Masterclass: Public speaking

How to make sure your oratory is more Barack Obama than David Brent.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

What is it? Let's face it: we can't all make speeches like Barack Obama. The crucial thing is to avoid being David Brent.

But sooner or later, any manager who wants to get on is going to have to get up on his/her hind legs and try to persuade a roomful of tired and sceptical people that they've got what it takes. Even worse, perhaps, they might have to fly to a far-off city and, with minimal preparation time, give a plausible and coherent public presentation. It is not easy. When was the last time you sat through a talk that you wished had been longer?

Where did it come from? The ancients wrote the book on rhetoric. Literally - Aristotle's The Art of Rhetoric appeared in the 4th century BC. In Roman times, Cicero was perhaps the most famous and impressive public speaker, learning lengthy and intricate speeches by heart. It is not necessary and perhaps not even advisable, in the era of teleprompters, to memorise speeches. It can look more than a bit flash. An element of spontaneity - even if rehearsed - is more likely to win over cynics these days. But language should be respected and handled with care, just as Aristotle would have prescribed.

Where is it going? Speakers often make the mistake of trying to be interesting to their audience, says coach and presentations guru James Caplin, when in fact they should be trying to be interested in their audience. Just putting on an act may amuse some people but will not persuade the majority. Presentations and speeches, especially in these time-pressured days, should be about producing a practical response. 'What do you want people to think, feel or do as a result of all this?' asks Andrew Mallett of the consultancy Present Action. Good question. End of lecture.

Fad quotient (out of 10):
A rhetorical 7.

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