Public Speaking Tips for Starters

After twenty years of college teaching, I’ve added a sideline: public speaking. Teachers often are in demand as experts in their specialty areas. But speaking to a group of business professionals is different from addressing a class of eighteen-year-olds. Anyone with a story to tell or a skill to teach can develop a presentation that can be geared to civic groups, social clubs, or professional organizations. Here are some of the things I’ve learned in making the jump from college teacher to public speaker.
“Thank you for the warm welcome. It’s a pleasure to be with your group today. Now, in the next minute turn to someone beside you and tell that person one thing you do not understand about the opposite sex.”

This is my icebreaker for a gender communications presentation that is often in demand. Everyone has a question: “Why are women always on the phone?” “Why does he watch so many sports programs on t.v.?” So that first minute of interaction is lively and fun. After calling “time” I list their observations on the flip chart or white board as a point of departure for my session. Moving through the principles of gendered communication, I link each to the audience concerns posted in front of the room.

As a member of our university campus’ speakers’ bureau, I have developed topics from my teaching expertise that impact daily activities and human nature. That is a good place to start when choosing a speaking platform. Then make sure you understand audience interest in your topic. Anyone can stand before a crowd to make a speech, but not all speeches are memorable or meaningful. Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years to keep my listeners inviting me back for return engagements.

1. Link.
Whatever your topic, find ways to relate it to your group of listeners. Consider their ages, education levels, socio-economic background, and gender (unless it’s a mixed group). Younger audiences typically enjoy a fast-paced presentation like Power Point, while older groups sometimes prefer slower, more thoughtful sessions with details and explanation. Ask the coordinator about the type of session she feels will work best.

Gear the topic to the age group. For example, in planning a finance seminar, twenty-somethings may not get excited about retirement benefits, but you can snag their interest in an investment portfolio.

2. Engage.
Get audience members to interact with each other by asking a question or sharing a thought, as evidenced in my example above. Give them sixty seconds and watch how the excitement builds. Ask for volunteers to help role play in front of the group. Or let the group ask questions or offer suggestions about each segment of the presentation. This adds to the drama-allowing natural personalities to emerge as part of the entertainment, as the clown, the philosopher, and even the heckler emerge from the group to showcase their talents. People love watching coworkers get involved even more than the topic.

After my opening spiel, I assign the audience to small groups and give them a question, case study, or other materials from which to extract some form of meaning that will advance my objectives. Small groups provide safe cocoons that foster open discussion among all members of the audience. Everyone feels free to share an opinion, even backstage performers.

3. Motivate.
Creativity is key. Provide supplies and guidelines for media that include poster boards, skits, short scripts, role-play, and mini-presentations. Physical movement stirs sluggish blood, especially following meals. Groups can rotate from table to table to share ideas in “learning stations” or performance activities. For example, have participants write a piece of a policy that will then be shared with other table groups to form the entire document. This allows everyone to be involved and contribute.

Another motivator is asking a question or posing a riddle at the beginning and promising an answer at the end. Sometimes I offer a small reward, like a large candy bar, candle, or mug to the person who guesses the correct answer.

Food is always fun. Occasionally I initiate “contests” between small groups competing with each other. For example, I’ve worked with social workers who want to improve their description skills for home studies and other documentation. So I tell each group to write as many descriptive words as possible for one of the five senses (touch, taste, sight, smell, sound) in three minutes. The group with the most words wins. The group reads the list aloud to be sure all words are acceptable. Then I pass out five tootsie roll midgets per person in the winning group, and two per people in other groups.

When small groups digress, I stroll to their table, ask if they have questions since they appear to be stuck, and hearing none, nicely ask a few myself to show that there is more work to be done. I prefer chatty groups to silent ones, as the former are easier to motivate than those who are unwilling to respond. When a few people refuse to be drawn into group work, I ask a tantalizing question or give them a juicy point to ponder, which helps to wake them up and get them going. Controversy is especially helpful!

4. Handle the hecklers.
Like pesty insects, hecklers come out of the woodwork at the most inopportune time to try and “diss” the speaker and make themselves look good. Hecklers range from those who ask unanswerable questions to those who stand up and yell or mutter insults before storming out. What’s a speaker to do?

I’ve tried many approaches, from nose-to-nose anger to sarcasm to humble servant. But the persona I like most is the one where I am calm and confident, and perhaps patiently bemused by the outburst.

Heckler:”Your research is bogus; I read another study that said the opposite.”

Me:”Ooh, that sounds interesting. Can you tell us the cite for that study?”

Heckler: “Isn’t it your job to know that stuff? You’re the speaker.”

Me:”I’m familiar with the academic studies; perhaps you’re thinking of something from the newspaper.”

Heckler:”Well, it said that the newest research knocks out the old studies.”

Me:”You know what the lawyers say. If you can’t produce it, it doesn’t exit. But e-mail me if you find it. Thanks for sharing.”

Using “us” in my first response puts me on the side of the audience, and all of us
at odds with the speaker. Rhetorically speaking, the burden of proof now rests with the heckler. Because they generally want attention for themselves more than they want to make a valid point, the audience is usually familiar with their co-worker’s ploy and either ignores him or urges him to sit down and be quiet. Twice when a heckler spoke rudely or disrupted my presentation, their supervisors wrote an apology afterward and mentioned that the heckler had been put in his place.

I wouldn’t trade my ten years of speaking experience for anything because of what I’ve learned. From getting an audience’s attention, maintaining interaction, stifling hecklers and chatters, and stimulating the reluctant, I’ve developed new and improved ways of working with a wide range of personalities. Perhaps more importantly, I’ve surprised myself by exhibiting qualities like creativity, patience, and humor under circumstances that would have made me cringe with fear or frustration before.

Public speaking can be fun for presenter and audience alike. The next time you stand before others, don’t pull out a time-worn document from a file drawer. Consider your invitation as a learning opportunity to find out more about the topic, about your audience, and about yourself. Both you and the audience will come away revitalized.

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