Naturally Speaking

Once at a block party as several dozen of us stood around chatting and eating, a neighbor came up to me and said, “The Smiths are moving away next week, and we have a gift for them, but could you say a few words of farewell?”

It was the first I’d heard of this. “Right now?” I asked a bit wide-eyed.

“Yes. I know you can do a good job.”

Well, if she thought I could do it, maybe I could. I then called for attention. I was brief, and I managed to offer a tone that mixed our appreciation for them, our sadness at their departure, and our best wishes and blessing for their future.

Many people fear public speaking more than death. Over years of speaking to small groups and rooms of hundreds, following certain practices have helped me prepare and be relaxed (ultimately allowing me to form a habit of speaking that has even made doing so spontaneously possible).

Be familiar with your material. Read it aloud multiple times. If possible, practice in the room or setting where you are to speak. Wean yourself off your script to notes, then to a note card. This has the added benefit of making sure you take up only your allotted time. Have someone listen to you ahead of time to give encouragement and suggestions. Even if you think you’d feel awkward speaking to just one, it will prepare you for the awkwardness of  speaking to ten or a hundred.

Don’t start with a long wind up about how glad you are to be there. You’ll lose listeners before you start. Jump right into the material with a strong opening statement or story.

Vary your volume. Vary pitch. Vary speed of delivery. Churchill used to write directions to himself in the margin of his speaking notes such as, “Pause as if searching for the right word” [to look spontaneous] or “Weak point, so talk louder.”

Avoid set piece jokes, like, “An alligator walks into a bar . . . !” Rather be humorous like Will Rogers or Garrison Keillor.

Move your body. Hand gestures, sure. Lean forward for intimacy or emphasis. Also move around if possible while speaking. People don’t hear so well, but they see great! Action can grab attention. Practice these aspects as much as what you say.

Use props. This can come off as artificial, but if the prop is natural, it will help you be natural, more conversational. For example, pull something out of your pocket that you usually carry around (a phone, car keys) to illustrate a point. This is an opportunity to move around as well.

Use audience participation. Get people involved by asking questions and calling for a response that connects with your content. Maybe: “People usually have a strong preference for either vanilla or chocolate ice cream. How many of you here are chocolate people? [raise hand] How may are vanilla people? [raise hand].” Or ask them to turn to the person next to them and ask, for example, “What’s your favorite ice cream flavor and why?”

Watch some eighteen-minute TED talks. These speakers are the best, and they get great coaching. Don’t just listen to their content. How did they organize their material? Watch what they do. Make note of what worked. Then think about which of those techniques you could make your own.

You don’t have to employ all these tips. If you just do a few, then I believe (like my neighbor who believed in me) that you can do a good job.

credit: Alexas Fotos (Pixabay)

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

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