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Boosting your public speaking skills for the online world

Public Speaking is one of the most challenging, and often most avoided methods for up-levelling your leadership, and yet the most powerful. We’ve all come across amazing speakers who inspired us to take action. Just look at some of the best TED talks on the internet for long enough and you find yourself wanting to try something you never dreamed of before! This is the power of public speaking. And yet, for many of us, it is something we hate to do. We know it can boost our careers, but is it a necessary part of the toolkit? Is there a way to avoid it?

So, let’s start with a bit of a reality check. Yes, you can have a (successful) career without actively engaging in public speaking. But you will never rise as far as you could if you decide to use your public speaking to bring influence and positive change. 

As leaders, we needs to share our ideas and get buy-in. This requires addressing an audience, whether of your peers, or a more public audience. Great public speaking accelerates our growth at every stage of our careers. Public speaking is the best way to get across what you are passionate about, what you are working on, and why people should pay attention to you. Whether you are working your way up the corporate ladder, building a business, or in academic research – sharing what you do is essential, and public speaking is the best tool in your toolkit to do this.

But what makes someone a great speaker? And how on Earth do you make the most of your speaking opportunities during social distancing, without getting on a stage in front of thousands of people?

The principles around public speaking are the same, whether we are in a boardroom, on a stage, or in a teleconference meeting or webinar. How much you can use each of the principles that I will cover below, changes depending on the venue. But that was true even before we were all socially distanced and no longer taking part in physical conferences. Your public speaking skills improve how you turn up to meetings, both formal and informal. And improve outcomes in those meetings. Public speaking skills improve how we present to a large audience, whether they are in the room with you, or you are presenting to the world on camera. Below I cover the principles of public speaking, and how they apply in a variety of situations.

Principle One: Understand your audience

This is the foundation of all communication, and yet the one thing that many of us think of last (if at all). If you want to communicate an idea, feel confident in what you are communicating and make sure your audience stays engaged (and doesn’t drift off to their email, fall asleep in the conference hall – yes we’ve all seen that – or simply stop listening and zone out). This applies as much to meetings as it does to an audience of 10,000 people! And it is increasingly important as we move into the virtual world where it is easier for people to emotionally disengage, zone out, or even log off!

Tips to understand your audience:

Before you prepare for any meeting or presentation, start by asking yourself these questions:

1) Who is the audience, and why are they here?
2) What type of language do they use? Are they familiar with the vocabulary I typically use? How can I remove jargon from how I speak so that I am speaking in a language and vocabulary they will understand with ease.
3) Why SHOULD they listen to me? Why is it in their interest? How will I help them/make their lives better/easier?
4) What outcome do I want? How can I make sure the audience focuses on this desired outcome and comes to the conclusion I want them to?

This may seem like a lot to process for each interaction you have! But you will find it becomes second-nature the more you do it. And you will reap the rewards… even just going into casual conversations with friends and colleagues with this set of questions asked at the back of your mind will improve your relationships with others. You’ll avoid bombarding them with unnecessary information that they don’t need, and make sure you do your brainstorming in front of the right people! After all, we all know that the friends who bombard us with unnecessary information at some point become draining – so don’t be that person!

  • Tailoring ‘Understanding your audience’ for the boardroom: Always remember your audience is busy and you need to get to why they need to listen to you in the first few moments.
  • Tailoring ‘Understanding your audience’ for an online meeting: Your audience is likely to be unfocused and distracted. Think about how you can grab and keep their attention. Use their names, if you know them, to increase engagement.
  • Tailoring ‘Understanding your audience’ for online presentations: Do your research! You won’t necessarily be able to see videos of everyone watching (particularly if it is a large group or a webinar), so you are relying on research rather than reading the emotions and body language in the room as you would with a typical crowd of people in one room. Ask the organisers about the demographics of the audience, and why they asked you to speak. If you organised the event, ask attendees what they are struggling with, or why they would turn up, and use this information to grab your audiences’ attention in the first few minutes.

Understanding who you are talking to is the foundation of all good communication, and yet the one thing that many of us think of last (if at all). 

Principle Two: Use storytelling but avoid monologues

Using storytelling is standard marketing best-practice. But why does it belong in a public speaking which includes business meetings in the tech sector? Because humans empathise when they can see how it impacts them, and the easiest way to do that is with a story. Bring the human element into the boardroom or the online presentation and you’ll stand out positively every time.

But remember: public speaking isn’t about giving a monologue. This may seem at odds with the entire concept of public speaking which is often thought of as ‘Listen to me’! But unless you are giving a speech (and public speaking doesn’t stop there!) then avoid the monologue! Listen to your audience and avoid getting on your pedestal because it is easy.

Tips for using storytelling:

1) Identify the outcome you want to achieve, and describe a past example of a real person getting their and the impact it had.
2) Keep the story short and sweet, particularly for an impatient technical crowd, but don’t lose the story altogether.

This takes practice, particularly for a sceptical technical crowd. It is tempting to forget the storytelling and easy to fall into the technical monologue. Start small and practice.

  • Tailoring ‘Use storytelling but avoid monologues’ for the boardroom: Start with an outcome, then the story, so they continue to listen. Then finish with your suggestion. But practice and keep it short, sweet, and to the point.
  • Tailoring ‘Use storytelling but avoid monologues’ for an online meeting: The shorter the better as attention is more fractured. Start with a big, impactful outcome to make sure they don’t switch away to emails.
  • Tailoring ‘Use storytelling but avoid monologues’ for online presentations: Preparation is key. Decide on your top 1-3 speaking points and then find ONE SHORT story that highlights it. Then start your presentation with an image that invokes the feeling that the story should also get across. Ideally have one story that you can use in different ways across the speaking points can often make the most compelling presentations. In other situations, multiple examples and therefore multiple stories can act as your validation and therefore buy-in. So make sure you know your audience and your intended outcomes before deciding on what type and how many stories you need to use.

Principle Three: Simplify

To keep peoples attention we want to make sure we keep things simple! Jargon, complicated routes to an outcome, or using a room of people to explore your own thinking will lose your audience every time. This is important online, in person, on stage and in a small meeting! If you want buy-in get to the point.

Tips to simplify:

1) Know WHAT outcome you want to get across.
2) Figure out what the audience needs to know so that they come to the same conclusion as you. They don’t need to know all the things in your head, all the dead-ends you went down. You just need to lead them along a straight path in a concise manner. Come up with a list and then cut the list of points in half 😉 You can always use the rest of the points as back-up materials if you get questions.
3) Write out your discussion points, then edit. Don’t edit as you go. The first draft is the first draft – just get the ideas out on the page, then work on the editing.

  • Tailoring ‘Simplify’ for the boardroom: You want to keep your ideas to 5 minutes or less, and always start with the outcome, then explain the process that you want approval for. Prepare supporting materials, but only use it if requested.
  • Tailoring ‘Simplify’ for an online meeting: Use slides minimally. Remember that your audience is likely to feel distracted and have online-meeting fatigue. They will appreciate someone who shares only what is necessary. And remember, that a team meeting is not the place to be exploring an idea, even if there is a permeating attitude of that from other people! Instead, use a trusted co-worker to brainstorm an idea and then bring it to the team. The more people involved in the ideation, the harder it will be to get buy-in. Your goals should be to turn up with a fully-formed proposal that you are open to tweaking.
  • Tailoring ‘Simplify’ for online presentations: Get to your core message as swiftly as possible, then use multiple examples to back-it-up (see principle four!).

Principle Four: Repeat

To get your core message across, repetition is key. Remember that not everyone will give 100% of their focus to you all of the time. You’ll notice in TED talks and Podcasts that a summary is typically provided at the end. I do the same in my Facebook LiveStreams.

Tips to repeat:

1) It isn’t about saying the exact same words, but re-iterating one or two key messages in different ways.
2) Figure out just one takeaway, and find 3-4 ways to express it. Simplify, use stories, and then weave this into your narrative.

  • Tailoring ‘Repeat’ for the boardroom: Focus on the outcome you want from the presentation/discussion then figure out the number one message that will help get the outcome you desire. Then figure out 3-5 ways to make that point so that you can address different types of people in the audience. But be ready to stop once you have 100% buy-in!
  • Tailoring ‘Repeat’ for an online meeting: Succinct repetition is your friend. Understand who is likely to be on-board with what you say and who isn’t. Then tailor your messaging for the likely sceptics. For important discussions, contact a few potential backers before-hand, socialise the idea with them and then ask them if they will back you up – the repetition doesn’t need to come from you!
  • Tailoring ‘Repeat’ for online presentations: Figure out the key message you want the audience to understand, then break it down into component pieces. 3-5 steps or takeaways is a good approach, but remember to bring each one back to the overall message.

Principle Five: Minimise distractions (for you and your audience!)

Distractions come in many forms, and this is amplified when an audience is remote. There is a culture of ‘always busy’ being a sign of success. This translates to ‘I must multi-task’! Which means you have to work extra hard to grab and hold onto people’s attention during online presentations and discussions.

Tips to minimise distractions:

1) Start by eliminating your own distractions, even if you are just listening. Focus on the screen in front of you, turn off notifications and get used to using active listening and note taking to increase your participation level. You will find that you enjoy meetings more and are able to offer better insights to discussions when you minimise your own distractions. This turns into a level of authority which makes it easier to command everyone else’s attention when you ask for it.
2) Only speak up when you need to. We’ve all learnt to ignore the people who always have an opinion about everything – learn to be the one who says the most relevant and pertinent things only. Don’t use open meetings as a place to problem solve – do that with a small group or ideally one-on-one.
3) Remind the audience to turn off devices and shut down tabs if you feel you can.

  • Tailoring ‘Minimise distractions’ for the boardroom: Use an agenda and stick to it. Influence the leaders to stick to the agenda if you aren’t in charge. 
  • Tailoring ‘Minimise distractions’ for an online meeting: Only speak up when you need to. Then be known as the person who will ask people individually, by name, for their opinion – you will build a reputation as the person who needs to be listened to, but that doesn’t waste time.
  • Tailoring ‘Minimise distractions’ for online presentations: Don’t put all your words on slides. Slides are a great tool, but slides full of words you are just going to repeat don’t work at an in-person event and they definitely don’t work online. Those words are distracting your audience from what you are saying. Use slides to amplify what you say, but not distract. The best online presentations only show slides when they are needed and the rest of the time these are hidden – think of the way TED Talks use slides sparingly and then return to the speaker. This commands more attention. However, the technology to enable this is often expensive and therefore unavailable to most of us. If you can clearly articulate your message without slides this is the second best option for online presentations. If you do use slides, you will need to move through the deck a lot more swiftly than you would at an in person even where you can be walking and gesturing to capture the audience’s attention. Use single item take-aways in the centre of your slide – what would normally be a bullet point in one long list. You want to change slides every 10-30 seconds (whereas in-person events should really only have 1 slide per minute). And please avoid tiny print – try your materials out on the smallest screens as well as the large ones! Remember that uploading a screen share often creates pixelation that makes things less readable. Uploading video is a lot more forgiving than your slides! So adjust the size of your content to make sure it is readable even with pixellation.

Principle Six: Be empathetic

Empathy in public speaking is essential for building buy-in for your ideas, trust in your vision and achieving the influence and outcomes you want to have. But this can feel daunting in person when there is a sea of people in front of you, and can seem impossible online. After all you can’t ‘feel’ the room when everyone is remote. And it becomes impossible when no cameras are on, right?

Wrong. Video is beneficial, but you can rely on voices alone. And secondly, how you behave can greatly increase your empathy and the reaction of others.

Tips to be empathetic:

1) Remember, a great leader and a great public speaker never leaves feelings unaddressed.
2) Listen closely – are people speeding up, slowing down, do they change their vocal attributes, sound excited, stressed, happy, angry? Look for changes in tone as things are mentioned.
3) Don’t interrupt. This is difficult in an online setting, especially without cameras. But if possible avoid interrupting, wait for a pause or raise your virtual hand (check out your video conferencing technology for the raise hand option!).
4) Regulate your body language as that shows you are willing to listen and be heard. Be approachable in all of your interactions (remember not to hide!). Use your body language to demonstrate your care. Take notes at all times so there is an expectation that you are note-taking and you don’t become the angry-frantic note-taker that suggests you are annoyed or upset.

  • Tailoring ‘Be empathetic’ for the boardroom: Ask if everyone can share video. Speak to the chair before hand and ask for that to be the acceptable thing to do. Change your view to a gallery of all participants if possible. Then watch closely as others are speaking:
    • What is the general feeling in the room
    • Who seems disinterested or annoyed?
    • What could you do to bring them back on point?
  • Tailoring ‘Be empathetic’ for an online meeting: Listen, listen, listen. Pause and then ask to speak. The more you listen to how people talk, and specifically, the changes in how they talk, the better you will understand how they are feeling about the discussion and what you need to do to change their perception of you/your idea/your area of interest. Put your camera on even if no one else is, then regulate your body language. Aim to appear approachable and enthusiastic, but not bursting off your seat ‘I need to have my say’ enthusiastic. Calm enthusiasm wins everyday.
  • Tailoring ‘Be empathetic’ for online presentations: This is the most difficult thing of all – you have no feedback mechanism other than questions which often come at the end. The best tool in your toolkit is to do your research beforehand. Understand who the audience is, what they care about and what will resonate with them. Then be open to questions, comments and feedback.

Principle Seven: Leverage your public speaking

Public speaking is one of the most important mechanisms to build influence. If you want to do great things, leave your mark on the world and make things better, you need to use your influence to get there. If Ghandi or Oprah were not great influencers and great public speakers, the world would be a lesser place today. You have your unique insights to share and influence to bring. So use your public speaking to share those insights and ideas and make the change you want to see.

Conclusion

Great public speaking skills can make every aspect of our life and our careers easier. But it takes practice, patience and confidence to get there. By using your public speaking you can build a team that trusts you and is enthusiastic (and therefore more productive and loyal). You can build respect and admiration beyond your immediate circle so that people want to work for you (and ask to be moved to your team!). 

Remember: build respect for you, your ideas, your mission. If you don’t have influence and credibility, your ideas don’t either!

But be kind, receive feedback openly, be open. And above all use your public speaking to motivate action and make positive change.

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2 Responses

    1. Hi Martha! So glad to hear it. Let me know if there is anything that you would still like some advice on 🙂

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