Speaking to a Group

There Are A Few Strategies, Or Tricks, That Can Work For Almost Anyone.

By Thomas J. Roach

Most of us reluctantly take speech classes in high school and college, but as we advance through our careers, we come to realize that perhaps nothing we studied has a bigger impact on our success. 

Much of what we do early in our careers takes place at our desks, but leadership is practiced in a social environment, and the ability to hold the attention of coworkers at a meeting, to present a proposal, or speak at an assembly are basic skills required for senior management. 

Standing in front of a group is daunting for everyone, even the best public speakers. The difference between successful speakers and the ones who embarrass themselves is that the good speakers channel their nervous energy to empower their presentations. And you will need to be a successful speaker if you regularly talk to community groups or at permit hearings.

It isn’t magic. There are a few strategies, or tricks, that can work for almost anyone.

The first thing to understand is that you must make eye contact with your audience, which means you can’t read your speech. You need to prepare an extemporaneous speech and practice it. An extemporaneous speech is memorized, but not word for word. This isn’t as hard as it seems. 

The trick is to talk only about something you understand and use familiar stories and examples to explain your points. In other words, use material you don’t have to memorize. Then, all you need to memorize is your outline, and if you can’t memorize your outline and you must work from a piece of paper with key words on it, at least that won’t keep you from having overall good eye contact with the audience.

The second most important part of your presentation is your appearance: dress appropriately, stand up straight, and keep your hands free. Keeping your hands free is the most important part of your appearance. When you speak, you are channeling energy to your audience through your words, your voice, and your gestures. If you have your hands in your pockets, or on the podium, or clasped in front of you, you are muting the visual part of your presentation. 

You don’t know what to do with your hands? It’s not a problem. Just try to leave them at your sides. Seriously, plan on giving the speech standing up straight with your arms dangling at your sides. When you ignore your arms and hands something amazing happens. Without thinking about it, you will discover that you are gesturing in the most appropriate and engaging ways. 

How can that happen? It happens because you have talked using your hands your whole life. The trick is not to think about them during your speech. Simply tell yourself that you are not going to gesture, and really try to keep your hands at your sides. Your subconscious does the rest. 

The third element is your voice. You need to be loud enough that everyone hears you. The trick to being loud enough is to understand that you sound louder to yourself than you do to the other people. Therefore, you need to sound too loud to yourself to be speaking at an adequate volume for others. It’s called projecting, but just think of it as merely being too loud.

A couple other vocal strategies are also useful. Inserting pauses, raising and lowering your volume, and changing your tone will keep you from sounding monotonous. Pauses are especially useful. A pause in front of a statement will rivet everyone’s attention on your next sentence. And a pause after a statement will cause your audience to carefully consider its implications. If the speech is somewhat inspirational, pauses after a key statement can also be used to stimulate applause. 

Mainly these are tricks to keep yourself from being self-conscious so you can concentrate on what you are saying. Eye contact, gestures, and voice variation all come naturally when you are speaking extemporaneously on a subject you know well. 

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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