Ideas
Skills

Tapping Into Your Public Speaking Potential

April 4, 2020
Dwayne Walker

FOUNDATION

You Can Learn

If you are wondering how to become a great public speaker then you’re not alone. 

Some surveys revealed that a mass majority of people listed public speaking as their greatest fear over heights, snakes, and even death. This is because when you’re standing on in front of that large group of people there’s one human desire at stake. 

Your reputation. 

That’s the core determining factor of the way humans decide to show you affection, support, and respect. 

This post will give you the confidence to push your fears to the side and build the skill of public speaking. Your goal isn’t to be Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, or Nelson Mandela. If you’re an entrepreneur, speak as an entrepreneur. If you’re an artist, speak as an artist. Whatever you are, be you. 

Embody your own voice.

Give a Gift

Your number one goal as a speaker is to take something that matters deeply to you and rebuild it inside the minds of your audience. That something is an idea. This idea is something you want them to grasp, value, and in some sense be changed. 

This is the gift you are giving your audience.

If you feel like you don’t know enough about an idea then use this as motivation to dig deeper into a topic. Get to know your topic in-depth, but don’t get lost in it. Remember, when you are delivering a talk if you start with only your language, your concepts, your values, your assumptions, you will fail. Instead, start with theirs. It’s only from a common ground that they can start building your idea in their mind.  

Top 3 Speaking Styles to Avoid

  1. The Sales Pitch: Don’t throw your audience off by turning a speech on achieving your goals into a pitch on joining your network marketing group. It’s boring and frustrating to get pitched to when you are expecting something else. A speaker’s job is to give to the audience, not take from them.
  2. The Ramble: Don’t go on stage and just ramble about anything and everything under the sun. Come prepared. 
  3. The Inspiring Performance: Yes, inspirational speeches are powerful. No, it shouldn’t be forced. Inspiration can’t be performed. It’s an audience response to authenticity, courage, selfless work, and genuine wisdom. 

What’s the Point of it All?

The point of your talk is to say something meaningful. That something is often called a throughline, the theme that ties your talk altogether. 

Try to capture your throughline in no more than fifteen very intentional words. What is the precise idea you want to build in your listeners? What is their takeaway? 

Look for a single big idea that is larger than you or your business, but at the same time, you need to leverage your experiences to show that it isn’t just empty speculation. 

Depending on your talk you can say your throughline bluntly near the beginning or you can create intrigue over time revealing it bit by bit. 

Here are a few examples of throughlines from TED Talks:

  • More choice actually makes us less happy.
  • Education’s potential is transformed if you focus on the amazing creativity of kids. 
  • Vulnerability is something to be treasured, not hidden from.
  • The combination of three simple technologies creates a mind-blowing sixth sense. 
  • Online videos can humanize the classroom and revolutionize education.

Your throughline will help you prioritize information that has to be fit within your allotted speaking time. The wrong way to condense a speech is by including all the things you think you need to say and then simply cut them all back to make it shorter. Instead, to effectively shorten a talk, slash back the range of topics you’ve researched and wanted to cover into a single, connected thread. That thread is your throughline.

Strictly pack meaningful things into your talk. I recommend to plan your talk, then cut it in half. Cry a little bit. Then cut it in half again. 

Every element in your talk should be linked to your big idea. Don’t approach it as a big issue

An issue-based talk leads with morality. An idea-based talk leads with curiosity

An issue exposes a problem. An idea proposes a soltuion

An issue says, “This is terrible.” An idea says, “This is interesting.”

It’s much easier to draw people in with intrigue.

Answer these questions when coming up with your own throughline:

  • Is this something I’m passionate about?
  • Does this inspire curiosity?
  • Is my talk a gift or an ask?
  • Is this information fresh, or is it already out there?
  • Could I truly explain my idea during the time allocated?
  • Do I know enough about this idea to make the talk worth everyone’s time?
  • Do I have the credibility to take on this topic?
  • What are the fifteen words that encapsulate throughline?

TOOLS

Connect with Your Audience

Knowledge can’t be pushed into the brain. It has to be pulled in.

To do this you have to connect deeply with your audience. 

Maintain eye contact even if you’re looking back and forth between people in the audience that makes you feel the most comfortable. 

Be vulnerable. Be open about yourself, but handle with care. Don’t share parts of yourself that you haven’t yet worked through.

Humor is a wonderful way of getting everyone to enjoy the ride. Tell funny anecdotes relevant to the subject matter by exaggerating observations about it. You can even build humor into the visuals you show on the projector. The least you can do is have a funny remark if you flub your words. In a nutshell, be funny, but do not say humor based on religion, ethnicity, gender identity, or politics. Also, avoid puns, sarcasm, and offensive remarks.

They’re pun-ishingly bad.

...sorry.

Also, leave your ego at home. Name dropping, boasting, and stories designed to show you off will only push the audience away from you. 

Lastly, an important idea wrapped up in a fresh story can make a great speech. Stories are instant generators of interest, empathy, emotion, and intrigue. So, let’s spend some time focusing on that element. 

Telling Your Story

What are the elements of a great story?

He classic formula I follow is: A protagonist meets an unexpected obstacle and a crisis results. The protagonist attempts to overcome the obstacle, leading to a climax, and finally a resolution. Sometimes I’ll throw a few interruptions and plot twists depending on the purpose of the story. 

When telling your story base it on a character your audience can empathize with.

 Build tension using curiosity, social intrigue, or actual danger. 

Offer the right level of detail. Too little and the story is not vivid. Too much and it gets bogged down.

End with a satisfying resolution, whether funny, moving, or revealing. 

Remember, if you’re going to tell your own story, make sure it’s true! Also, make sure it’s not just interesting. It has to give your audience the gift of insights, actionable information, perspective, context, or hope. 

Simply Explaining Difficult Concepts

To explain tough concepts you have to make sure you start where your audience is. There is a curse of knowledge that you have to overcome. Overcoming this curse might be the single most important requirement in public speaking.

A speaker’s challenge is to take the fundamentally one-dimensional medium of speech (one word after another) and conversation a multi-dimensional (hierarchical and cross-linking) structure. You have to take gray care in how your sentences link. 

Each sentence relates logically to the preceding ones whether the relationship is similarity, contrast, elaboration, exemplification, generalization, before-and-after, cause, effect, or violated expectation. 

What this means is you need to take advantage of phrases like these:

  • “Although...”
  • “One recent example...”
  • “Let’s build on that...”
  • “Playing devils advocate for a moment...”
  • “Here’s a story that amplifies this finding.”
  • “At this point, you may realize that...”
  • “So, in summary...”

Follow these 4 steps and your audience will understand anything you say:

  1. Don’t fall into the trap of the curse of knowledge. Be sure you’re not assuming your audience already knows certain concepts. Start where your audience is. 
  2. Spark curiosity in your audience. Get them to ask why? And how? early on in your speech. 
  3. Bring in your concepts one by one. Each building on top of one another. 
  4. Use metaphors, stories, and examples to back each of your building blocks. 

Change Minds Forever

Persuasion means you have to convince an entire audience that the way they currently see the world isn’t quite right.

That’s hard, but it’s not impossible. 

It requires you to break down the parts that aren’t working as well as rebuilding something better. 

One of the keys to promoting a worldview shift is to take your audience on a journey one step at a time, priming their mind in different ways before getting to the main argument. Get them to agree with little things along the way of the big final agreement. 

There’s a method of persuasion called ad absurdum. It’s the process of taking the counter position of what you’re arguing and showing that it leads to a contradiction. 

The most engaging way to build a case is to start with a big mystery, then travel the world of ideas in search of possible solutions to it, ruling them out one by one, until there’s only one viable solution that survives. 

Your idea.

What makes this work so well is because the audience will feel like they went on the same learning journey as you. As they eliminate rival theories one by one, they gradually become convinced. 

Use these tools to make your argument more meaningful and desirable:

  • Inject humor (But don’t be pun-reasonable about the amount you choose to use).
  • Add an anecdote. Maybe one that reveals how you got engaged in this issue.
  • Offer vivid examples.
  • Use third-party validation.
  • Use powerful visuals.

Show It, Don’t Spray It

Regardless of if you’re showing a series of images, giving a demo, or describing your vision, reveal your work in a way that delights and inspires your audience. 

When showing a series of images make sure they are ordered in a way that says, “If you liked that...just wait till you see this!”.

This is a great moment to be vulnerable. For example, if you are giving a speech about an art project then show your creative process. How did you get there? What mistakes did you make along the way? 

The best way to do a demo is to have an initial tease, tell the necessary information (background, context, story), do the demo (the more visual and dramatic the better), and end with the implications of the technology. 

Imagination. Invention. Innovation. Design. Vision. All of these words simply mean the ability to convey the world in our minds and then re-convey it to create a world that doesn’t actually exist but someday might. 

Share your dream to your audience by painting a bold picture with words of the alternative future you desire and doing it in a way that others also desire that future. Make it clear why the future is worth pursuing or present the idea in a way that emphasizes human values, not just clever technology. 

PREPARATION

Strong Visuals

A picture is worth a thousand words. So, save your energy sometimes and show amazing visuals. 

These are the three key elements of strong visuals:

  1. Reveal: Show something that’s hard to describe. Set the context, prime the audience, and then let your visuals do the magic.
  2. Explain: Sometimes things are best explained using images. Limit each slide to a since core message/idea. Also, it doesn’t make sense to leave a slide on the screen once you’ve finished talking about it. Switch a black screen while you continue your talk. The purpose of visuals is not to communicate words. That’s what your mouth is for. It’s to share things your mouth can’t do so well: photographs, videos, animations, key data.
  3. Aesthetic: Some speakers just use powerful visuals to create a vibe and energy in the space. 

Quick tips for designing presentation slides:

  • Design in 16:9 aspect ratio
  • Use 24 point font or larger
  • If a word is on top of an image, make sure it’s readable
  • Use high contrast when picking font color (black on white, white on black, etc.)
  • No video clips longer than 30 seconds
  • Add photo credits to the bottom corner of an image rotated at 90 degrees
  • Use builds to add elements of your slide to the screen using a series of clicks
  • Don’t use transition animations
  • Send your presentation to the host and bring it on a USB stick with all the supporting files

To Memorize or Not to Memorize?

You can take two approaches to prepare your talk.

You can write out a full script to be read, memorized or a combination of the two.

Alternatively, you can have a clearly worked-out structure and speak in the moment to each of your points. 

Scripted Talks:

  • Know the talk so well that it doesn’t for a moment sound scripted. If you can clean your room while you recite your entire speech then you’re onto something. 
  • Don’t think of reciting your talk. You have to live it. 
  • Recite it at double speed and then it will be easy to comfortably deliver it at normal speed. 
  • Stick to spoken language when writing your script. Try recording your talk, transcribing it, and using that as your initial draft. 
  • Instead of full memorization, you can refer to the scrip during your talk. Don’t read it. Refer to it. 

Unscripted Talks:

  • Practice out loud several versions of each step in your talk’s journey until you have complete mental clarity around each one. 
  • Work on transition statements from each step to the next.
  • Prepare a talk that is a max 90 percent the time limit.
  • The audience doesn’t mind if you pause your talk for a moment to gather yourself. Just be relaxed about it. 

To Rehearse or Not Rehearse?

Hummm...tough questi...REHEARSE!

Repeatedly!

Try paraphrasing core ideas. 

Try reciting it word for word.

Even if you mess up or forget something, force yourself to recover and finish your speech.

Record yourself and analyze the video.

Practice your speech in front of someone or a real audience who knows nothing about your idea. The best feedback comes from people who can tell you there are gaps in your narrative.

Ask your audience:

  • Did I get your attention from the get-go?
  • Was I making eye contact?
  • Did the talk succeed in building a new idea for you?
  • Was each step of the journey satisfying?
  • Were there enough examples to make everything clear?
  • How was my tone of voice? Did it sound conversational (usually good) or as if I was preaching (usually bad)?
  • Was there enough variety of tone and pacing?
  • Did I sound as if I was reciting the talk?
  • Were the attempts at humor natural or a little awkward? Was there enough humor?
  • How were the visuals? Did they help or get in the way?
  • Did you notice any annoying traits? Was I clicking my tongue? Swallowing too often? Shifting from side to side? Repeatedly using a phrase like “you know” or “like”?
  • Were my body gestures natural?
  • Did I finish on time?
  • Were there moments you got a little bored? Was there something I could cut?

Alpha and Omega

At the beginning of your talk, you have about a minute to intrigue people with what you’ll be saying. And the way you end will strongly influence how your talk is remembered.

You want an opening that grabs people from the first moment. A surprising statement. An intriguing question. A short story. An incredible image.

How can you tease up the idea of your talk in the most compelling way imaginable? Ask yourself: if your talk were a movie or a novel, how would it open?

If a talk’s goal is to build an idea in listeners’ minds, then curiosity is the fuel that powers listeners’ active participation.

How do you spark curiosity? The obvious way is to ask a question. But not just any question. A surprising question.

How do we build a better future for all? Too broad. Too much of a cliché. I’m bored already.

How did this fourteen-year-old girl, with less than $200 in her bank account, give her whole town a giant leap into the future? Now we’re talking.

Sometimes a little illustration can turn a so-so question into full-on curiosity ignition.

You can also show a compelling slide, video, or object and it’s okay to save big revelations for the middle or end of your talk. 

End your speech with a camera pull-back showing the audience the bigger picture. Show a broader set of possibilities implied by your work. 

Give them a call to action.

Impart on the audience your vision and inspire them to see a different tomorrow. 

Sometimes, you can even end by following your throughline and linking the conclusion back to the opening of your talk. 

However you decide to close your speech, end with a scripted elegant closing paragraph, followed by a simple “thank you”.

ON STAGE

Outfit

Is there a dress code? You’ll probably want to dress somewhat like your audience, but a little bit smarter.

Will you be filmed? If so, avoid wearing brilliant white (it can blow out the shot) or jet black (you might look like a floating head), or anything with a small or tight pattern (it can cause a strange, shimmery, moiré effect on camera).

Will you be using an over-the-ear microphone? Avoid dangling earrings! Also, men’s beard stubble can cause scratching sounds.

Avoid jangly bracelets or anything flashy that might cause a reflection. Scarves can be a good way to bring in a pop of color.

Have a firm belt to hold the mike’s battery pack. 

Fitted clothing tends to look better on stage than baggy outfits.

If you’re speaking late in the day it might be smart to bring your clothes to the event and changing closer to the time of your presentation. 

Also, try rehearsing in your outfit, too. 

Speak Life Into Your Words

Yes, words have information, but your voice and presence turn information into inspiration. 

Adding this human layer to words can bring:

  • Connection: I trust this person.
  • Engagement: Every sentence sounds so interesting!
  • Curiosity: I hear it in your voice and see it in your face.
  • Understanding: The emphasis on that word with that hand gesture—now I get it.
  • Empathy: I can tell how much that hurt you.
  • Excitement: Wow—that passion is infectious.
  • Conviction: Such determination in those eyes!
  • Action: I want to be on your team. Sign me up.

You can break this down into two categories. What you do with your voice and what you do with your body.

Use the tools to manipulate your voice: volume, pitch, pace, timbre, tone, and prosody (the singsong rise and fall that distinguishes, for example, a statement from a question)

If your talk is scripted, try this: Find the two or three words in each sentence that carry the most significance, and underline them. Then look for the one word in each paragraph that really matters and underline it twice more. Find the sentence that is lightest in tone in the whole script and run a light wavy pencil line under it. Look for every question mark and highlight them with a yellow highlighter. Find the biggest single aha moment of the talk and inject a great big black blob right before it is revealed. If there’s a funny anecdote somewhere, put little pink dots above it.

Now try reading your script, applying a change in tone for each mark. 

Now try one more thing. Try to remember all the emotions associated with each passage of your talk. Which are the bits you’re most passionate about? Which issues could make you a little angry? What are you laughing at? What are you baffled by? Now let those emotions out a little as you speak. 

Record yourself reading it and then play it back with your eyes closed.

The point is to start thinking of your tone of voice as giving you a whole new set of tools to get inside your listeners’ heads.

One other important aspect to pay attention to is how fast you’re speaking. First of all, it’s great to vary your pacing according to what you’re speaking about. When you’re introducing key ideas or explaining something that’s complex, slow down, and don’t be afraid to insert pauses. During anecdotes and lighter moments, speed up. But overall, you should plan to speak at your natural, conversational pace.

The simplest way to give a talk powerfully is just to stand tall, putting equal weight on both feet, which are positioned comfortably a few inches apart, and use your hands and arms to naturally amplify whatever you’re saying. If the audience seating is curved around the stage a little, you can turn from the waist to address different parts of it. You don’t have to walk around at all.

Some speakers, though, prefer to walk the stage. It helps them think. It helps them emphasize key moments. This can work well too, provided the walking is relaxed, not forced.

The simple test is to rehearse in front of a small audience and ask them if your body language is getting in the way, and/or video-record yourself to see if you’re doing something you’re unaware of.

CONCLUSION

See, there wasn’t much to be scared of after all. These are the weapons that will help you face your fears confidently. Your thoughts and ideas are worth sharing. Now, you are equipped with the tools to express your ideas in a way that will be receptive to the masses. 

Give your gift wrapped in curiosity.

Change the world one mind at a time.

Main Concepts from Dwayne's notes on “TED Talks.”


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