Down the Ballot

Friday, December 13, 2013

Speaking of Speaking: Advice on Public Speaking from the Back Row

As I was going through my facebook updates today I noticed an off hand comment from someone presenting at a public forum geared toward general audiences. It was of course about another speaker; but presented a common problem when we gather groups of professionals together to talk in front of the general public. Apparently, this speaker was very knowledgeable about their topic and got lost in the presentation and neglected to bring the audience with them on the journey of discovery about the topic.

Work in any field long enough and you are going to build up a good deal of knowledge about your topic, the organization you represent, and the community around your issue. This is good, don't get me wrong, we want people who are highly knowledgeable about higher education, climate change, and other topics. What we don't want as a general audience is to be lost in the minutia or details of your chosen field.

Most people do not get a whole lot of formal training in communications, let alone public speaking. This why candidates for political office, non profit, for profit leaders, even lawyers and ministers hire consultants to help them hone their skills. If you don't believe me, go down to your local county courthouse and sit in on a few cases. Odds are you wont see much in the way of Perry Mason or Alan Shore legal oratory. You will see a lot of heads down in file folders, rambling of case precedent and poor eye contact. Don't worry most people pay for good legal representation, not good communications representation at the courthouse. Still, public speaking isn't something most people are very experienced with nor would want to have a lot of experience with. I thought I'd share a tip with you from the back row.

Why the back row? Well the back row is where this seasoned public speaker learned the best tips and tricks in high school and college. During assemblies in high school, my speech and debate coach would sit and jot down notes for every speaker at an assembly she had in any class she was teaching. It didn't matter what the assembly was for or who was speaking you got analyzed and critiqued. Every bad argument, every filler word, every time your hand found a way to your pocket was noted on the legal pad. Content, Organization, Language and Delivery or if you like Greek (Ethos, Pathos, and Logos). Most people who are asked to speak at a public forum, like the City Club have their content down pretty good. Most people if they prepare have something of an organization down to memory or notes. Language and Delivery is where most professionals asked to speak in front of general audiences fail to live up to expectations of the audience.

The tip today is: Know your Audience.

If you're an accountant and attending the annual convention of the Northwest Regional Accounts Managers meeting feel free to use your professional jargon and insider language all you want. These people are your brother and sister accountants. They know and understand the industry. The general public doesn't and so if you get invited to your local City Club avoid using the jargon and insider baseball terms. There is no worse feeling for an audience than sitting down with others and hearing someone speak and not be able to relate at all to what they are talking about.

Since communication requires at least two for the process to work, the speaker can pick up on the mood of the audience if they are paying attention and not caught up in the excitement of talking about their subject in front of others. It is great to be excited, but don't let it carry you away from your audience. They are your primary concern. If they are not happy, they are not going to care about your message.  Use your excitement to make them excited.

If you know you are going to be having to do a lot of public speaking, make sure you have a few friends in the audience that can critique your performance objectively. Those of us who weren't present would rather read facebook updates like, "The speaker at the City Club meeting great! I took a lot away from that presentation". Instead of, "Yeah, I'm at City Club, someones giving a talk about something. What are you doing?"

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