Keeping an audience's interest has as much to do with being interesting as it does with giving a smooth presentation—concise topics, no technical difficulties or stumbling over the material, and a clear take-away message.
"There are a myriad of ways a speech can fail," says Dan Rex, Executive Director of Toastmasters International, an organization designed to help individuals polish their public speaking skills. "And if you plan well in advance and cover all your bases, then you won't fail." So, if you want to succeed beyond simply avoiding a collapse at the podium, read on.
1. Look your best. People are coming to listen and watch you, so show respect by demonstrating that you take the occasion seriously. When considering what to wear, pick something that is both comfortable to wear and to look at. Neutral colors and uncomplicated patterns and cuts work best.
2. Know the room. Be aware of the space, line of sight, and technical aspects. If you can, run through your speech at least once before the real presentation; this will make you aware of multimedia aspects (such as special hook-ups required to run your PowerPoint) and necessary microphone or voice volume. Try to bring someone with you to figure out the ideal sound settings. Find out if any seats in the room prohibit visibility, and avoid standing in spots that make viewing more difficult.
3. Know your material. If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear. Or, as Dan says, "Practice, practice, practice."
"What people skip most is enough personal preparation," he continues. "Even if you're comfortable with your material, you need to go through it again and again until you get it just right."
Also, realize that knowing your message doesn't mean knowing where to look on your notes to find what you're talking about. Notes can give you a false sense of security - when you have them, you'll end up reading them most of the time. If you must use aids, use 3 x 5 cards that include only bulleted touch points. And if you mess up, never apologize.
4. Know the audience. Remember when your English teacher told you to know your readers so you could direct your argument to them? The same holds true for public speaking.
"You have to know [the audience] and know how they can relate to the topic," says Dan. Children, for instance, will likely need more stimulation than adults; likewise, foreigners will be less likely to understand idioms (phrases that do not have literal meaning - "kick the bucket," for example). Tailor your message according to the audience. Also, try talking with audience members before your speech; it's easier to talk to friends than strangers.
5. Use understandable language, and get to the point. Speech is much harder to follow than the written word, so an audience needs the opportunity to quickly understand your message. In any presentation, avoid strings of statistics or numbers, especially if they are unaided by visuals, and avoid long quotes, especially of literary context. Use only the best and most relevant information - those details that will best support your idea.
Most importantly, use uncomplicated language. Bookish words are bound to lose your listeners fast. Even experts appreciate simplicity in speech, and making a complicated message simple will show your proficiency in the subject and add greater power to the message.
In fact, President John Taylor said, "It is true intelligence for a man to take a subject that is mysterious and great in itself and . . . simplify it so that a child can understand it."
6. Use visual aids when possible. Visual aids are extremely helpful in presentations, especially in those that involve technical or business information. They are also one of the best ways to keep an audience's attention and involve them, says Dan (along with good question-and-answer sessions - see below).
On the visuals, include basic information and summarized ideas. Be sure to keep them simple; don't use too many pictures, colors that are too intense, or fonts that are difficult to read.
Remember: visuals are meant to complement the presentation, not constitute it. Know the material well enough that you can tell the story yourself, without depending on visual aids. If you tend to talk to your visuals, don't use them.
7. Speak clearly. When without a microphone, a good rule of thumb is to speak (not shout) to the person at the back of the room. Next, annunciate your consonants, especially at the end of a word, where they can get lost. Step back from the microphone so that breathy sounds (like s) don't sound too harsh, and so that your articulation isn't blocked by the microphone. Speak with conviction; this will also help your speech clarity. Last, watch your pace; when people are nervous, they tend to speak faster, which is harder to understand.
8. Include variety. This pertains to voice as well as content. Make sure you literally sound interesting: vary your tone, your emphasis, and your volume. Dynamics are just as important in speech as in music. As for content: getting to the point doesn't mean you need to pare out all the interesting asides, humorous stories, or other useful anecdotes - just make sure they relate to the subject.
9. Periodically make touch points back to the everyday. "You have to relate to the audience and build them into your speech," says Dan. "It doesn't really work to stand up and preach. When you ask questions, whether they're rhetorical or not, make sure [the audience is] interacting back with you."
If you're trying to get an audience's business, remind them occasionally of the perks or savings they'll get from your service; if you're giving a talk in sacrament meeting, relate each idea back to an everyday application. One of the best ways to keep an audience interested is to remind them why your message is significant.
10. Concentrate on what you're saying, not who's saying it (you). Stop thinking about yourself and think about what your message means for the people listening. If you can focus on the message, it will have more significance for everyone. This same principle holds true for believing in what you're saying. "It's very important that the speaker believe in what they're talking about. If you believe it, the audience is going to believe it," says Dan.
If you still feel unsure after following these basic principles, remember this: unless your arch enemy is sitting in the audience, everyone wants you to be successful. "Most people are intimidated by the audience, and they don't realize that most audiences want you to succeed," says Dan. "They want you to be interesting and informative and entertaining. And they're rooting for you. So don't be afraid of them."
Additionally, even if you incorporate these tips, remember that nothing can make up for experience, such as joining a public speaking club. A good resource for finding such clubs is toastmasters.org. You're likely to find one wherever you are.
After the Presentation . . .
Conducting a question-answer session is just another contributor to the tribulation of public speaking. Even if you love this segment, here are a few tips that can make it smoother and more fulfilling:
- Listen to the question. Few things are more frustrating than feeling that, instead of listening to you, someone is simply formulating a response to your comment. We all do it, so force yourself to listen, and then take a moment to think about your answer.
- Repeat the question. As Dan says, "It doesn't do the audience any good to just hear one side of a conversation." Make sure the audience knows the question before responding. This will also give you more time to think of an appropriate response.
- Answer the question. By the same token, admit when you don't know an answer. However, don't end there; take the person's information and make sure to get back to them with the answer.
- Give equal treatment to questions. Respond with the same excitement and sincerity to all questions so that audience members feel appreciated.
- Follow up. Ask the questioner if you've answered their question; if not, clarify the question and respond again.