Saturday, February 15, 2014

Keeping Audiences Focused

Anyone who has ever stood up in front of a group of people knows what I'm talking about when I say keeping the audience's attention can be a real challenge.  Particularly when you have a captive audience (like, say, in a classroom setting) getting people to stay with you as you're speaking is really pretty difficult.  Today, however, I'm going to share with you some things that I've learned through practice (and LOTS of observation) that help with this issue.

First, though, I have one note to add.  Some people may read the following tips and think to themselves, "Boy, that's nice if you're a good public speaker.  I already know I can't do it.  My personality just isn't right."  I would counter that by saying, yes, some people have a proclivity toward public speaking, and, yes, some personalities are better suited to this kind of thing.  HOWEVER, even if you know (especially if you know) that you don't have the "right" personality to be an interesting public speaker, you can still do things to improve your audience's attention span (of course, I say that knowing that everything I'm about to tell you is not a foolproof way of keeping your audience's attention; these tips are designed to assist you in that venture, not be the magic cure-all).

Also, these tips are generalities.  I understand that there are times when these things just aren't feasible in the given situation.  I know people have to work with constraints such as microphones, limited areas to stand in, and operating a slideshow while they are speaking.  In those cases, just try to apply these things as best you can.  They do help, even when circumstances interfere.

Bearing in mind all that I just said, below are some tips to help you out in your endeavors:
  • Speak up.  Volume is one of the most important factors in keeping your audience's attention through thick and thin.  If you mumble, no one will be able to understand you, and if no one can understand you, no one will pay attention to you.  That said, however, don't shout at your audience either (unless it's appropriate for the situation or content, and let me tell you, it very rarely is).  If you have a naturally quiet or small voice, practice speaking clearly and moderate your pace.  Try to stand up straight when you speak and take deep breaths.  This will help you to project your voice.  On the flip side, though, if you have a tendency to yell at people (as I do sometimes), when you're in front of an audience, dial the volume down a little.  Whatever you do, though, make sure you speak clearly, as that will also help audiences understand you.
  • Use the stage.  Good use of space is something that I still struggle with.  Oftentimes what happens is I get so into what I'm saying that I either end up pacing (which is almost worse than not moving at all) or being stuck in one place throughout the speech.  In a small group setting, moving around the stage area can be a wonderful way to engage the audience.  Walking right up to somebody in the front row and saying something, then moving onto somebody else, and so on is a really good way to make sure people pay attention to you.  But as I implied before, pacing is not the answer.  Pacing (or any sort of non-purposeful movement) can give your audience the idea that you are disengaged from what's going on around you, and if you aren't engaged, why should they be?  To combat the problem of pacing, be sure you are always conscious of how you move when you're speaking.  If you tend to pace, practice standing in one place for a few seconds and then purposefully walking to another place to stay for a few seconds.  I know this sounds like it might be awkward, and it is at first, but once you learn how to stop yourself from pacing, you'll be grateful you did.
  • Eye contact.  This is another thing I'll probably come back to and talk about more in detail at a later point, but for now, let's suffice it to say that eye contact is one of the biggest and most important things you can teach yourself, period.  Knowing when to make eye contact and how can really help you out in life, but when it comes to public speaking, it's also a big deal.  This works more for small group settings wherein you have a limited audience, but there are ways to utilize this in large crowds as well.  For the former, while you're speaking find a few key people that you can come back to when you need to pause or take a breath.  Do not, I repeat, DO NOT scan the room.  I'm guilty of this as well.  I'm still trying to break the scanning habit, but take it from me, scanning is not a good way to connect with your audience.  It disengages them and doesn't give them a chance to feel like you're actually talking to them, not at them.  Again, learning how to linger on one person for a few seconds before moving to the next can be very awkward and uncomfortable in the beginning, but trust me, once you get used to it, it's a very valuable tool that you will forever be grateful for.
Well, I hope you find something useful in those tips that will help you when you're called upon to speak.  May you be successful in all your endeavors to come.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Trouble with Topics

As a fledgling public speaker (less than a year studying intensively, and only a casual learner before that), I can honestly say that there are certain things about public speaking that I love - and others that I don't particularly enjoy.  The following issue falls into the latter category.

I've discovered over my time studying that I really do enjoy public speaking.  That right there may put some of you off, but before you run away thinking I'm some freakish weirdo that won't understand why you hate it, listen to what I have to say.  I enjoy public speaking because I love to entertain other people.  I love being in front of a group of people and trying to make them laugh or draw them into a story or perhaps even make them cry.  But one thing I do not always enjoy about public speaking is coming up with a topic.

In the professional world this is usually not so much of an issue, as in situations where you might be asked to give a presentation to company executives about the sales report from this last quarter, or you might be asked to be the keynote speaker for an organization's fundraising event.  But in times when I am required to choose my own topic, as for all of my speeches now, I find myself jumping from topic to topic, desperately trying to find something, ANYTHING that will be worth speaking about for several minutes.

Sometimes, many times in fact, my search comes up empty - or so it appears.  But I've found in all my hours of tedious brainstorming and thinking so hard that my eyes hurt that there are certain things I'm passionate enough about that will make good speech topics.

But of course, the focus of this is not to talk about how awesome I am (really, I'm not that awesome).  I'm here to offer up some advice, or at least put some things out there that have helped me become better even in the short time I've been doing this.  Below are listed a few tips on choosing topics for speeches that I've found to be helpful in my long and arduous searches:
  • Be Passionate.  If your audience thinks you are only partially invested in what you're talking about, then they will most likely be only partially invested as well.  Choose topics that allow you to get excited about what you're telling people.  Believe me, when the speaker is truly interested in what they're talking about, the audience can tell.
  • Do Your Research.  Even if you already know a lot about a certain topic that you think you may want to speak about, do some research.  Look up some numbers or quotes.  Things like that can really help you nail down a good solid premise for a speech.
  • Be Confident.  Don't get halfway through planning a speech only to chicken out and think that your topic won't be interesting enough or relevant enough to hold the interest of your audience.  If you plan well and you know what you're talking about, you have the makings of a good speech with a good topic.
  • Know Your Audience.  This is something I'm sure I'll come back to, but it's important here as well.  Know the group of people you'll be speaking to.  I don't mean know them personally, of course, as that's usually not feasible; I mean know what kind of people they are - their interests, opinions, beliefs, hobbies - even knowing the age of the group you're speaking to will help a great deal in what topics you deem appropriate.
  • Know The Occasion.  Like it or not, you need to know what kind of a setting you'll be speaking in.  You need to know if it's just a casual speech (as most of mine are) or if it has an actual practical or real world purpose.  Knowing a speech's intended purpose can also guide you in choosing an appropriate topic.
Well, there you have it.  Some real world practical tips on choosing a topic for a speech.  I hope this helps some of you in your quest for a good speech topic.  May you forever be more successful in your endeavors than I have ever been.