When I work with clients to improve their public speaking skills, we spend a good deal of time getting the idea and story structure right first. If you don’t have a good point to make, and a good way to argue that point, no amount of delivery training is going to make you successful. People often say of famous actors that they could “read the phone book and make it interesting.” But that’s only because they’ve never heard a phone book read out loud. After a few minutes of even an “A” list actor reading the “A” list from a phone book, you’d get restive. Soon you’d be bored, and after, say, 15 minutes, you’d be rebellious.
I’ve actually seen actors reading the phone book, and it’s a funny gag that works – briefly – only because the actors put huge amounts of emotion (from implied back story) into the names, and the combination of prosaic list and oversized emotion is funny for a few minutes.
But not for long. And not even Matthew McConaughey.
So you’ve got to get the story right. That is the most important thing. But once you’ve got that down, then it’s time to turn to the delivery. And there, the rules are counter-intuitive. Most speakers begin the process of improving their delivery by, naturally enough, thinking about themselves. But if instead you ask, what is the audience looking for, and how do I best provide it, you get a better place to start from.
The audience is looking for three things. First, they want to know why – why am I here? Why should I pay attention to this speaker? Why is what this person saying important?
If you answer that question successful for the audience, then they start asking how – how do I do this thing? How do I make this idea my own? How do I get around this particular issue or that particular hang up? And that’s exactly where you want to be as a speaker – talking “how” with your audience. Because that means they’re enrolled, they’re listening, and they want to know more.
Second, the audience wants to know, can I trust this speaker? Now, real trust is a hard thing to establish. It can take years. I’m still not sure I trust the Boston Red Sox to win the World Series, and I’ve been following them for a half-century.
So what audiences do is substitute a mental short cut for trust: consistency. Specifically, consistency between story and body language. Does this person seem to mean what they’re saying? If they do, then provisionally, I’m willing to trust him or her.
If not – say, if the person says, “I’m really happy to be here in Duluth!” But the body language is saying, “I’m looking lost, scared, and a little confused,” then we don’t have consistency and we don’t develop trust. Ultimately, then, we stop listening. We discount what the speaker is saying, and, as in so many business conferences and speeches, we tune out.
Third, the audience wants to know, is this speaker credible? That is, does she know what she’s talking about? And our test for that, once again, is a short cut. We do something astonishingly clever, virtually instantly, and completely unconsciously.
We measure the amount of tension in the voice by determining: is this person’s voice pitched high or low in his or her range? We determine this positioning with our unconscious minds, and we take it to mean how much confidence that person has in his or her opinions – or not.
That’s not a particularly accurate short cut, really, because most people are nervous as they begin to speak, but it’s the short cut we use, because we’ve heard thousands of voices over the course of our lives, and when someone is in charge, confident, and means what he or she says, that person speaks from the bottom quarter of their vocal range, without the squeezing of the vocal chords that means tension, uncertainty, and even fear.
Do you want to be a successful speaker? Get your story right. Answer the why question fast. Make sure your body language is consistent with your content. And work on creating a confident, unsqueezed, low-pitched (for you) voice.
That’s all there is to it!