Unequivocally, the single most important skill I’ve developed in my professional career is public speaking.
Having found myself in leadership positions at a young age and in boardrooms with people far more experienced than I, the fact that I could communicate my ideas with confidence belied my otherwise youthful inexperience.
People mistakenly believe that an individual is either born a gifted speaker or not. But just like any other skill, public speaking can be learned. It is also a skill that you’ll use every hour of every day, whether speaking to an audience of thousands or in a one-on-one meeting.
Effective communication is about taking people on a journey from point A to point B, and you have to plan your journey according to your fellow travelers. After twenty years of honing my craft, these are the most valuable lessons I’ve learned.
1. Know your audience
If you take only one thing from this article, know that effective communication begins and ends with understanding your audience. Your messages are going to be received through the filters of their experiences and prejudices, so it’s important to appreciate where they’re coming from.
Whether you are speaking to one person or a large crowd, undertake a full analysis. Beyond the obvious details (audience size, backgrounds, roles, gender/age makeup), ask why are they there? What do they expect? What do they need to know in order for you to achieve your objective?
To be clear, your objective and your audience’s expectations are not the same. Like a minimum viable product, you need to deliver just the amount of information required to realize your objectives and satisfy their needs, and no more.
2. Decide the outcome
Before every speech, I write down what I want the audience to take away and how I want them to feel. I imagine them leaving the auditorium inspired, happy, enraged or whatever emotions I hope to invoke. Being clear about your outcome will bring far greater clarity to your message and make for a more successful talk.
Once you identify exactly what you want to accomplish, think of how best you can deliver your message so that the audience will recall what you said. Storytelling is a really effective technique.
Different kinds of speeches call for different types of structures — do you want to inform, persuade, motivate, inspire or entertain? Spend time understanding the construct your talk requires and map it out accordingly.
3. Frame the conversation
Framing involves looking at your topic through the lens of your audience and giving them a way to latch on to what you’re saying. For example, if you’re presenting to a board as a follow-up from a prior meeting, provide a refresher on where things left off. Context anchors your audience at the same point before they begin their journey with you.
Another vital element of framing is staying at the right altitude for your audience. Don’t dive into too much detail and only tell people what they can retain. If you’re presenting during a long work meeting with an already packed agenda, boil your remarks down to the key points. Know how much your audience can digest, and stop there.
Great presentations also have a logical sequence. When you take the audience through a set of data or messages, it should naturally lead them to the conclusion you are trying to reach.
4. Watch your body language
Most people aren’t aware that words only account for 7% of a speaker’s effect on the audience. A massive 55% of your impact is visual and 38% comes from vocal elements.
Dress the part, because your audience is already deciding the degree to which you warrant their attention the second they set eyes on you. Think before you wear a crazy jacket or loud jewelry. If you want to convey a serious message, don’t let dangling earrings or a noisy bracelet with trinkets distract your audience.
No matter what the circumstances, sit or stand up straight and make continuous eye contact with your audience. As unnatural as it may feel to stand still with your feet planted squarely on the ground, it’s the most effective thing to do. If you need to walk across the stage, do so with purpose and not when you’re in the middle of making your most important point.
Your audience feeds off your energy so the best thing you can do is smile. Even if you’re shaking in your boots show your audience that you’re happy to be there. There’s nothing more painful than watching somebody who is obviously uncomfortable being on stage.
At a minimum, avoid the deadliest sin of all: turning your back to your audience. (Tempting when your slides are on display behind you!)
5. Check your delivery
Just as how you look contributes to your effectiveness, so too does how you say things. The right tone for a toast at your best friend’s wedding isn’t appropriate for a eulogy. Be mindful of your use of idioms and colloquialisms, ensuring that your language is tailored to your audience.
Take, for example, a conversation with your boss. While you may feel like going in there with a “sky is falling” message delivered in a “sky is falling” tone, that’s unlikely to serve you well. You risk coming across as overwhelmed, and a conveyer of problems as opposed to solutions.
Instead, use the matrix below to reframe your messages in a way that will resonate more effectively. Capture what you want to say and how you want to say it, then put yourself in your boss’s shoes and work through what he/she wants to hear and how he/she wants to hear it. It’s essential that you frame the conversation, stay at the right altitude and deliver it in a tone that instills confidence.
Great speakers embody three elements in their delivery: enthusiasm, sincerity, and vitality. Certain speeches lend themselves to one or more of these elements and the best speakers know exactly which dials to turn up and down.
6. Practice your pauses
Despite giving speeches for over two decades, practice is still a non-negotiable part of my routine. Practicing out loud in front of the mirror (I know, ugh!) helps you visualize yourself on stage, nailing your performance. Better yet, record yourself and watch it back. Painful as it may be, it’s effective in both timing your remarks and identifying any bad habits that detract from your performance (hums, hahs and — my favorite — tucking your hair behind your ear).
Practice the two vital elements of performance: slowing down and understanding the power of a pause. You will always end up talking much faster than you realize, and this can damage your credibility. If time is short, don’t rush — instead, edit your content.
Incorporate deliberate pauses before key phrases and after the punch line. These pauses allow you to catch your breath and give your audience a chance to absorb what they just heard.
Ultimately the art of “effective communication” is not about the delivery of information; it’s about the creation of understanding, giving people a reason to listen, and leaving them with something of value.
As Jenkin Lloyd Jones put it “the man who makes a bad thirty-minute speech to 200 people only wastes half an hour of his own time. But he wastes 100 hours of the audience’s time — more than four days — which should be a hanging offense”. With a bit of thoughtful prep, fortunately, we can all avoid the gallows.
Dr. Anita Sands is an independent board director, international public speaker and creator of the #wisdomcards series. She writes and comments regularly on issues relating to boards, technology, and diversity & inclusion. Find out more about her at www.dranitasands.com or follow her @dranitasands. All comments personal.