Keys to Speaking in Public

My Story

For the last half of my working life, I was a motivational speaker. Almost every week for over 20 years I spoke to groups of between 6 and 300 people. Usually, each week required a new speech to be prepared and delivered. So over the years, I have tried many different methods of working out what to say and delivering it.

In case you need to speak to a group somewhere – like at a wedding or funeral, if ever we are allowed to have people there again, I thought I’d set out some of the things I learned along the way and let you choose which ones to use and which ones to ignore.

Getting the Content right.

To make sure what you say is significant to the people you are speaking to, and not just wasting their time, the first thing you must do is ask “why am I delivering this speech”. The answer is not “because my daughter is getting married at 11 o’clock on Saturday.” That may be the occasion you are speaking at but it’s not the reason. The reason has more to do with what you expect the outcome to be. In other words, will people leave the wedding / funeral/ dinner saying “That was a great speech, I want to be like that man” or will they leave saying “That was a waste of time – I’ll never get that 20 minutes back again”. In other words what is your motivation for speaking and what do you want the listeners to know/do/feel.

The easiest reason to speak is to give people information. Unfortunately, information is usually the longest route to make somebody’s life better. But if you have to speak about your new invention to a group of potential investors, there must be significant information delivered. They must be able to make an assessment of your widget with the information you deliver. Yet even here, there must be a motivational element as well. According to Simon Sinek, you always have to start there. Have a look at this TED talk to help you understand why. Its an oldie but a goodie! He says, the only way is to tell them why they need to know/do/feel. That way there is a motivation to do something rather than forget the gems you have delivered.

Another issue many people make, is to assume everybody is as interested in their life as they are. I hate to tell you this but no one is interested in hearing about your life unless you have a really outstanding story. And even then you need to include a “so what” in your speech. Like “so next time you face a tiger or bear like I did, remember don’t just stand there. Do what I did…”

To Note or Not to Note.

I have oscillated between these two places for years. I think the best delivered speeches are those delivered without notes of any kind. However to do that on a weekly basis with ever changing material, requires a lot of rehearsal and memorisation. In addition, so many people use notes – like most politicians, preachers, and motivational speakers, that using notes is acceptable. But should they be notes or a full manuscripts?

Again I’ve oscillated between these two options over the years but as I got older, I settled for a full manuscript. That says something more about my memory than my available time. I don’t usually read the manuscript though as some of the stories I use, I know very well and so don’t need to read them. However, recently I’ve watched myself speaking on video and saw that I used the notes too much and didn’t maintain eye contact with people. Eye contact is much more important in motivational speaking, so maybe I should listen to my own advice!

Types of notes

I used to use summaries of the speech I was delivering as my notes. I learned this in university studying for exams. To learn information or a script, I needed to know the key word from each sentence or thought. Then I learned those key words off by heart. I had to know that list of words very well – well enough so I could start anywhere in the list and continue. Then, when delivering the speech, I simply go through each key word in my mind and fill in the rest as I go.

Then I “graduated” to using notes on paper. I found with a font of at least 14 point I could read quickly and easily. Choose whatever size font suits you but when I worked for a TV network last century, they produced note for the newsreaders in around 18 point font (if I remember correctly) because they were easy to read. And you need a simple font. I usually use Geneva.

Now, because I can’t quickly read a line of text the width of an A4 page, I used three columns across the landscape page. That way I can read each line with one glance and my eyes don’t have to move much horizontally. This all meant, rather than reading one word at a time I could read a whole line of text. In addition, instead of using one word from a thought, I could use a few words from each thought. Because it was on paper, I didn’t have to spend the time memorising anything.

Then I tried colour coding some parts because using notes and looking away means you need to know where to come back to when you have finished speaking that part. So I used a coloured font on stories I knew well and could speak without looking at my notes. Then, when I had to return to my notes at the end of the story, I just went to the end of the coloured part to continue on. I’ve also used coloured fonts to indicate a change to any projector slide I use too. I found recently, if I use the notes section in PowerPoint or Keynote slides, the notes for each slide will end when it’s time to change slide. For me to continue then, I have to press the button to advance to the next slide which brings me to the new notes.

Now, because of time pressures or laziness, I have fallen back on using full notes. These notes however are laid out still in short lines. Like this speech from an Anzac Day address I gave a long time ago…

One 86-year-old widow
  of a POW who
had been married for 10 years
before her husband signed up for service.
She said recently…
“he just went away on the tram one day
and I never saw him again.”

As you can see each thought begins on the left margin.  When a thought is longer than one line, the next line is indented. That way every new thought starts on the left margin. The idea is, as you skim read, if you miss a bit then you are not totally lost because the next though is the next line on the left margin.

So that’s where I am at the moment except I’ve discovered if I use an iPad instead of paper, I no longer have to cut up the pages before I speak (or number the columns in case I drop the notes) and if I want to, its easier to make last minute changes. In addition with a bit of finger movement I can adjust the size on the screen to make the text as large as I like.

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