing your arms around but not having them too rigid either. Be grounded in your stance, put your shoulders back and breathe. Make sure to use eye contact as this is one of the most useful tools of engagement and it allows you to be perceptive and read your audience. We can also include organisational and time management, planning skills, technical skills (software for your slides) and how you dress.
Verbal: A huge part of your presentation is your voice, and being a voice coach I could write an article (or book) just on this aspect itself. I won’t, but it’s just to say how important it is. It really starts with the breath, so making sure you are breathing using your diaphragm to allow for good projection so people can hear you (though be mindful not to shout) and so you can ground your nerves with correct breathing. Our emotions reflect in our tone of voice, so there is a lot we can do to counter any discomfort. Articulation, concise dialogue, persuasive language and clarity are other aspects which can help. Lastly, when we speak we are singing our story. In Italian it is in fact called a cantilena (cantare means to sing). As humans we have natural intonation based on our language and accent, our emotions, mood and character. Nerves can sometimes cause us to speak in a stilted way as we try to block the nervous emotions. Grounding ourselves, and gaining confidence and experience to ride the waves of the adrenalin rush is the secret. And in the words of Bill Hicks, don’t worry too much cos “it’s just a ride”.
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