Advice to dust off your public speaking skills
Why is it that a person might intelligently share ideas and crack jokes, but presents to an audience using stilted, boring language?
Speaking in front of an audience can be nerve wrecking, whether you’re talking in front of a classroom or a boardroom. Over the years I’ve worked as a communications consultant and as a presentation and voice coach, I’ve learned to recognize the common mistakes speakers make. And I’m here to make darn sure you avoid them.
The first mistake I often see is the use of ”report language” during a presentation. Connecting authentically at the podium means using natural language and natural speech patterns. The exception would be if you mumble or are overly casual when speaking. Saying, “Yo dude,” to your future employer isn’t always a great lead-in.
Effective speakers use “conversational” rather than “report” language. When you write a presentation or share ideas, use direct language and active verb tenses. Try to cut down your sentences length by using interesting verbs. Don’t say, “In our report today we will discuss the following… . “Lead with a great question for people to think over and refer back to it.
Second, people learn ideas using context. Think back to the three most interesting things you learned in your life. You learned them in the context of a situation, because you remember the situation. Embed your listeners’ experience in an interesting story their mind can grab onto, not abstractions. Think of it almost as the difference between being spoken with and spoken to.
For example, when trying to teach the value of humility, teamwork, and listening, you can use a well known story, such as the winning goal at the men’s hockey game at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. In this case, arrogance and presumption cost the Canadian team the gold medal only a few short years before, but their “humility, teamwork, and listening” was what allowed them to win out in the following Olympic games. It’s a fantastic story of a sincere team effort bringing a group back, and one that will more likely make you think about teamwork differently.
Now imagine if the reporters at that gold medal game had commented on the game with the voice of one of your least favorite professors. Would you have switched stations?
The third mistake is using a stiff monotone or singsong speech pattern in the delivery of your ideas, as it works to undermine your message. Think about it, you don’t talk to your friends in a monotone or sing-song pattern, so don’t why would you do the same to your audience?
And when it comes to fixing a monotone voice, the issue focuses around a lack of variety in your speech pattern. Try to stretch your comfort zone by practicing to raise or lower your pitch on specific words for emphasis. Record yourself, and listen to the changes. Alter what you’re practicing if it sounds unnatural.
Meanwhile, singsong is caused (in part) by using upward inflection at the end of a sentence. Canadians love to upward inflect. Women in particular tend to upward inflect. Upward inflection creates a question at the end of a sentence, and gives the impression of being unsure of yourself. Using a slightly lower pitch at the end of a sentence creates an impression of confidence.
Changing speaking patterns takes time and a safe space to practice. You may feel uncomfortable at first, since our sense of identity is very linked to our speech pattern. Be gentle with yourself, and give it time.
In the end, aim to share your ideas without hesitation, with humour, and in natural, conversational language. Approachability in language and speaking style will go a long way to having your ideas heard and listened to by your classmates and colleagues.
Here’s a quick checklist you can use when you’re rehearsing an idea to present:
- 1. Do I sound too formal and unapproachable?
- 2. Are my words upward inflecting at the end of sentences? Do I sound sure of myself?
- 3. Do I sound monotone?
- 4. Am I using report language or conversational language?
- 5. Am I giving the audience a metaphor they can work with during my talk?
Mary Michaela Weber is one of Canada's top communications consultants, known for using wit and a smart sense of strategy. Her company, Voice Empowerment Inc., brings her background of over 20 000 hours of training to CEO's, Ivey League University professors, and up-and-comers across North America and the Caribbean.