The 5 Pillars of Highly Effective Public Speaking
Posted June 9th, 10:15
9 min read
What does every successful piece of communication have in common? Mike Corcoran shared his thoughts with Town Square Space’s Start Up Club, 4th June 2020.
There has been no greater asset to my business than the ability to speak in public. It has served me well at every pitch, every conference, in every interview and at every event. Because I can speak, people invite me to speak. Because people invite me to speak, people hear what I have to say. And because people hear what to say, I can make a difference.
However, it doesn’t come naturally to me – far from it. For years I was a nervous wreck. I was the kid in school who would avoid eye contact at all costs. I was the student at University whose quivering notes would drown out the noise of his bumbling statements. But since then I have done something about it. I have dedicated countless hours of my life to overcoming my fears and understanding the subtle differences between those orators who succeed and those who fail. Over the past decade I have given public presentations to over 100,000 people – and with my hand on my heart I can honestly say it’s become the part of my work I enjoy the most.
Whilst I don’t believe there are any shortcuts to success, I do believe there are five pillars – foundations upon which all successful communications are built. By focusing on these pillars, we can be better prepared whenever opportunities to speak in public come our way – and we can take them – and people can hear what we have to say – and we can make a difference.
The First Pillar: A clear structure
If there is a single question you should ask when it comes to speaking in public it’s this:
“Do I know why I’m speaking?”
If you don’t know what you’re speaking – you probably shouldn’t be! The purpose of speaking in public is to achieve an objective – to take your audience from where they are, what they know, and how they feel when you start speaking, to where they need to be, what they need to know, and how they need to feel by the time you’re done.
Your objective may be to sell your product to a customer, to secure investment from a funder, to arrange a meeting with a potential partner, or to ascertain how somebody can help you. You may have three hours, or you may have 30 seconds. In each and every case, you need to tell a story. Your story must have a clear structure: a beginning, middle and end. It must provide a simple narrative that stiches all of the important information together in a coherent and interesting way. And the end of your story should always align with the objective you are trying to achieve.
Take this blog. My objective – for you to leave knowing about my five pillars of highly effective communication. The structure of my story:
- Public speaking is important.
- But I never used to be any good at it.
- But then I got good at it.
- And you can get good at it too.
- By thinking about these 5 things …
A clear and logical structure, a simple story, and one I can tell in 5 minutes.
Think about all the places where you will be speaking in public? What will your objective be in each instance? How will you structure your presentation? What story will you tell?
The Second Pillar: The right tools
A clear structure is important, but alone, it’s not enough. You must bring your story to life, and for that, you need tools. Ask yourself:
“What will make this easier?”
You can consider ‘tools’ to be absolutely anything which helps you to tell your story more effectively. They might include:
- Notes and cue cards.
- Slides, images and videos.
- Props and practical demonstrations.
- Flyers, reports and business plans.
- Questions and activities.
- And much else in between.
Whenever a tool can help to make a story easier to tell (or to hear) it should be included. Whenever a tool risks distracting from the story, it should be taken away. This blog contains, images, links, references, lists and words in different colours and sizes. Each of them is a tool I’m using to make my story easier to tell (and hopefully easier to hear).
Sometimes public speaking opportunities are planned months in advance, and you will have plenty of time to carefully curate and prepare the tools you need. However, you never know who’s about to ‘walk into the elevator’ and your life changing public speaking opportunity may be hiding around the next corner. So keep an ’emergency tool kit’ on your at all times – for me, this includes a pen and paper and a fully charged phone with a good data allowance and plenty of stored examples of my work.
Think about all the stories you need to tell? How can you use tools to make them easier to tell, and bring them to life? What do you need in your emergency tool kit?
The Third Pillar: Powerful Delivery
The first two pillars are concerned with planning – but eventually, the moment comes when you must stand up and speak. Ask yourself:
“Do I care about what I’m saying?”
If you don’t care, there is absolutely no chance your audience will care. And if they don’t care, they won’t remember. There’s a reason why most of us can remember our first kiss, but not our thirty first. The stronger the emotional experience, the stronger the trace it leaves on our memory. If you speak with passion, you make it biologically easier for the people you’re addressing to remember you. And if you can’t speak with passion, then why are you speaking at all?
Delivery is not only about passion, but also clarity. If people don’t understand what you’re saying, then the chance of you achieving your objective is zero. Make it easy for them:
- Talk at the right speed: Maintaining a controlled and steady pace gives your audience chance to reflect on what’s just been said, and you chance to reflect on what’s coming. Silence is your friend. The pregnant pause often communicates just as much as the words it sits between.
- Speak the right language: Reflect on each word and each reference point you use. Is it a word, or reference point your audience are familiar with? If not, change it for one that is.
- Use the right tone: If you’re saying that you’re excited, sound excited. If you’re saying that it’s serious, sound serious. The right tone is essential to communicating context.
Don’t forget that you have a body: You are not a disembodied voice. Your movement, your expression and your physicality can all be used to reinforce your message.
Think about all the stories you need to tell? Do they fire you up? How can you tell them in ways which ensure they can be understood by all?
The Fourth Pillar: Managing nerves
Speaking in public is a great fear for many people. Even the most seasoned of presenters can experience nerves before going on stage. Eradicating nerves entirely is an unrealistic, and potentially counter-productive, ambition. But there are ways in which to manage the nerves you experience, and even use them to your advantage. It starts with a simple question:
“How can I stay in control?”
In all aspects of our life, nerves tend to creep in when the future is uncertain, when we sense danger, and when our fight or flight response takes over. The perceived ‘unknown’ of speaking in public is the cause of this emotional response. But in truth, there are few situations in life over which you can have more control – if – you prepare and practice!
Preparation means giving due attention to the first and second pillars. Reflecting on your objectives, planning your stories, and developing the tools you need to tell them, before you open your mouth. Imagine you’re invited to speak at a conference: Have you spoken with the organiser? Do you know the size of the audience your expecting, their interests and their expectations? Do you know what equipment you will be provided with (a projector, a lap top, a podium)? Can you arrive in advance of your presentation taking place to set up? With each step, the future becomes a little less uncertain.
Practice means exactly that – again and again. The first time you speak in public, the risk of making a mistake will be high. The one hundredth time you speak in public, the risk will be far lower. Don’t let your big opportunity be your first time. Practice by talking to yourself at home, practice by recording yourself, practice amongst friends, practice each and every time you’re given the opportunity to speak. If you have a paddle in the shallow end every time you’re at the pool, you’re far more likely to swim when you’re first thrown in the deep end.
In the Art of War3, Sun-Tzu proclaimed, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”. Which are you?
The Fifth Pillar: Listening
If there’s one thing that’s most commonly overlooked in the discussion of public speaking, it’s public listening. When we speak in public we don’t speak at people, we speak to people, and this involves listening as much as it involves speaking. Ask yourself:
“What do they want?”
Whether you are speaking, or being spoken to, the person you are engaging with will want you to show an interest in them, to show them respect, to respond to them as they respond to you, and to provide them with opportunities to contribute to the conversation, opening up a true and meaningful two-way dialogue.
Listening is not ‘a lack of speaking’. It is not a passive experience; it is a positive action.
Think about the times when you’ve been in the audience. What did you expect from the speaker? Do your audiences get the same in return from you?
Mike Corcoran helps organisations to make things simpler, more effective, and more impactful.
He works with businesses of all shapes and sizes across the UK and around the world: developing strategies, managing projects, undertaking research, and training and developing teams. A passionate advocate of public engagement with science, he has reached over 100,000 individuals through conferences, festivals, lectures and workshops.
- Booker, Christopher (2004). The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories.
- Aristotle (2020) The Internet Classics Archive. Rhetoric [ONLINE] Available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/rhetoric.html.
- Sun-tzu (1964) The Art of War. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Rogers, C and Farson, R (1957) Active Listening. University of Chicago.
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