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Six Tips for Great Public Speaking

Aug 17, 2007
Your first tip is that aural (speaking and hearing) communication is very different from visual communication. So it's vital that your visuals (charts, photos and so on) complement what your audience is hearing. To quote Dorothy Sarnoff, one of my favourite writers on the subject of public presentations:

"Speechmaking confidence comes from knowing that you have something worth saying and that you can say it in a way that's worth listening to". (Sarnoff 1981: 42)

A picture is only worth a thousand words, if your visuals illuminate and extend the meaning of your spoken words. I know you'd never confuse your listeners by presenting difficult-to-follow visuals which I've had to endure.

Spend your preparation time to distil some complex information into a diagram that's clear and easy to understand, with lots of white space around it, not a diagram that looks like a circuit for a computer - boxes all over the place, arrows going both ways, and a confusing colour scheme. Make three separate images, rather than try to squeeze an assortment of images onto one diagram.

My approach to public presentations is inspired by something Albert Einstein is alleged to have said:

"If you really understand something, you can make it understandable to a ten year old."

So, be like Einstein: keep it simple. Your words and your visuals. If your visual aids don't stand alone, or make sense by themselves, dump them.

If you don't discard them, please at least have a very good second look at them. If your visual material is going to require lots and lots of verbal explanation, then they're too complex for a public presentation. Include them in your conference paper, or hand-out materials by all means.

Notice, my sweet reader, that I'm referring to IMAGES your audience is seeing....NOT TEXT they're reading on your slides. That leads me to an even bigger crime, I wish could carry a jail term of about 210 years.

Using PowerPoint!

GENERAL TIP # 2: PLEASE DON'T USE POWERPOINT
Except if you're creating visual imagery.

Well, if you absolutely must, I suppose you must. I try to restrain myself about my hatred of PowerPoint, but there are so many reasons not to use it. PowerPoint is a way of dumbing down communication to a few dot points which usually have no meaning outside the PowerPoint presentation. If a text slide needs a speaker to explain what the words mean, then either the speaker or the slide is redundant.

Yes, alright. I'll concede that PowerPoint can be useful for hand-out notes. Those notes will remind listeners about what they heard. Having them up on a projector while you're speaking is just a total waste of time, and a distraction.

PowerPoint slides are ugly and clunky and they've ruined public presentations. They're also easy to use so I admit I'm fighting a losing battle.

GENERAL TIP # 3: WHEN IT'S APPROPRIATE, LEAVE HANDOUTS FOR YOUR AUDIENCE.
Your hand-out material might be a list of books/articles they can read for more information, the text of your paper, marketing brochure about your other services. Handouts add to your credibility and allow people to recall the key points in your speech. When your audience goes home with handouts, they can also feel as if you have given them something 'for free'

GENERAL TIP # 4: READ UP ON EXCELLENT PUBLIC SPEAKING AND PRESENTING.
I mention a couple of books I think are great in my bio. Your local library has many of them, and one cannot have too much information on such a foundational skills as speaking well.

GENERAL TIP # 5: JOIN TOASTMASTERS INTERNATIONAL OR A SIMILAR GROUP.
To become a great public speaker, that's it. You have to actually find as many opportunities as you can to practise what you're reading about. That's why joining Toastmasters or a similar group is great. Those groups offer a safe, supportive but challenging environment in which to do that. Let me repeat: the best way to improve your skills in anything is to practise - just do it.

GENERAL TIP # 6: INVEST IN A COURSE IN PUBLIC PRESENTATION SKILLS.
There are many such courses available, ranging from half-day seminars to courses that are twenty hours in contact time, plus assignments in between. If you're a total beginner, I doubt that you'll acquire much useful information and skills in half a day. However even that's better than no exposure to public speaking protocols at all.
About the Author
Based in Melbourne, Australia Dr Jeannette Kavanagh is a solution-oriented counsellor helping people overcome anxiety and panic attacks, particularly when speaking or performing in public. Sign up for her FREE ezine Public Speaking Success
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