Public Speaking in a Nutshell
By Matt Deaton, M.A. (PhD ABD)
Here’s a crash course in the essentials of public speaking. Much of it comes from my experience as a public speaker (teaching counts), from coaching students, from student feedback (I always solicit anonymous feedback halfway through the semester), from professor critiques when I was a traditional student, from books, online articles and videos (youtube’s a wonderful resource!). In fact, I’ll include three recommended resources from the magical Internets at the end, so you can immediately expand your expertise (no need to track down a book—it’s all right there online). From my experience, nonacademics know more about good public speaking anyway, or at least they know how to better teach it in a hurry. If you really care about getting better, don’t forget to check them out!
I break public speaking down into three blocks:
1. Know Thine Material
2. Be Thyself
3. The Mechanics
All three are important to pull off a successful presentation—one that accurately and completely communicates the information you want to convey and leaves the audience with a positive impression. Those simple goals color my approach to public speaking—communicate and impress.
Experts often talk about persuading the audience, but as a philosopher, I’m not so much worried about mere persuasion. I’m of course more worried about getting closer to the truth. Two or three or twenty-five heads working together are typically better able to figure out what’s true than one working alone, so I see my job as speaker to clearly convey what I’ve figured out—to translate my ideas, warts and all. I don’t make anything mysterious or use slights of hand to smooth over weak spots in my argument. Everything is explicit, laid out on the table for all to see.
If I’m delivering original ideas, I want my audience to absorb, understand and internalize what I’m thinking so they can analyze it and tell me if I’m screwing something up, be it in the follow-up Q & A or later via email exchange. The same applies if I’m presenting someone else’s ideas—I need to get them across clearly and accurately so we can think through them together—decide as a group and for ourselves whether they really make sense. So job one is effective communication.
Job two is presenting yourself in a favorable light, or at least not presenting yourself in an overly unfavorable light. And really, it’s not about impressing your audience because you have something to prove, but rather, it’s about winning their confidence so they’ll pay attention. If you don’t impress them, they’ll either be so distracted or bored by your ineptness that they’ll miss your message. So impressing is really subservient to the higher goal of communication.
The ideal is to come across as confident, articulate, engaging and approachable. Those seem to be the core hallmarks of effective speakers—the people who know what they’re talking about, know they know what they’re talking about, know how to explain it, know they know how to explain it, but aren’t arrogant. The ideal conveys warm confidence, not cockiness. Keep that in mind, lest you try too hard to impress and wind up turning off your audience.
So those simple goals—communicate and impress—slant my advice. If you’re simply interested in persuading people, most of the below still applies. But I hope you’ll come to appreciate the philosopher’s search for truth as much as I do, and embrace the implications for good pubic speaking.
Block 1: Know Thine Material
First, if you’re going to talk about something publicly, the #1 thing you can do to increase your effectiveness is master the subject matter. And if you can’t master it, at least figure it out the best you can. It matters little whether you’re talking about widget fasteners or Kant’s Categorical Imperative, delivering a speech to an auditorium or informally deliberating with friends over what movie to see—know what the heck you’re talking about.
Knowing thine material not only improves the content of your presentation, but also the quality of your delivery. This is because if you know your stuff, and you know you know your stuff, that natural confidence will shine through and thus make you more impressive. Instead of second-guessing yourself and worrying that you’ll be found out as a fraud, you’ll be free to focus on other things, like your silent message, enunciation, voice volume, crowd reaction, etc. If you don’t know your material, not only do you risk conveying useless information, but maybe even incorrect information. That worry will haunt your delivery, undermine your confidence and kill your effectiveness. You’ll subconsciously hang your head low, mumble, speak in a defensive tone—all because you didn’t do your homework. (And for the purposes of this class, if you’ve tried and tried to figure something out, but can’t—by all means, call or email! Let me save you the misery of trying to speak on a subject you really don’t understand.)
So in a phrase, embrace your role as expert and teacher. That of course takes preparation and preparation takes time and effort, but there’s absolutely no substitute, and no one thing will more dramatically improve your effectiveness as a speaker. If you want to communicate and impress, know thine material.
Block 2: Be Thyself
Whether you’re a pastor or a professor or a college student or a professional speaker or just some dude in a meeting, be yourself! If you try and mimic the style of someone else, it will show. You’re not Jerry Seinfeld, you’re not Barack Obama (he says “um” too much anyway), you’re not Bill Moyers (there’s a guy I’ve mimicked a time or two), you’re not Matt Deaton (if anything, you can be better than Matt Deaton!). If you try to be, your audience will focus more one who you’re tying to be and less on what you’re saying. Or you’ll just plain lose their respect.
For example, one thing people hate about politicians is their calculating, deceptive pandering—what I call evil lawyering trickery. In the age of reality television, where we’re berated with the message: “Be as fake as possible and you’ll win,” we’re desperate for authenticity. If you want to be a convincing, effective, good public speaker, you’ve got to be genuine—you’ve got to be thyself.
“But what if thyself sucks?”
Trust me, thyself you don’t suck. You may be a crummy public speaker right now, but we’re going to work on that. With a little practice, a little study (including those internet resources below…), and a little feedback from me, you’re going to be much better by the time the semester is over, guaranteed. Don’t muck it up by cloaking the real you with some fake personality. Whatever the real you is, let’s find it and give it a public voice.
And on that same note, don’t force yourself to be chipper or outgoing if that’s not who you are. When I took my first public speaking class seven years ago, I remember the first time I got up in front of the class I was very nervous, and I dealt with it by forcing a smile. The whole time I was explaining whatever it was I was explaining, I was having to talk through this ridiculous fake grin. I guess I thought if I looked happy the audience would be happy, or they’d like me—I don’t know. Whatever my strategy, the material I was delivering was decidedly unfunny and did not warrant a smile. As soon as I sat down I realized how silly I must of looked, and how ineffective I’d been. I vowed right there to speak with sobriety and sincerity from then on. So now sometimes I sound and look like Ben Stein, other times like Jack Black, but in any case, I’m being me. I’m not always chipper, and the stuff I talk about isn’t always fun. Though I do coach myself to be more positive, I don’t force an attitude onto my presentations, and neither should you. It’ll just come off as fake—don’t be afraid to be yourself.
Block 3: The Mechanics
Ok, so finally, the boring (but essential) stuff. I break the nuts and bolts of public speaking down into four sub sections: message, oral delivery, physical delivery and dealing with nervousness. There’s more to it than just this, but here’s what comes to mind for now.
Renowned writing coach William Zinsser has four tried and true principles for writing good nonfiction: clarity, brevity, simplicity and humanity. As far as I can tell, they’re excellent principles for good public speaking too.
Clarity: Make darn sure your message is clear. Especially in philosophy, don’t be ambiguous or vague. Know precisely what you mean, and convey it with concision.
Brevity: Don’t make things longer than they absolutely need to be. This document itself can definitely use some trimming, so before I save the final draft to my laptop, I’ll go back and revise everything with this principle in mind. In fact, I’ll rewrite this entry on brevity right now, and leave this version so you can see the difference.
Brevity: Keep things brief. I’ll trim this document before I save it. Trim your speeches too.
Simplicity: Pomposity is the enemy. It blocks communication and puts an unnecessary barrier between you and your audience. In fact, “pomposity” itself is a pompous word! How about, fancy talk is the enemy (that’s better). As Zinsser says, don’t use a 50-cent word when a nickel word will do. No need to pretend to be smarter than you actually are with inflated language, especially since it’s typically transparent. The only thing worse than being an arrogant a-hole is being an unjustified and fake arrogant a-hole. Don’t be that guy/gal.
Humanity: I liked this principle so much, I made it block 2. Zinsser and Deaton agree—be thyself.
So that’s how you should prepare, practice and deliver your message—with those principles in mind.
Good oral delivery is about three main things: volume, enunciation and pace. If you’re from Tennessee, you probably have a natural laziness to your voice. I’m cursed too, but it’s not anything we can’t overcome. There are some great enunciation drills (tongue twisters) via the online resources below. Try practicing those with marbles in your mouth in front of a mirror five minutes a day (it works!), just don’t choke.
The most precisely enunciated consonants in the world do no good if they’re spoken too quietly. Don’t scream at your audience, but project that voice—wake up the slackers in the back reading email on their laptops (I see you).
And last, consciously tailor your pace to suit the occasion. Don’ttalksofastthatyourunyourwordstogether. And don’t talk so slowly that you sound like Bubba Blue. Find some comfortable middle-ground that sounds good to your and my ears. And for extra effectiveness, adjust your pace depending on what you’re saying, and use dramatic pauses to really hammer key points home.
On that note, don’t be afraid of unplanned silences either. The prevailing assumption seems to be that if your voice isn’t filing the air with a constant stream of sound, someone else will fill it for you. That’s certainly not a worry when you’re doing a monologue, but even in other cases, unless you’re in an unmoderated political debate or on a talk show, nobody’s going to jump in and steal your thunder. By expressing yourself clearly and carefully, and not being afraid to take brief breathers, you’ll set the tone and pressure others to do the same. And even if you’re paired against someone who doesn’t take the hint, your audience will recognize your maturity and tact, and listen more favorably to your points as a result. (I guess that’s a pointer on persuasion… bad philosopher, bad.) Main point—silence is golden. Use it to for dramatic effect, to gather your thoughts, to catch your breath—whatever—it’s your friend.
Psychologists tell us that a good deal of human communication doesn’t involve language at all. We communicate our priorities, our lifestyles, our goals, and even our education and intelligence through our dress, hairstyles, accessories and mannerisms. Admitting as much doesn’t mean this is fair. Really, as any newly enlightened college student will tell you, we ought to look past superficial indicators and judge people for who they really are. But only the most dedicated anti-stereotyper can prevent themselves from subconsciously judging others. Quick judgments are just how we deal with complex social interaction—too many people and too little time to dig deeper.
Since that’s the case—since that’s the way the game is played played, like it or not—use it to your advantage. Consciously shape the message you send your audience. For example, in an official speaking setting, jeans denote a casual attitude (which is appropriate in some contexts, inappropriate in others, and depends much on your communication goals), a tie denotes some seriousness and formal authority, classic grooming denotes social conformity, and a tattoo on your face denotes craziness. I, for example, made a very conscious decision to not wear a tie this semester. Why? Because I was coming off as more of a hard-ass than I actually am. My students told me so. So I dropped that classic symbol of stiffness. I’m still rocking the slacks and dress shirts, but no ties. And that man purse? A conscious decision as well. That’s what separates the students from the teachers, didn’t you know? Ever see a professor lugging around a backpack?
Posture can tell us quite a bit too. Hiding frozen behind the podium conveys the exact opposite of roaming the room. The podium is a barrier, and speakers who are afraid of their audience (sometimes just subconsciously) use it as a shield. (This of course isn’t always the case. Bush uses a podium, but didn’t look skeered of those flying shoes in the least.) If you can pull it off, moving to specific spots to make specific points is a pretty impressive technique (need to try that myself). Hand gestures can amplify points as well, though don’t go overboard (part of being thyself). And be sure to engage your audience with your eyes—don’t look down at your outline or up at the ceiling the entire time—make some eye contact (though not at students with tattoos on their face).
A crash course in public speaking wouldn’t be complete without a few words on stage fright. Three surefire ways to get over it: believe in yourself, fake it till you make it, and practice.
Not just for public speaking, but for life, nurture that positive voice inside your head and put a muzzle on mr. negative. Trust me, if you tell yourself you’re a terrible speaker and that you’re afraid to get in front of a crowd, you’ll never achieve your potential. So just drop that attitude right now. Instead, focus on past success, visualize future success, and remind yourself that you’re putting in the prep work to be a good speaker. Even if those butterflies come a calling (I still get them too), once you get going, they’ll go away. And even if they don’t the first time up, you’ll learn that speaking isn’t the end of the world and thus won’t be as nervous next time.
That’s the case with lots of things. You dread it, and it may initially suck, but after you get into it, the fear subsides and the task itself becomes the focus. Speaking’s no different. And until the initial stress subsides, fake it til you make it. Here’s one time you shouldn’t be yourself (if you’re ultra nervous). Pretend that you’re a good speaker, pretend that you’re not nervous, pretend that you’re not afraid, ignore those shaking hands (that nobody but you can see anyway) and before you know it, the gut wrench will disappear, your audience will be attentive, your words will be flowing, your message will be out there all clear and articulate, and bam—you’re a good speaker.
Here’s how the trick works. The audience will sense your confidence, even if it’s initially fake. They’ll think, “Damn, anybody that sure of themselves must have something important to say!” Their good vibes will slowly work their way to the front of the room, and once you soak them in, your fake confidence will transform into genuine confidence. It’s a wonderful trick used by salesmen, hookup artists, and conmen alike. Now you can use it too.
And last, you’ve got to practice, practice, practice. At least if you want to improve. That’s why this course requires so much stage time—because it’s essential if you’re to get better. (I actually increased my stage time this semester so I could get better. Selfish, I know.) The only substitute for time speaking in front of a crowd is… well, there is no substitute. Second best though is talking into a video camera, so you can go back and critique yourself—fix that nervous twitch or mumbling before you get in front of a real crowd.
That’s it—public speaking in a nutshell. I can already tell I’ve omitted some important stuff—your speech notes, analyzing your audience, the importance of a strong introduction and close (and speech organization in general)—but this is enough for now. If you want to effectively communicate and impress, I think this is a good start. Don’t forget to check out the below online resources. There are lots out there, but these are the best I’ve found.
http://www.speech-time.com: These guys have it all laid out—how to design and deliver a presentation whether you’ve got a year or a minute to prepare.
http://sbinfocanada.about.com/od/speakforsuccesscourse/a/speechlesson1.htm: This is one of those “About.com” articles from some lady named Susan Ward. Among other stuff, a she has a GREAT article on enunciation that I’m currently working on myself (I tend to mumble sometimes, or so says my wife, Lisa).
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IciChDu4mvo: And last, we’re not doing powerpoints in here (if you can learn to speak without that crutch, you can easily incorporate it when you must—but that can’t be said for vice versa), but this short clip on youtube is invaluable nonetheless: Key point from Pimp My Powerpoint: use ppt as a visual aid only. That is, use it to creatively illustrate your message with eye candy. Don’t use it as a teleprompter. Unfortunately, I used to do just that. Fortunately, I saw this clip and stopped!