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Umm ...: A Complete Guide To Public Speaking
By James O'Loghlin
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2006 James O'Loghlin
All rights reserved.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN
You've been given your assignment. You've been asked to give a speech at a fortieth birthday party, or to give a presentation at work, or to address a sales conference. You know the length of time you have to speak for and you know the topic, but that's it. Maybe you don't even know the topic. You stare up at the computer screen and there, typed very neatly in utterly appropriate font is your speech so far: one word, 'Hello'. The word stares back at you. You stare back at it. You wonder what comes next. Then for a long time nothing at all happens except that your brain starts to implode.
In broad terms there are two types of public speaking. There is the kind whose sole purpose is to entertain — stand-up comedy, for example, and some after-dinner speeches. Then there is the other kind, the majority of speeches, which have another purpose — to toast the bride and groom at a wedding, for example, to inform students about the French Revolution, to explain a new business plan to staff, to pitch for a job or contract, to enlighten people about the pathology of frogs, to thank staff for their hard work over the past year, or to MC a fundraising event as smoothly as possible.
Obviously, the first group of speeches, those whose only purpose is to entertain, must be entertaining to succeed. That's what they're for. But what about the second group? This is one of the most important things I am going to tell you: this second group of speeches must also be entertaining. This is vital. I don't necessarily mean that they must be full of jokes. What I mean is that all speeches must — must — make the audience want to keep listening. That is what entertainment is; it's making the audience want to keep looking and listening to find out what happens next. Any good book, film, ballet, television show or sporting fixture does this. Speeches are the same. Entertain the audience; make them want to know what happens next and your other aim — the imparting of certain information — will become immeasurably easier.
This doesn't mean you have to tell lots of jokes, or pretend you're a comedian or juggle or do a handstand. I'm not talking about being funny, but you do need to remember at all times to package and arrange and deliver the information you are trying to impart in such a way as to make the audience want to keep listening to you.
Giving a speech in which you want to communicate information to the audience is a bit like having sex to get pregnant. Impregnation may be the primary purpose of the act, but it will only really work if everyone involved is enjoying it. If it's not fun, you probably won't achieve the primary aim of getting pregnant. And if your audience doesn't enjoy your speech they're unlikely to remember much of its content.
No matter how vital the information you are delivering to your audience, no matter if it will make them money or save their life, if they are bored by the way in which you deliver that information they will hate listening to you, they will shut their ears and their minds, and you will have failed. Your message will not be communicated effectively unless you have the attention of the audience. If people are looking at their watches, wondering how much longer it will last, or daydreaming about hitting the winning runs for Australia in a cricket match, they may as well not be there. In fact, mentally they're not there.
Interest them and entertain them in the way in which you convey your information, and you will succeed. Get their attention and keep it, and they will be yours. If they are interested in what they hear, they will take it in. If they are bored they won't. So make your speech entertaining. This is simply said, of course, but hard to do. However, there are ways.
Why are you speaking?
The first thing you need to do when you are planning a speech is to work out why you are speaking. It sounds obvious, but many people never bother to do it. For example, at a corporate function where I was the MC I was told that the managing director of one of the evening's sponsors was going to speak.
'Why?' I asked.
I expected the answer to be something like, 'They're paying a lot for the dinner so they want to tell everyone what a great company they are.'
Instead I got a blank look. 'Well,' said the organiser, 'we just thought he should.'
It turned out the managing director didn't particularly want to speak, but because he thought it was expected, he had agreed. The organisers didn't particularly want him to speak either, but because his company was sponsoring the function they felt they should ask him. Predictably, the speech wasn't really about anything and benefited neither the function nor his company.
In everyday conversation we often say things that don't have much point. We make small talk at barbecues because standing in silence next to someone feels awkward. You can't get away with this in public speaking. Everything you say must have a point. Once you've finished saying stuff that has a point, sit down. You're finished. If you haven't got a really good reason to stand up and make a speech, don't do it.
Each speech should have a clearly defined aim that you can write down in a sentence. If you are doing stand-up comedy your aim is simple — to be funny. If you're giving a toast at a wedding your aim may be to inform everyone about parts of the history of the couple's relationship in a humorous way without offending anyone. If you are giving an address at a conference on mice your aim is to impart some information about mice. If you are speaking at your firm's annual dinner your aim may be to make everyone who works with you realise that you appreciate their efforts, to excite them about the future and, if you are the top dog, to make them feel that you are a fantastic person so they will have warm and fuzzy feelings about their boss. If you are the MC at a fundraising event your aim may be to run the evening as smoothly and amusingly as you can while at the same time persuading everyone there to part with as much cash as possible.
If you have been asked to give a speech, ask those who have asked you why they picked you and what they want the speech to be about. What do they want it to achieve? Hopefully they'll know. If not, you need to work it out with them.
Sometimes the request will be very specific. You may be asked to talk about your field trip to Algeria, or to share your expertise on Senegalese oak trees. When this happens then you know what your talk is about.
Or the request may be general. You may just be asked to educate and inspire the audience. Often when I am asked to speak at corporate functions, I am simply told that the organisers want me to be funny, and for what I say to be relevant to the experiences of the people who will be in the audience. That's enough. I then know the aim of my talk — to be funny and relevant.
Sometimes you won't be told anything helpful. Then you have to work out for yourself what the aim of your talk will be. Firstly, work out how wide the parameters are. If you are talking to a group of people you work with, your talk will need to be relevant to what you all do. If you are talking at a conference on fishing, your talk needs to have something to do with that subject.
Secondly, think about what your area of expertise is within those parameters. What knowledge do you have that others don't? What experience have you had that may be relevant and useful to discuss?
Then think harder. It's not often that you are given the opportunity to say whatever you like to a group of people. It is a privilege. All those people will be listening to you, and if you have been given some freedom and flexibility in deciding what topic you speak on, it's a wonderful opportunity to talk to people about something that you think is important.
So, given the broad parameters of the speech and the basic unifying feature of your audience, write down the most important things you want to say. For example, if you were giving a talk to students at your old school, what would be the most important things you would say to them? Imagine yourself back then. What would you have liked someone to have said to you? Or, if you are the boss and you're talking to people who work for you, write down the most important thing you want to get across to them. When you were sitting where they are, and your boss talked to you, what did you find interesting and inspiring? And what did you find deadly dull?
Next, within the broad area within which your speech must fall, write down some topics. If you have to give a talk on something to do with ageing, for example, write down thirty things that come into your mind about ageing. You might think of things like maturity, responsibility, physical decay, mental decay, helplessness, wisdom, reflection, proximity to death, wrinkles, loneliness and fear. Or you might think of quite different things. If your talk is about your company you might think about profits, retrenchments, morale, the physical environment, technology, work/life balance and innovation.
Then ask yourself:
Which of these topics are most relevant to the audience?
Which of them are likely to be of most interest to the audience?
Which of them do I have most knowledge of?
Which of them do I have most experience of?
Which of them am I most interested in?
It may be obvious from your answers which topic or topics you should pick to speak about, but then again it may not be. In particular, you may find that the topics about which you have the most experience and expertise are not the ones you are most interested in. You may be most interested in some new aspect or discovery about your topic that you know little about. There's no right or wrong thing to do in this situation. Just remember that if you pick a subject that you don't know much about, you'll have to do more work than if you pick a subject you are very familiar with.
Perhaps the most important thing is to pick something to talk about that you think matters. If what you are talking about is not important to you, everything that follows — researching, writing and delivering your speech — will be more difficult, and quite possibly pointless.
Don't be afraid if at first the aim of your speech looks really broad and vague. For example, if you are giving a speech at a fortieth birthday party, all you may start with is the aim of saying something entertaining about the birthday person. That's fine. As long as you have an aim, you have something to start with.
Sometimes it will fall to you to give a talk about something you don't find interesting. Don't write a subject off too quickly. If you look hard enough you can find something interesting in practically any subject. To test this theory, on radio I once challenged listeners to come up with the most boring idea they could think of for a radio story. The winner was 'The History of Financial Institutions Duty in Australia 1984–1987'. I had to do a ten-minute story on it the following day. Believe it or not, in my desperation I managed to find enough material about this obscure subject to create an interesting story.
So look hard. And if you can't get interested in the subject you are speaking on, all is not lost — get interested in the fact that you are giving a speech. Approach the talk as a challenging exercise, and test yourself to see if you can make a fascinating speech about a subject you find dull.
Sometimes you may think that the subject you have been lumbered with is one that people cannot help but find boring. Remember, however, that most people are naturally curious about things they know nothing about. Whether they find your presentation fascinating or dull will be more about how you impart the information than what information there is to impart.
If you are stuck with talking about a subject that bores you, be professional. Act like it matters. Look for things to make it matter, and after a while, who knows, maybe you'll find something that actually is interesting and that you do think matters.
13 questions to ask
There are several things you need to find out before you start writing your speech. It's important to gather as much information as you can about the situation in which you will be speaking and about your audience. And the questions apply whether the occasion is large or small, formal or informal.
Your immediate reaction will probably be to rush right in and start working out what you are going to say, but you will be in a much better position if you first find out as much as possible about the circumstances.
So ask lots of questions. And write down the answers, because you may not get around to writing the speech for a few weeks.
1 What is expected?
It's important to know what those asking you to speak are expecting from you. Why have they asked you? What do they want your speech to achieve? What is the purpose of the whole event? Do they want your speech to be packed full of information the audience can take away and use, or do they want it to offer light relief?
2 How long?
How long do they want you to speak for? Organisers will usually have a time in mind — but treat this as only the starting point for negotiation. Never agree to speak for a time longer than you feel comfortable with. If you think what you have to say will take half an hour and you've been allotted an hour, ask for the time-slot to be shortened. Good public speaking has no padding, no filling, so don't agree to speak for longer than you need.
I would advise anyone against ever agreeing to speak for longer than an hour. Imagine being in the audience. After an hour you've pretty much had enough of anyone. Even if they're telling you the meaning of life, after 60 minutes your concentration goes out the window — then it's all just 'blah blah blah'.
Sometimes it can be good to allow 5 to 15 minutes for questions at the end of a speech, depending on the subject of your talk and the type of function it is given at. Ask yourself if what you are talking about is likely to raise a lot of questions in people's minds. If it's a talk on the future of computers to a bunch of people who work in the computer industry, yes. If it's the treasurer's report for the bowling club then, unless you're in the red, no.
If you've been allocated an hour for your speech, breaking it into a 40minute talk followed by 20 minutes of questions can work well. Changing the dynamic of what is going on two-thirds of the way through the hour helps to keep the audience interested and involved. During a question and answer session they will hear different voices, have an opportunity to be involved themselves and see you responding in a different way.
Question time, however, only works if people ask questions. There's nothing worse than ending on the big downer of:
And we've got time for some questions, so ... are there any questions? ... Any at all? ... Yes, up the back there ... Oh, you were just stretching. Right. Okay ... well if there aren't any questions then ... none at all? ... Okay, well I guess I'll finish then.
If you are going to take questions, getting the first one is always the hardest — because people are shy — so before you begin, it's a good idea to prime a couple of people in the audience to each have a question ready to start things off if necessary.
After-dinner speeches shouldn't run longer than 30 minutes. I've occasionally seen one go a bit longer and still keep people's attention, but even so, if the audience has enjoyed the talk for half an hour, what do you gain by keeping it going for longer? Nothing. And if all has gone well for 30 minutes, and you keep going, it is possible to undo all your good work and find that your audience has become irritated and impatient for you to finish. (If your audience hasn't enjoyed the first half an hour, it's way too late to win them over by keeping on keeping on.)
Often organisers think more is better. They may want you to speak for 45 minutes, because this way they think they are getting more for their money — or, if they're not paying you, just more. If you suggest that you only want to do 20 minutes they can often be resistant. They may even think you're not up to it. So I usually say something like, 'I can certainly do 45 minutes if you want me to, but in my experience — and I do quite a lot of these — I've found that usually on nights like this people love to have lots of time to talk and socialise and network. And if we give them a sharp, enjoyable 20 to 30 minutes, they will actually be grateful and it will probably serve the evening a whole lot better.' All of which is true.
Timing may need to be adjusted depending on what happens before you speak. If your speech is preceded by a managing director's welcome, a sponsor's speech, three awards, another sponsor's speech and a thank you to old Harry for his years of faithful service, by the time you're on the audience will probably be pretty full up with words.
Excerpted from Umm ...: A Complete Guide To Public Speaking by James O'Loghlin. Copyright © 2006 James O'Loghlin. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Before you begin,
2 Writing your speech,
3 Before you speak,
6 Different types of speeches,
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