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12- Public Speaking

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12. Public Speaking

Scott Hamilton, Director, European Connection



Faced with the prospect of speaking in front of an audience, normally confident and well-balanced people have been known to have a panic attack. Yet not only is it a skill that practically anyone can pick up, it is one that well serves all forms of personal communication. If you can improve the way you speak to a group of people, you’ll usually find that you’ve improved at a one-on-one level too.


If you’ve not had much experience—or perhaps have unwisely decided after a couple of bad experiences that you are ‘no good’ at public speaking—remember that this is a skill that is very rarely inherent and is almost always learnt. Even the very few who have a natural confidence and a way with words will benefit from some tips on how to get the best out of preparation and delivery. And all speakers, even the more experienced, will improve with practice.


Nevertheless, the point of departure should be as long as possible before you actually get up to speak. First class preparation is vital: without it, the inexperienced become (deservedly) nervous and the experienced are simply boring. No matter how often you might speak on the same subject, it is always better to try to find a new approach to what you want to say—and never misuse old notes as a quick substitute. After all, if you cannot get interested, let alone enthusiastic, about your subject matter, then think how that is going to come across to your audience.


So there you are, sitting at your desk with a pile of blank paper in front of you. Where do you start?


The first step is easy. Think very carefully about to whom you will be talking and exactly what you want to get across to them. Then jot down all your ideas, however random or incoherent they may be. Let your mind drift and reach out to all the possible points that you might want to make. If you’re at all creative, interested, or passionate about your subject, this really is the fun part of the exercise.


The second step, of course, is far more difficult. You need to pull this material together in a way that ensures a logical delivery with a beginning, body, and conclusion. As you do so, you must be ruthless in discarding any points that simply do not fit.


Start with the body. Sort out your ideas under appropriate headings. The key here is that you have to keep your audience with you. Don’t distract them with lines of argumentation that will only confuse them. Only when you’ve outlined the body should you work out the beginning. Here, the aim is to create interest so the audience genuinely wants to hear the rest of what you have to say. Finally, work out a good ending to leave them with a clear conclusion that they can take away with them.


Many books on public speaking have a very simple test as a key to a successful speech: Tell them what you are going to say, say it, and then remind them of what you said.


As you work out what to say, remember a few caveats:


• Do not be over-ambitious. It really is pointless writing a beautiful speech if you are unable to deliver it beautifully. So don’t waste your time carefully crafting every sentence with just the right adjectives and adverbs.


• Avoid clichés and long, wordy phrases. Simplicity pays; just use ordinary everyday language. Even if your audience knows the subject well, there is a big difference between reading an article and listening to someone speak. Make it easier for them—and yourself.


• Beware of humor. What might seem very funny to you late at night in your own room could fall flat on your audience. That will leave both you and them feeling awkward. If you have them and feel comfortable using them, amusing anecdotes can work well. But you certainly do not have to be funny to be good.


When you have got your ideas sorted and feel prepared, there ar e two more exercises before you finish.


Firstly, time-keeping is essential. Run through what you have prepared and be certain that it falls just short of your allotted time. Even setting aside the concerns of the moderator or chairman, it is always better to leave an audience hungering for more rather than fidgeting and looking at their watches.


Secondly, you are not going to stand in front of an audience—with or without a lectern—with your entire presentation written out in full (see my comments about eye contact below). Until you are elected president, you can be fairly relaxed about the media hanging on your every word. So you need to put all this preparation into note form—preferably a few words that can be easily viewed on one side of index cards. But please don’t do what one student memorably did for me and arrive for a 5-minute presentation with 35 cards in his hand!


Finally, why not rehearse? Get accustomed to what you have to say and how you are going to deliver it. You can do that in the privacy of your own room in front of a mirror or in front of a friend or family member. You will not be the first to do so; some of the best speakers do just that.


After preparation, the issue becomes one of delivery. This is difficult to put in writing since we are all so different. A hand gesture on one person can work just fine, while on another it might irritate or distract.


To misquote, the essence of speaking in public is to maximize your benefits and minimize your liabilities!

Here is just a bare checklist to remember:


1) If you are feeling nervous, just keep rehearsing your carefully prepared opening in your mind while you are waiting to be called.


2) When you get up to speak, note the time and keep within your allotted period.


3) Before you start speaking, look at your audience. If it feels natural, then smile. Believe me, not only does it help you to bond with your audience, it helps relax you too.


4) Possibly the single most important key to speaking successfully in public is eye contact. Don’t look away from your audience (except for an occasional reference to your note cards), and when you need inspiration, find it between a pair of shoulders. It is impossible not to overstate the importance of this. If you do not look at your audience, your audience will not listen to you. And if they do not listen to you, you are wasting your time.


5) Of course, you must be heard. Look at the back to make sure they’re not frowning. And those mooting advocates need to look at the front to make sure they’re not overpowering!


6) Speak slowly and remember to pause. There’s no point in talking too fast without a break; your audience will not keep up with you without one.


7) The hands are like the bold and underlining of Word script. Used well, they serve to emphasize; used badly, they are at best a lost opportunity, or at worst, an irritating distraction.


8) Whether or not you have a lectern, find a comfortable standing position with your feet planted firmly on the floor. Not only will you look good, but it will be one less issue for your mind to worry about.



And please do not use visual aids! They are the prop of the weak public speaker. They are either an unnecessary distraction or they contain too much information. Most importantly, they break the bond between speaker and audience that only comes through good eye contact. If you have complicated data to share, circulate it in written form after you have spoken.


Here’s a final tip. No matter how well we might have prepared for an occasion or however experienced we become, we all have off days. You never want to be in a position where you are standing in front of an audience and you simply cannot remember what you want to say next. The act of picking up a glass of water, sipping it and replacing it looks entirely natural. And it gives you the time you need to move on without apparent effort. Make sure that glass of water is always there.


However good a writer you may be, personal communication skills can be the most personally rewarding way of sharing your views. With determination—and practice—everyone can more or less get it right. And wouldn’t that make for a more interesting world?



Scott Hamilton is a founding partner in The Westminster Connection and a director of The European Connection, a strategic political management consultancy with associates across the European Union, China, India, Russia, and the United States. He advises boards of both multinational companies and not-for112 profit organizations on their external operating strategy and pu blic profile. Hamilton also advises corporate management and not-for-profit organizations on public communicat ions, including public speaking. Prior to this, he was the first secretary-general of the Interna tional Democrat Union (IDU), the conservative, Christian-democrat and liberal international association founded in 1983 by Ronald Reagan, Jacques Chirac, Helmut Khol and Margaret Thatcher. As well as heading the secretariat, he managed the coordination of policy between member-parties and represented the IDU at the U.N. and other international forums. Hamilton was also director of international affairs of the British Conservative Party. As well as managing the party’s external relations and briefing visiting government and party officials and journalists on British  government policy, he acted as a party spokesman overseas. Born in 1951, Hamilton is a graduate in law from Brunel University, London.

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