By Marcus Grodentz, Toastmasters International

It was winter and bitterly cold. As I looked out over the Docks in Gloucester I saw seagulls skating across the ice.

My phone rang. The voice I heard was breathless and panicky.

I need your help Marcus – we have to save a life.”

That was my introduction to Snowy the chicken and the start of a nine-month publicity campaign.

If you are giving a talk you need to immediately capture the attention of your audience. You want to grip them, arouse their interest and get them involved from the very start.

I could have started the above talk by explaining that I was working as the Head of Public Relations for Gloucester City Council and that I was going to give them a talk about how to run a publicity campaign and keep it going for nine months.

You know the kind of thing. It is the standard approach to start at the beginning and laboriously work your way through your ‘story.’

Public speaking is an art form as and such it is made up of a number of supporting skills sets. Let me share what I consider to be my top tips on improving your public speaking.

1. Hold back

If you are giving a talk whether in person or online don’t jump straight in. Wait. Wait until your audience is settled. Wait until they are all looking at you and then and only then start talking.

2. Construction is key

Any TV or film drama you watch starts with a cliff-hanger of some sort. It can last several minutes. Only then do the titles roll. Start your talk with something dramatic. Grab attention. Get your audience engaged. Then take your audience on a journey that arrives somewhere. You need to make sure that your ending has some relationship to where you started. Complete the circle. Leave your audience feeling complete.

3. Start with the ending in mind

It is an old adage but nevertheless true. What sort of talk are you giving? What do you want it to achieve?

4. Know your audience

Who is going to listen to your speech? That is important because to some extent that dictates the type of language you use. Many speakers use technical terms or acronyms unfamiliar to their listeners. That means that you lose them. They are too busy figuring out the technical stuff to keep listening to what you have to say.

5. Leverage the language

The language you use is important. You have the whole lexicon of the English language to help illustrate and describe your story. For example, there is a world of difference between ‘taking an opportunity’ and ‘grasping an opportunity.’

6. Don’t hide behind your slides

One of my pet hates is the use of PowerPoint as it is almost always unnecessary. Speakers use it as a prop to hide behind. Death by PowerPoint is the hallmark of a poor speaker in my opinion.

Visual props are good but only if they are an integral part of your talk. If you are a speaker then you want your audience looking and concentrating on you. That is the whole point of being a speaker.

7. Vary your voice

Vocal variety is another key element. How many talkers go through their entire story at the same pitch. It becomes monotonous, even tedious. Varying the pace of your story and the pitch of your voice is another weapon in your arsenal of techniques.

If you have something dramatic to say you might want to speed up and perhaps raise your tone. If you have something sensitive, you can slow down and lower your tone. And, if you have some important information to share then take a pause.

Allow your audience time to absorb and digest it. Pausing is also a great way to cut down on the number of times you say Um and Ah.

8. Stand up and move

Incorporating body language into your talk raises it to another dimension. If we were meeting in person, we would never dream of giving a talk sitting down. With covid and lockdown restrictions we now meet often on Zoom. Because we are on Zoom it is apparently OK to give talks sitting down. I am from the school which says if you are a speaker you stand. It actually isn’t that difficult to rearrange your desk and camera angles to enable you to do that. It just takes a little effort. Sitting down with your face filling the screen robs you of the ability to use your body and to take advantage of your screen stage. What you do get is the occasional disembodied hand.

If you are unable to stand for any reason, then you can move your chair further back from the camera so that the audience can see more of you and that again enables you to take advantage of using body language to engage with your audience.

9. Rehearse

It is essential to practice your talk – and to time it. You need to know what you want to say and how long it will take you to say it.

One of my early tips was to make sure you connect your ending with your beginning so I cannot leave this piece without another mention of Snowy the chicken.

Snowy was hatched in a Rare Breed Centre during a snowstorm and was the only one of his clutch to survive.

The call to me as the City Council’s PR Chief was to launch a media appeal for a donation of other chicks that he could ‘huddle’ with to help him survive. They were received and he survived and thrived with constant media attention to keep tabs on his progress.

He became such a media celebrity that we used him in a whole variety of ways to promote the council and its services. He had a happy career and went into retirement at the centre.

By working on just some of these aspects and skills, your talks can be raised to a whole new level. It will elevate you from being just a common or garden talker to a consummate, articulate and engaging speaker.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marcus Grodentz is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org