Public speaking: dos and don'ts

Did your last speech go down like a lead balloon? Keep it smart, keep it nimble and beware 90s clipart, says Nick Gold.

by Nick Gold
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

Whether it’s a presentation pitch to ten, or a conference keynote to 1000, public speaking can be a daunting prospect. As you draw closer to delivering your speech, those same old worries can start to turn around in your mind, from whether you’ve judged the audience correctly through to stance, posture and tone of delivery. However you deliver your speech, there are certain things which must be avoided at all costs:

Failing to adapt

You may have been fully briefed by the organiser prior to an event, but you could still potentially be met with an unexpected environment on the day itself. Sticking rigidly to a pre-prepared script despite its obvious clash with the vibe will only be painful for everyone involved. If a keynote speaker finds out that their audience has just been informed of imminent massive redundancies, the worse thing to do would be to persevere with a motivational speech about how the company is set to grow in the year ahead. If this happens, you either adapt to meet the revised demands, or you fall flat.

Inappropriate use of slides

Slides can certainly enhance a speech by providing prompts for the speaker and interesting visual markers for the audience, but these should supplement the content, not form the basis – and preferably not involve clip art from Windows 95. Equally, slides should not become part of the performance. Too often, speakers with rich content forget that the reason they are up on stage is to speak, not to demonstrate their abilities and achievements by simply reading their slides out loud. The delegates came to be educated in a live and interactive setting, not view the back of a speaker’s head for 45 minutes. 

Not spending time with your audience

A speaker who spends time with their audience will be remembered fondly even if, for whatever reason, their speech was not the best it could have been. Be friendly and involved during the networking session. This at least means that feedback such as ‘the content was not what we were looking for’ will be tempered by ‘but they spent time chatting to everyone in the room!’ – at the very least it’s preferable to ‘their jokes were rubbish and they were out the door straight after their set!’

As you can see, it’s a potential minefield, but, with the right preparation and approach, you can deliver an address memorable for all the right reasons. Here are my golden rules: 

Get down with the kids

Prior research is essential. I have seen plenty of speeches which have fallen flat because the maker had not gauged the demography of the audience before the event. When you draft your content, ensure that you ask for pertinent information about the audience. Consider the breakdown of delegates in terms of age, culture and language, and factor this into your delivery in order to create the desired impact.

Take them on a journey

At the start of any speech you need to clearly define what you will be talking about. The content should be broad and relevant in order to create an experience which appeals to the interests of any type of individual. A breakdown in communication, and subsequently reduced engagement, occurs when an audience becomes lost amongst the nuances of a message .This problem can be avoided by establishing the aims and mapping out the structure of a speech early on to help others follow its flow.

Keep the one about the rabbi, the priest and the Mexican donkey to yourself

Humour varies tremendously and its use within a speech needs careful consideration. The golden rule is to never be offensive, even if the audience is a familiar one, as even then people will have varying personal thresholds.

Strike the pose

How you deport yourself from the start of your speech will define how your audience relates to you throughout your address. In the most part, the things to consider are fairly obvious, such as avoiding slouching, limiting hand gestures, and speaking in a measured, modulated tone. Body language has a powerful impact on perception so be confident and upbeat. Clinging onto the lectern for dear life will give the impression that you’re out of your depth.

Nick Gold is managing director of Speakers Corner.


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