3 Secrets to Mastering the Art of Public Speaking

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A dear friend got up on stage with me once to address the group. His speech was so dry and stilted that, in short order, the whole audience was squirming in their seats, uncomfortably waiting for him to end. I was aware he had a lot of material to convey, so I knew I had to do something. I took a chance. In a friendly, jovial and joking way, I loudly blurted out, “Boring!” The whole audience burst out laughing, as did my friend. It shifted the whole room, and he started to talk from a more natural and comfortable place. Fortunately, it was a great success.

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Perhaps there is no greater leadership development tool than to notice the audience’s response to your public talks. When I first began public speaking, I thought I would give a lecture and everyone would love it. Instead, much to my surprise, I made a number of people angry. I had no idea how attached people were to their perspectives and how offended they would be by a suggestion to alter those perspectives.

I learned to be more tactful. I came to realize that, in spite of my desire, I couldn’t tell them everything at once. As someone once put it, “You can’t expect them to drink out of a firehose.” I also learned that what is self-evident and obvious for one person can be foreign to another. Many people are uncomfortable with any reference to math or science. Some like stories and some don’t. Some want facts, and some want feeling. Through practice, I learned how to balance these things and customize them for each audience.

I consider myself fortunate that I did not meet with instant success when I first started out. If we are immediately successful, we are far less inclined to pay attention to feedback. Any little criticisms are easily disregarded.

1. Get on your audience’s side.

A slight smirk or an inside joke can be a real turnoff to the audience. Clever, little flippant remarks rarely work. People want to feel you are on their side and that you honor and respect them.

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When you are on stage, it’s easy for one or two audience members to hold back and simply accumulate a list of judgments about you. When a number of people in the audience all similarly respond, it builds up over time and eventually comes through to you loud and clear. It’s as if the audience holds up a mirror for you to see yourself and the effect you are having on them.

2. Don’t alienate your audience.

No matter what you do, you’re going to alienate some people, but you can do your best to say things in a way that will alienate the fewest people. For example, consider the arena of political correctness. We understand there are certain attitudes or beliefs that don’t sit well with the politically correct crowd. In fact, certain topics are best entirely avoided.

There are people who have very strong opinions on diet. If you advocate any particular diet, you will probably alienate a large portion of the crowd. Some say egg yolks are bad for you. Other people strongly disagree. I’ve heard that some people even say that eating a little bit of dirt is good.

One-on-one communication has a natural feedback loop between two people. However, speaking in front of an audience does not have this same loop. You have to learn to read the cues from the audience and adjust accordingly. You may discover that what people think you said is not what you meant at all. Being able to articulate your message in a way that people can hear and understand is a true art. Any feedback from your audience will help with the process. I have been astounded by what people say they heard when, in fact, it is completely different from what I was trying to say.

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3. Pay attention to cues from the audience.

When you are addressing a group, a heavy or awkward feeling in the room, people looking disinterested, squinted brows, shaking heads or people looking confused, demand a change of approach. People smiling, nodding, sitting on the edge of their seat or being fully engaged are helpful, positive responses. The best feedback is usually not given to you directly. Oftentimes, people are too shy to put up their hand, even when invited. Afterwards, most people will not feel free to speak to you directly. However, feedback after your talk is invaluable. So, do what you can to get it.

It’s easy to go through life thinking the way you talk to people works, even when it hardly works at all. If you’re trying to run a business, this pattern can be devastating. To master the art of speaking, speak publicly. Watch your audience’s response as you speak, and pay careful attention to the feedback. If you can connect well with an audience during a public speech, then you can talk to small groups and individuals effectively.

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