Try this experiment: Imagine a new speaker asked you for the most important things you’ve ever learned about public speaking over the past twenty years. ‘But boil it down to 5 things only, please,’ he adds. ‘Otherwise I’ll just get overwhelmed.’
I’ve been a Toastmaster for just shy of two decades, and a full-time professional speaker for the past 15 years. The idea of condensing all the lessons I’ve ever learned from generous past World Champions and highly paid professional speakers, into such a tight answer, intrigued me. Was it possible?
Here’s what I came up with. Boiled down, these are the 5 philosophies that will get you the most bang for your speaking buck:
1. Create images that move in their minds
Anyone who’s been around speakers for more than 20 seconds will have heard the advice: tell stories. After two decades, I can vouch that it’s excellent advice. The best speaking is simply this: make a point, tell a story, make another point, tell another story. It’s essentially what I do on stage for corporate leaders. Just that. And it’s enough to sustain a full-time career.
Story illustrations help your point to come alive. And the best ones invoke ‘images that move,’ or ‘scenes that progress’ in the audience’s imagination. If they can see it in their mind’s eye, and follow the action, that’s half the battle won.
You can spend years studying how to tell stories well in speeches, and you can become a master at the form. But the starting point is simply to be aware that stories are the heart and soul of good communication. Try to turn every point into a story.
2. Be Gandalf, not Frodo
There’s nothing wrong with speaking about yourself, or telling stories in which you feature. But it shouldn’t be all about you, as though the whole point were to show you off. Instead, you should be guiding the audience toward a goal, showing them how to achieve the things they want. Be Gandalf, not Frodo. Be Obiwan, not Luke.
Make your speeches all about how the audience can get to where they want to go. It’s the difference between: ‘How I wrote a bestselling book!’ versus: ‘How you can write a bestselling book.’ Same speech, same stories, different orientation.
3. Pauses make everything better
I prefer a natural tone of speech. In fact, there’s nothing worse than when a speaker sounds like he or she is (dramatic voice) ‘delivering a speech!’ Conversational is always best.
But to truly elevate the level of mastery in your delivery, pause after important points. It gives you time to think, it gives the audience time to digest, and if you put your pause in just the right place, it can add goose-bump levels of drama. Pauses heighten everything and make you look masterful.
4. Move around for stories, stand still for points
When should you move? When should you stand still? I find that an excellent rule-of-thumb is this: When you’re getting caught up in telling a story, feel free to move around the speaking area and become animated. But when you get to the point of that story, and you chat directly with the audience, stand still in one place, and just connect with them.
5. Smile and blink
Little things can give away our nervousness. For instance, when most inexperienced speakers stand in front of an audience, their eyes tend to go wide, and then switch off in a sort of ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ stare.
I once heard some excellent advice to solve this: ‘Imagine there’s a light at the corner of your eyes. Now switch that light on.’
Most real smiling actually happens around the eyes, and not the mouth. Charm and warmth come from switching your eyes on, smiling, and allowing the eyes to crinkle every now and then. Sometimes the biggest difference between someone who looks amateur, and a pro, is just that the pro remembers to smile.
Keep those 5 ideas in mind, and you can carve years off your learning curve.
By Douglas Kruger, CSP and ‘Hall of Fame’ speaker