In the course of my career, I have had occasion to observe several speakers.
Some speakers had the power to sway crowds, turning a hostile mob into a group of sensible adults willing to consider another's point of view.
Other speakers have managed to turn great content into major shambles, making themselves the cause of humour for weeks afterwards.
What goes into making a good speech?
What is it that a good speaker does that keeps the audience on his side?
Let’s find out what helps speakers keep their audiences in the palm of their hand.
A speakers assets: Most good speakers have spent time and effort developing the tools of effective public speaking. The key ones are:
The audience may forgive a speaker who doesn't have a good voice, a good presence or even forgive a shabby event. It may forgive someone whose speech sometimes lack emotion.
But it will never ever forgive a speaker who is unprepared.
This is especially true of corporate audiences. To waste the time of an audience with half-truths, unsubstantiated statements and empty words is unpardonable.
A good speaker is always high on content, has organised it well, and has practised delivering it - several times. There is no such thing as a truly extempore speech. Those who speak excellently extempore are generally those who have spent a major part of their lives practising, until they have a vast repertoire of facts, figures and stories to hang their speeches on to. All good speakers agree that the more they practise, the better they become. And all speakers, including the best, admit that they have made mistakes. But they have pressed on regardless, learning as they went along, making a conscious effort to do better each time.
Voice is misunderstood. It’s not a good voice that makes a compelling speech. It’s the good use of voice that does.
Clear and easy to understand speeches work most of the time. Great speakers adjust to the audience, slow down to their pace, and carry them along into the narration.
Effective speakers are also loud enough to be heard right up to the last row in the audience.
There will always be some exceptions who speak slowly, in heavy accents. Its not the speaker who is an exception in this case, again it’s the content.
Good speakers are alive! They speak with conviction. Some speakers do this through gestures, others through facial expressions, and some through enthusiastic and expressive voices. The most effective speakers are those who use a judicious mix of these, carrying their audiences with them.
Confidence: One thing that audiences sense in an instant is nervousness. Effective speakers are confident. No one wants to listen to a speaker who appears unsure about what he is saying. That is not to say that good speakers do not hesitate, or mentally search for the right word - they do. Yet their hesitation is forgiven, even appreciated by their audience. The audience may like their home-grown approach, as long as they come across as confident in the content of what they are saying.
What provides confidence - research - Well prepared content trumps everything.
All good speakers have a style that is uniquely theirs. You don’t need to copy anyone. Yours is good enough too. Some use humour, others are serious, but all, without exception, are recognisable by their own way of speaking.
They admit that they have drawn inspiration from others, but they put in the time and the effort to develop their own approach, melding different styles and moulding them to their own way of speaking.
Very rarely can a person who is habitually serious tell a rib-tickling story when he faces an audience. In fact humour, or making audiences laugh at will during any talk takes the most practice. It takes experience. Try not to fit it in for the sake of it, rather ease yourself into it.
What good speakers avoid:
In addition to developing good speaking habits, also avoid bad ones. Some of the things good speakers rarely do are:
Read their speeches: Good speakers never read their speeches. In fact the great ones don’t even carry notes. They always give the impression of speaking from the heart.
When a speaker reads his speech, he gives the impression that he is not prepared, and worse, that someone else has prepared his speech for him.
Speakers who read their speeches or keep looking at their notes aren’t really speakers, they are readers.
Fail to maintain eye contact: All good speakers maintain eye contact with their audience, without staring.
A lack of eye contact signals nervousness and may be interpreted by audiences as a sign of deceit.
Fail to be responsive: Speakers who realise that their audience is getting restive either enliven their speech or cut it short, preferably both. Being responsive goes beyond being sensitive to the audience's time, however.
Good speakers are flexible enough to respond to the moment.
The unexpected does happen. The PA system may fail. Or the fans may stop working. Or some smart aleck may try to heckle the speaker. There are literally a hundred things that could go wrong. Audiences appreciate speakers who don't lose their head and respond appropriately to the exigencies of the moment.
The common thread running through all examples of good speakers is experience.
Good speakers do not simply stand up and make a good speech the first time. As in most skill related activities, experience counts. But good speakers do not wait for the right opportunity to be presented to them. Most good speakers started off small.
George Bernard Shaw is credited with once saying that he learned to speak in public the way a child learns to ride a bicycle or a man learns to skate; by constantly making a fool of himself in public until he got it right.
If GB Shaw could make a fool of himself, who are you to hesitate?