Anyone who has ever spoken in front of an audience knows that there is an art to holding the attention of listeners throughout an entire speech. The rhetoric, the art of speaking, is a discipline that goes back to the age of antiquity. Speakers today face the same problems they did back then: How do I make an impression on my audience? How do I get my topic across in an informative and entertaining way? How do I keep my listeners amused? No wonder nervousness and uncertainty often go along with a presentation. But anyone can give a good speech with these 5 tips for better speaking.
1. Know your audience
Whether or not you can successfully captivate your audience and convince them with your speech depends strongly on how well you have previously gotten to know your listeners. Every audience is different and would like to be spoken to in an individual way. “Think of them as a line of individuals waiting to have a conversation with you” (Duarte, 2012). Someone who is giving a lecture to a group of beginning students of media science has to speak differently than that person would if they were standing in front of a group of international scientists. Background, degree of education, age, and main areas of interest are important factors of which every presenter should be aware in order to give their speech a good introduction. If the introduction is unconventional and topic-centered, the presenter will captivate listeners from the very first minute. If you entertain your audience instead of just lecturing to them, you can be sure that they will pay better attention to you for a longer period of time. Also, speakers who show that they know their audience are not only more popular, but the speaker also has more of the audience’s attention from the beginning than a more distant speaker does.
2. Find the right words
Finding the right words can be difficult for some people even under normal day-to-day circumstances. But when it comes to public speaking, word selection is especially relevant. It is therefore important to practice the art of language on a daily basis so that you are not overwhelmed if you have to make a presentation. When speaking in front of an audience, you should always focus on the spoken language – nobody can concentrate for two hours on a speech read from a textbook. But many mistakes that should be avoided can also occur in loose conversation. Among them are the use of the subjunctive, too many expletives and other filler words, complicated circumlocutions, and multi-clause sentences. The art of speaking lies in your ability to express complex ideas, facts, topics, etc. in the simplest, most concrete, and understandable way possible. Slips of the tongue and other small mistakes can happen even to the best speakers and are a natural part of any presentation – these types of mistakes are allowed to be admitted. Audiences can automatically relate much more closely to speakers who own up to their uncertainty and fallibility.
3. Use your voice correctly
Voice training is probably the most underrated rhetorical tool, but anyone who has ever given a longer lecture or speech knows the fear of a shaky or faltering voice. Our vocal cords are often not trained to be in constant use for several hours at a time. Excitement and nervousness contribute further to a “weak” voice. A good speech begins with the right breathing technique – someone who regularly takes relaxed, diaphragmatic breaths can speak well and relax their body simultaneously. Important: Do not forget to breathe out. If you decide to hold your breath, you can easily become lightheaded. For that reason it is always a good idea to consider inserting a pause after the end of a sentence, taking a deep breath, and then calmly continuing to speak. Pauses are good for your listeners because they give them a second to process what you have said. Voice level, volume, and articulation are equally important factors when it comes to holding your audience’s attention. If you speak in a somewhat low voice you bring calmness into your speech, and you can then, with the help of volume, build in moments of suspense and arouse your listeners. For clear pronunciation, it is a good idea to practice with a cork in your mouth.
4. Arouse emotions
The art of speaking does not go to back to the anquity for no reason – people have always tried through speeches to win over followers, listeners, and other interested people. Why some speakers do it more successfully than others can often be explained by the personal leanings of the listeners. If they find the presenter to be likeable, emotions automatically start to develop that create a closeness between the speaker and the listeners. You do not have to leave the emotional connection to chance. Instead, you can incorporate it into your speech by using simple tricks. If you can create linguistic pictures with which your listeners can identify and therefore remember, you will have great success. In order to do this, it is entirely acceptable to bring in examples from your personal life, which help bring the speaker closer to the audience. Rhetorical questions such as “Are you familiar with that, too?” as well as speaking to the audience’s feelings are other stylistic means by which you can arouse emotions and make the speech as unforgettable as possible. Another important point that presenters often forget: Humor! Laughing is allowed. Not only that, but it is also a good tool for creating a connection.
5. Let your body speak, too
Even the best content is of little use if it is not presented convincingly. In order to do that, an exciting style of delivery, an appropriate outter appearance, and the right body language are all crucial. Nobody likes to listen to a speaker who comes across as withdrawn and sits on a stool in the corner. Someone who stands up straight and sticks their chest out is in a good position to start speaking and to be watched on a stage. “People will read your body language to decide if they can trust you and your expertise” (Duarte, 2012). Movements should therefore always be made deliberately and calmly so that the speaker does not seem rushed – but it is generally advantageous to go back and forth on stage taking large steps because movement relieves adrenaline and also gives the audience something to watch. Presenters often wonder what they should do with their hands. The important thing here is to stay calm.
A speaker who spends the whole lecture time playing with a wedding ring or a pen runs the risk of possibly irritating the audience. Resting your hands on hips your quickly comes across as agressive, and letting them hang down at your sides seems stiff and forced. The solution: gestures that support the content. For example, when listing things, hands can best be used as support: A clenched fist gives aggressive statements emphasis; contemplative gestures can ideally be used when comparing arguments. When it comes to the right body language, it is always important that you feel comfortable with it and that you do not try to imitate others. Once again, get in front of the mirror and practice, practice, practice.
Sources: HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, Nancy Duarte, 2012