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Public Speaking - Owning "The Skills" Part II

Jul 31, 2008
In order to present at the top, in order to acquire The Skills, you must remember three rules that govern everything you do whilst presenting. They're really quite simple, but sometimes it's easy to forget the simple things, and these rules must remain in the forefront of your consciousness at all times.

Rule Number 1 states: If you're working too hard, you're doing it wrong!

Rule #2: When you're doing it right, it's always Win-Win.

The sad truth is, typical speaker behaviors more often fall into the category of Lose-Lose. Whether it be the way the speaker engages the audience with his eyes, or what she does with her hands, or the pace with which either cranks out the word stream, most things that speakers do work both against their feeling comfortable and the audience's ability to follow and buy into what is being said.

For instance, think about what you see presenters do with their arms and hands. Instead of using the opportunity to throw off excess energy by using the full swing of their arms and hands to paint pictures of the words they are saying, your average speaker locks them up in some position that not only keeps the excess energy trapped in a re-circulating loop, but in a position that translates to a body-language signal that is off-putting to the audience.

Luckily, as is the case with the other counter-productive behaviors in which speakers engage, these can all be changed simply by engaging in other, learnable behaviors that produce positive outcomes. You don't need talent to do it right, you simply need to know how to do it right, and then practice those physical behaviors.

When you employ the behaviors that comprise The Skills, not only are you more relaxed, authoritative and convincing, but your audience has a much easier time hearing, seeing, and ultimately agreeing with the message you are trying to impart.

One thing to remember is that audiences, as Yale's Professor Edward Tufte likes to point out, "are lazy, and audiences are fragile". You can't ask audiences to work in order to get your message because they won't. And you can't make them feel uncomfortable because they'll spend their small amount of energy trying to get comfortable and won't have anything left to spend on trying to comprehend your point.

Proper eye-contact, gesturing, tone, inflection and volume all work to make for a great experience for both speaker and listeners alike. When you're using The Skills, it's always a Win-Win.

Rule #3: People only START listening when you STOP talking.

This is an easy concept to understand, but a very difficult one for most people to implement. If you stop to think about it, you don't so much hear what is being said as you do to what was just said.

In fact, the left hemisphere of your brain, where speech and text are processed, is programmed to not absorb information immediately, but rather put it through a process of analysis before storing or acting on it. It's a momentary process to be sure, but nonetheless one that is immensely aided when a moment or two of silence follows the words or phrase that the speaker wants his audience to really hear and comprehend.

Think for a moment of what happens when someone tells a joke. Jokes are structured to get the listener thinking that the action in the setup will proceed along the expected path, and the humor comes when the listener realizes that the punch-line has altered that path in an unexpected way. But you don't laugh at the moment the punch-line is delivered. You laugh only when you realize your line of thought has been diverted, and that always takes a moment, or sometimes, if the joke is really good, two. You only hear what was actually said when the joker stops talking and your mind has the opportunity to recognize the misdirection.

Of course, what most speakers do is continue with an endless stream of verbiage from the moment they open their mouths until they discover that the talk is over and they can (Thank God!) take their seats again. Once people start talking in front of a group it is very difficult to get them to stop, as it goes against what they've taught themselves to believe: that as long as they continue to hear words coming out of their mouths they're still OK. A very common fear is that somehow that stream will stop and they won't be able to get it started again. But why is this so?

A stitch in time

Because of the physiological changes that occur in the body when you are facing an audience, your perception of time actually s-l-o-w-s d-o-w-n. The universe doesn't change - just how you perceive it. So although the audience is listening to you in real time, you perceive even a momentary lapse in your word-stream to be much longer that it actually is. A 1-second pause for the audience might feel like 3 or 4 to you.

This is where umm's and ahh's are born. We hear that dreaded silence, and in a desperate need to fill it immediately, we grab for the closest thing - a non-word that we don't have to structure into our word track.

It might be hard to believe, but time goes by quite nicely even when it's not filled with your words.

As you develop your eye and an ear for The Skills, you will come to see that ALL great speakers not only know Rule #3, but also embrace it. They not only embrace it, it is at the forefront of their thinking whenever they are speaking. It is the Number 1 issue on their minds. And that says a lot, because Rule #1 says that we can't be thinking about too many things at once.

Being able to resist saying the next thing on your mind immediately after you offer your last thought is the most difficult idea for participants to learn, but it is an absolutely essential.
About the Author
J. Douglas Jefferys is a principal at PublicSpeakingSkills.com, an international consulting firm specializing in training businesses of all sizes to communicate for maximum efficiency. The firm spreads its unique knowledge through on-site classes, public seminars, and high-impact videos, and can be reached through the Internet or at 888-663-7711.
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