As an entrepreneur, you are called upon to speak to small as well as large groups of people. It’s a sign of leadership- for you to communicate publicly your ideas, plans, innovations and vision for the future. Speaking in public is an art. It’s a talent that we think we either have or do not have. We are all awed by the exceptional oratory skills of Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Fidel Castro, Jawahral Nehru, John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela or recently Michelle Obama. History also tells us also of the extraordinaty talent of Abraham Lincoln, of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, of Thucydides and others, but the unequalled talent of these great public orators, who swayed the crowds for political and other reasons, should not be a source of intimidation for us: on the contrary, they should be our source of inspiration, models that we study and strive to emulate.
These great public speakers have had exceptional life experiences, unique stories that wield into the message they bring forth for the world to hear- the reaction to racial injustice in the US mixed with a strong influence of the gospel tradition and the culture of preaching at Southern black churches have given birth to the strongly passionate but uplifting rhetorical qualities in Martin Luther King’s speeches; the Xhosa oral tradition and a history of jail and resistance to Apartheid have made Mandela larger than life, bigger than history- something that we feel strongly in his moving speeches about the need to overcome hatred and division in South Africa.
What is important is that we need all to dig deep into our personal histories and let our lives, our passions, our joys and even our fears speak- let them show the best of ourselves in our speeches. Some would think it’s better to leave everything behind and come “clean and crystal pure” in front of the audience, without our hopes, our fears, our past and our history. I tend to disagree with this line of thought: it is the personal “stuff” we carry with us, the memories and the experience, that make the wealth of a speech. What you communicate in a speech is yourself. As Marshal McLuhan would say, what we communicate is the speaker more than the message.
Once we accept that we cannot be Jefferson or Mandela, we can study them in order to learn from their experience and skills; once we accept to carry with us our “historical baggage” and speak of ourselves in front of the audience, as most great public orators have always done, everything else will become easy. Techniques exist and are used in most public speaking classes. But I will speak of only those that have worked for me, for my students, and for the participants in my seminars and training sessions.
The secret to a good speech is rehearsal. The famous speakers practice and rehearse several times. Each has his or her own way: in front of the mirror, while jogging, in the bathroom or in the office. Rehearse loud and improve the content and the messages as you prepare. Badly rehearsed speeches can lead to failure! If you see people fidgeting, or whispering or getting bored, understand that they didn’t catch the bait you are throwing them. When you rehearse a lot, you will be able to hear your speech yourself prior to delivery and be in the audience’s shoes and adjust the mishaps as they happen.
While preparing your speech study your audience well. Ask questions about who they are, what they do in life, what they like and don’t like, what their expectations are, how to charm them, how to persuade them etc. Most people do not care to find out about their audience prior to writing their speech or delivering it. But if you want to “work the crowd or the room”, try to get the maximum information about your audience prior to meeting them: their age, their education, their politics, their work–everything and anything you can lay your hands on.
Your aim is to understand them well in order to be able to communicate with them. You need to speak to their fears, their hopes and their expectations. You don’t need to tell them what they want to hear. But you need to understand where they come from so that you can lead them by the hand towards your own territory, where you want them to work on themselves and change. That means that you will craft your speech around an interesting play between the audience’s expectations and your ideas! To intellectually “seduce” them, you need to understand their thinking so that you sell them yours, i.e. your ideas.
Your speech has to be simple, communicative and direct. Rhetorical tricks are a loss of time and energy. Aim at clear messages using concrete examples- metaphors that speak to peoples’ hearts and minds, stories that will help them appreciate the problem and proposed solution. Remember that a good message consists of a description of a situation, a promise and either a number or an example. For instance: “Children suffer from malnutrition (situation). We will do whatever it takes to reduce children malnutrition in these countries (promise) to less than X% (number).” Four to five good and well-formulated messages are better than a dozen thrown haphazardly at the audience that create more confusion than anything else.
Don’t shy away from repetition when delivering your speech. Use refrains, catch phrases, metaphors that you go back to, to stress the general drift of your speech. Repeating a phrase will give force and unity to your speech. Martin Luther King repeated, “I have a dream” eight times in his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 23, 1963. This anaphora gave unequalled strength to the historical speech that motivated a whole generation behind the ideals of civil liberties and human rights in the US and elsewhere.
Delivery is as important as content. In fact, as far as I am concerned, form is more important: the speaker’s personality, his/her relation with the audience, the eye contact, the voice, the gestures are what determines the quality of a speech. You can have the best ideas in the world, but if you communicate them poorly, they lose their value for the audience. On the other hand, you may have simple ideas and you can make them sound genial if you communicate them skillfully well to those listening to you.
Oscar Wilde said: “Only shallow people do not judge by appearances.” How you look is a message too. Do not draw too much attention to how you dress or how you comb your hair. Wear normal clothes, without playing too much on colors or stripes. Try to communicate sobriety, normal modesty and trust in how you look. People won’t trust you if you are overdressed or shabbily dressed.
Eye contact is the best way to maintain your audience interested in what you say. Look at the room from right to left and from left to right before you start. Don’t be afraid of the silence you create by just gently staring at the participants for about thirty seconds. Silence creates attention. Silent eye contact means: “I see you; you are here; I note your presence.”
During delivery, your eye contact needs to be dynamic. Try to include everyone in your field of vision. Don’t leave out anyone. Don’t look only at those nodding approvingly at what you say. Don’t look in the empty space above you audience and don’t look away or on the ground. If you do, you will risk losing them. Your eye contact is your way of keeping your audience “hooked” and interested. Remember, though your mouth speaks, it is your eye that communicates.
Your introduction should set up a solid rapport between you and your audience. What do you want to say? Who are you? Why do you want to speak about this subject? Are you an authority, an expert? Do you have a particular experience in the field? In short, what is your relation to the topic at hand? You should also tell your audience why they need to listen to you. Why should it interest them? Invite them to interact and ask questions.
You relation with your audience should neither be condescending nor self-demeaning. Don’t look down on your audience but don’t beg them to be indulgent either. Level with them and speak to them on an equal terms basis. Take them seriously, and show them that you expect them to take you seriously as well. But never ask them their forgiveness and never belittle what you say. You are sure, you are responsible, and you know what you are doing.
Maintain a strong voice. Your voice needs to dominate the room without becoming a scream. Work on your voice so that it creates interest, so that it bonds you to your audience from the very beginning. If your voice isn’t strong enough, loud enough, dominant enough, work on it. Voices change. You should be able to modulate your voice, to emphasize a phrase or make it sound solemn or tantalizing. Meaning changes, so does your voice. It is your audience’s guide through the thicket of your different semantic meanderings. It should not be monotonous. Modulating your voice following your meaning and rhetorical moments is a skill to be learnt. Drill your speech in a loud manner so that you hear yourself speak and adjust accordingly.
Work on your gestures so that they help you communicate as well. Gestures are determined by culture, but you need to stay at the level of universally recognized gestures: count with your fingers, throw your hand in the air to signify the grandeur of the idea or the moment, make open circles with both hands to mean something wholesome. Too many gestures spoil the speech, but a wooden posture will be boring as well. The semiotics of gesture in its relation to public speaking is complex but try to remain natural and find out what best creates a dynamic relation between your body language and your words.
Public Speaking is an art, but it is an art that can be learnt. Work on yourself and improve as you speak. It is a long process, but focus on the form more than the content: your eye contact, your voice, your gestures etc. Once you “get it,” your task will be easier. It doesn’t mean that you will cease to prepare. Always drill and prepare. But you will stress a little less. The reward will be great though: you will see it in the eyes of those listening to you with admiration and satisfaction.
Public Speaking is about that: the little smile of appreciation from those who have been gracious enough to have travelled with you through your speech journey. Good luck!
Credit: Lahcen Haddad