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Trainer’s tip: Becoming a better public speaker


After the King's Speech and its triumphant haul of awards and David Cameron's recent oratorial efforts, Steve Smith of Inspired Consulting figures we could all do with a bit of vocal mentoring.
I've been running some presentation skills workshops recently, which are always good fun to do. In opinion polls of phobias, public speaking usually ranks alongside spiders, confined spaces and a grisly death, so presentation skills workshops tend to be places where there is a lot of emotion. I'm often asked for hints and tips for public speakers so, just for you, here are my three top tips for improving your public speaking. To illustrate these tips, I'll be joined by my glamorous assistant, David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, and I'll be referring to a speech he made recently. You’ll find the text of the speech here and I recommend you read it. The politics of the speech (and even the subject matter) are irrelevant to our purposes and nothing in this article should be taken as a comment on the opinions he expresses: what I want to focus on are some of the techniques he uses and which you can use too.
"Practice your opening couple of sentences, so that you don't have to think about them too much - it'll help deal with any nerves you may be feeling. "

Tip one: Know your start and finish

It's very important to make a good start, and by good I mean confident. Practice your opening couple of sentences, so that you don't have to think about them too much - it'll help deal with any nerves you may be feeling. However, all too often, speakers know how to start a presentation/talk/speech (from now on, I'll just use 'talk') but don't know how to end it. The result is, the talk doesn't end as much as it just fizzles out, usually indicated by the fact that the last thing the speaker says is "...and, er, that's it..."
Cameron starts well with a bit of a preamble on his view of the coalition; the sentences are short and clear and the points he is making are unambiguous. He then teases the listener with the idea that, as happy as the coalition is, there is a fundamental difference between the two parties, generating a sense of tension as we wonder how this will be resolved. He then has a joke at his own expense by referring to the "I agree with Nick" meme that circulated after the pre-election debates last year. 
At the end of the speech, he returns to this theme and sums up the main point he wants to make, again, clearly and unambiguously. Research indicates that the last thing listeners hear you say will colour their view of your whole talk - Cameron nails this easily by summing up his entire speech in thirteen words. You can't help but leave with the message he wants to convey, even if all of the preceding words have passed you by.

Tip two: Know your structure

If your talk was written down, perhaps because you decided to email everyone instead of talking to them, you'd use paragraphs to guide your reader through. To make it easier to read, you'd probably use headings and titles, too. Perhaps even bold font or italics. If your reader was uncertain, they could reread key passages. None of that formatting is available to you in a talk, nor can your listeners rewind to hear an important point again. As a result, you have to use signposting and structure, which are the verbal equivalents. Or, as trainers say, you have to use the 3Ts: tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; tell 'em; tell 'em what you just told 'em. 
Cameron uses this to great effect, clearly signposting the points he's going to make, especially when he's about to make what he believes is a significant point ("This is really important") or something he wants us to pay particular attention to. He also takes full advantage of the 'rule of three', whereby points that come in threes make more impact; it's a simple but very effective technique. Having previewed the three key points he wants to make, he then reminds his listeners throughout the speech of what those three points were. He doesn't just say, "point two" - he restates what point two was before going on to explain it. His signposting is very clear, so the listener knows exactly where they are in the speech and what point is being made.

Tip three: Know your purpose

I'm presuming that, whatever your talk is, you're not doing it because you're bored. There is a reason why you're giving this talk, so make sure you're clear on what this is before you stand up, and ensure that everything in your talk is geared towards this purpose. Broadly speaking (pardon the pun) there are only two reasons to give a speech: you want people to know something or your want them to do something. Either way, you have to be clear about what that something is. What, specifically, are you trying to achieve with your talk?
"There is a reason why you're giving this talk, so make sure you're clear on what this is before you stand up, and ensure that everything in your talk is geared towards this purpose."
Cameron believes that the Alternative Voting system is the wrong choice - this is clear throughout his speech. In case you were in any doubt, he makes this obvious at the start by saying it would be bad and explaining why. He returns to this at the end of the speech, again using the rule of three to make his point, ending with a clear and unambiguous statement of what he wants his listeners to do. No one can be left in any doubt of the action he wants them to take and the same should apply to your listeners. Which brings us back to where we started, by ensuring that you have a very clear ending for your talk.
Public speaking, in any format, is not an art but a craft and like any craft it can be learned. The techniques that David Cameron uses in this speech are simple but effective: he has a clear start and end; he has a clear structure and he has a clear purpose. If you adopt these techniques, it will do wonders for your confidence, the quality of your public speaking and your ability to influence groups. Just make sure you use your new-found powers for good...

Steve Smith is an experienced facilitator, coach and development consultant. He's far too self-deprecating to blow his own trumpet but his clients say he's dedicated, professional and focused on delivering value, as well as an inspired communicator and a gifted teacher. To discover whether that's true, visit his website, connect on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter or read his blog for TrainingZone here

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