If you had to name an example of a great public speaker off the top of your head, you’re probably likely to choose a politician. Politicians, and in specific Prime Ministers and Presidents, are trained in good communication skills and how to react to the media, which is why we have such a thing as a ‘politician’s answer’ because they are well renowned for talking around questions rather than addressing them directly.
Winston Churchill is viewed as one of the greatest orators of all time, his speeches were articulate, inspirational and delivered with passion and he alone helped to unite a nation in the face of adversity. It’s no wonder then that he’s named as one of the most influential public speakers; Sir Richard Branson calls himself a “huge fan” of the former British Prime Minister, who was recently the subject of the film Darkest Hour.
But as exemplary as they may be, great speakers don’t start off great. Churchill had a speech impediment that he had to overcome and during one major speech in the House of Commons he completely forgot a few of his lines, and, embarrassed, had to resume his seat!
Public speakers, particularly those in politics, are often analysed for the techniques they employ and used as an example to those hoping to improve their communication skills. Here are some of the things you can do to help you become a great public speaker like Winston Churchill (and other famous figures throughout history).
You’ve heard it all before, but it’s true that the key to good public speaking is in the preparation. Know the audience you’re going to be speaking to and choose a topic that you know well and are passionate about. If it’s not in the office then plan your route (and backup route) to the venue in plenty of time – there’s nothing more stress-inducing than trying to get there on the day only to realise there’s a train strike, or a road that has been blocked off.
Create an engaging opening
How many times have you put a book down after the first page or moved to a new series after a disappointing pilot episode? Public speaking is no different. The opening is your chance to captivate your audience from the get go. Open with something that evokes emotion, something remarkable, outrageous, controversial, secret, unexpected or taboo where possible. Or start with an interesting statistic or fact that resonates with the audience.
Practice, practice, practice
It doesn’t matter if you’re talking in front of ten people or hundred or thousands, as politicians often do – you’re going to feel more comfortable the more you rehearse. As the famous saying goes, ‘practice makes perfect’. Winston Churchill apparently took 6-8 hours to craft a 40-minute speech, and in his memoirs claimed that he averaged an hour’s preparation for every minute of a talk. Planning also means you’re more likely to be prepared for the unexpected, such as an unpredictable question post-speech.
Knowledge = confidence
This goes back to the first point about preparation. The best thing to do is pick a topic you know inside-out, the more passionate you are about it the more the audience will be bought into what you’re saying. People will see straight through you if you try and ‘wing it’ and they will quickly lose interest. Don’t talk about anything you don’t understand fully or it may come back to bite you later on when the floor is opened up to audience questions!
Take time…for a pause
If you’ve ever listened to Barack Obama speaking then you’ll know he’s in no rush to get through his presentation. He’s very calm and considered and takes regular pauses throughout. This is a real skill as most of us naturally feel a need to fill silence with words including “um” and “like”. Never be afraid to take a pause if you need to compose yourself, or if you want to place emphasis on something you’ve just said so that the audience can digest it properly.
Emphasise key messages
Use your tone of voice to emphasise a few of the core messages within your presentation. Politicians do this all the time, deliver snippets of speech that is then extracted by journalists and used as a ‘soundbite’. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech was built on bold statements and rhythmic repetition, which he delivered with absolute conviction; it’s no doubt that this is one of the most memorable speeches in history. Equally, you may want to try using the rule of three technique.
Make it lively
If the space permits it then why not try moving around the stage while delivering your presentation? The key is to walk slowly, you don’t want to appear frantic or make the audience dizzy as they try to keep up with you! Think about your body language too, and don’t forget to smile! Barack Obama is a great example of a politician that uses hand gestures well to emphasis important points.
About the author
Paul Macildowie is owner and CEO of outsourced contact centre company Mpl Contact, where communication is the heart of the business. Mpl Contact provides organisations of all sizes with contact centre projects such as call handling, call answering and customer service.