Many people approach me about how they might improve their public speaking. People are short of confidence or think that they can’t speak in public. But I believe that everyone can speak in public, and I have been helping a number of clients to have the confidence to do so.
It seems that we need to refresh our presentation and public speaking skills The same principles apply to presenting to a large room of people, as they do to presenting in a meeting, or speaking to a small group, and making presentations on conferencing Apps like Teams, Zoom, Google Meet and so on.
In this note, I share a few thoughts, from my experience, of the do’s and don’ts of effective presenting and public speaking.
I also share suggestions of how to use slides in your presentations to make them even more effective. It is very easy to get this wrong, so these tips should help.
These also apply if ever you are giving an interview to the media, whether on TV or radio.
Most people, whether making a speech in a room full of people, or talking on a video call, speak too quickly. It is normal to speak at your regular pace for day to day, conversational speech. But such a pace is not comfortable for someone to listen to in a presentation.
There are a number of problems with speaking “too quickly”. People may not follow everything that you say and may miss something important.
Secondly, the faster you speak, the harder it is for your brain to keep up. As a result, what I call “crutch words” tend to come into your speech. These are the involuntary words and phrases that your brain defaults to when it can not think of the next thing to say. They include “pause words” such as “err”, “ummm” and “you know” and then linking words such as “like”, “basically”, sort of”. I call these “crutch words” because you lean on them when you do not know what to say next.
The faster you speak, the harder you are to understand, and the more crutch words emerge. This is especially the case in those rare situations where you are not speaking in your own language or are speaking to an audience who do not share your language.
Therefore, you need to slow down. The comfortable pace for people to listen to is 100 – 110 words per minute. This feels unnaturally slow but it is a pace that allows your brain to prepare for the next thing that you are about to say.
It also allows you to plan the length of what you are going to say. There is little more annoying than someone saying “I am going to be brief”, and then proceeding to be exactly the opposite. If you only have 5 minutes to speak, then you can only have 500 words. The best speakers take only the amount of time that they have been given to make their remarks.
So, if you are writing a speech out verbatim, which is often a good idea, you will know exactly how long it lasts from the number of words you have written. If you are doing a speech without notes, (which is not recommended until you have some experience), the slower you speak the easier you will be able to manage your time.
Try to avoid saying phrases like “finally”, “one last thing” and “in conclusion” unless they are genuinely the last things you are going to say. How many times do you hear somebody say “Finally” or “lastly” and then proceed to make two or three further points? These are themselves crutch words and you only use them when necessary.
Keep Your Head Still
The tips for effective presenting can be summarized under the heading of “avoid distractions”. The more extraneous things you allow your audience to be distracted by, the less they will listen to what you are actually saying.
Moving your head around while giving a public speech is a distraction. This is difficult to avoid. In normal speech, we move our heads all the time. But in a presentation, if we were to do that, it would distract from what we are saying. People tend to focus on the bobbing, nodding or tilting of your head. So, if you can, train yourself to keep your head straight and still when you speak. It is very difficult, but the more you practice, the easier it will be. Try it in the mirror. You will be rewarded with people listening to you when you speak, especially on Teams or Zoom.
In all public speeches, you are encouraged to make “eye contact” with the whole audience. This is why speakers address their speeches to the middle of the room and to each side of the room. Professional speakers with autocues have three autocue readers – one to the left, one in the middle and one to the right. This allows you to create the impression that you are addressing the whole room, however big it is.
If you are seated around a table when you are speaking, you need to try and make contact around the table.
In any situation, if you only speak to one part of a room, the other part of the room that does not receive the eye contact will rapidly disengage and cease to listen or pay attention.
On a Video call, the eye contact must be made with your computer’s camera. Apply the same principle if you are giving a TV interview. Speak to the camera. Don’t look next to the camera, or above or below it. Look directly at the camera. On a Video call, avoid the temptation to look at yourself on the screen or to address the boxes with the faces of your audience. Those watching will just see you looking down or up.
If you are reading from your notes or you have the speech written out verbatim, then look up from the speech as often as you can at the camera, otherwise the audience will just see the top of your head. This means you should practice your speech before you give it, so that you are able to look at the camera often enough.
Avoid Waving your Hands
Your hands can be a huge distraction. It is important to keep them still and only use them to make definitive and emphatic movements.
Again, this is unnatural, as in real life speech, when talking to friends or family, we wave our hands around and use them for emphasis most of the time. In a public speech, it is too distracting to do so.
If speaking in a room, we are encouraged to put our hands on a desk or lectern or folded in front of us.
On a Video call, fold your hands on the desk in front of you, out of the vision of the camera. If you want to use your hand for emphasis, raise your hand to make a determining gesture, and then resume its position forded on the desk.
People use slides now all the time, and on video calls, they share their screens to allow the slides to fill the whole screen.
Someone who does not know the relationship between slides and the duration of their speech is a nightmare for a Chair to deal with. I have seen the best speakers lose track of time when using slides. This happens both in “real life” and on video calls.
People make two basic mistakes when using slides. One is simply to read out the bullet points that are written, which is a waste of time. The other is to use the bullet points as a hook around which to ramble and expand. In both cases, the slides add little to what you are saying.
If you are going to use slides with bullet points, avoid just reading them or ad-libbing. Summarise what is on the slide or bring it to life.
Better still, if you want people to listen to what you are saying, use a photograph or image and speak with that image in the background. It will help to focus the audience on what you are saying.
With slides, it remains important to speak at a pace of 100 words per minute. And to be very mindful of how long you can spend on each slide. If you have 10 minutes and 5 slides, then that is 2 minutes per slide, maximum. Keep an eye on the timing. Never have too many slides and then try to crash through them or that results in you overrunning your slot. The best speakers stick rigidly to time.
Effective public speaking in the age of Teams and Zoom requires the same disciplines that make for effective public speaking in real life.
Speak slowly, keep your head still, use eye contact, avoid distractions with your hands, stick to the time allocated and use slides effectively.
You will be better the more you practice, so give it a try.
And, if I can help you, as I have many clients, to gain the confidence to speak in public, give me a call or drop me an E mail. I would be happy to provide face to face or online sessions and you will soon see the difference.
Here is a recent testimony from a client I mentored, with a focus on developing their public speaking skills.
“Over the course of a year, Simon provided mentorship for me in personal and professional development. From public speaking training to providing me with tailored and bespoke support in tackling complex strategic issues, Simon regularly gave invaluable advice and insight on issues to empower me to overcome them. I am a more improved person thanks to Simon’s dedicated mentorship and would recommend his services to anyone looking for a kind, compassionate, and adept mentor.”