Speaking in public? Please, don't bore us to death

Public speaking can be learnt. But people who aren't good at saying things aloud on stage, should keep off them, argues Andrea Nagel

10 March 2019 - 00:08
Civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr at a public address.
Civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr at a public address.
Image: Gallo/Getty Images

Here are two scenarios. Scenario 1: I spend the whole year looking forward to listening to inspirational talks at the Design Indaba. One of the speakers, a CBE no less, which means that he is of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, is so bad at public speaking that I can only hear the first three or four words of every sentence he utters. It goes something like this: "The most important lesson mumble mumble mumble", followed by: "And this taught me that mumble mumble mumble", culminating in "The highlight of my career mumble mumble mumble."

Luckily, for this particular speaker, his work - projected on a triple volume screen - speaks for itself (well, it whispers since his life's work's manifesto is "minimum", and herein could be a problem - "softly softly" in everything). In fact, part of what I did manage to hear was that he believed his work should put "the mind and eyes to rest". Note to speaker: Your work, not your speech, dude!

Scenario 2: My partner has been asked to speak at a wedding. He has known about it for months and it's the night before the event. He has nothing planned and I am internally panicking for him, but he seems cool, calm and collected. The next day at the wedding he gets up, starts speaking and has the audience in the palm of his hand. He tells a flawless joke, projects his voice so that not a word is missed, makes a few deprecating remarks, tells an entertaining personal story about the couple and gets a standing ovation. I am, once again (he does this often), hugely impressed. Why did I have any doubt? He nails it every time.

In these two scenarios it is not the content that makes the difference but the intelligence of the person choosing the speaker. I can't count how many times I've anticipated listening to someone knowledgeable and inspirational impart their great wisdom only to be bored out of my skull, frustrated, disappointed and in dire need of my money (and/or time) back. This is not a criticism of people foisted into the limelight who are not great at speaking in public - I'm not a very good public speaker myself.

It is a criticism of those people in positions in which they get to ask people who have no oratory skill to stand up in front of a crowd and entertain them.

Of course, first and foremost, all public speaking should be entertaining. Friends and countrymen have lent their ears - the speaker must be up to the task of keeping them open (in a manner of speaking). Only thereafter should the content, celebrity, countenance and conscientiousness of the speaker come into account. People are good at different things, and perhaps those who aren't good at saying things aloud on stage, should keep off them. By the same token, however, skills in almost anything can be learned and practised.

Communications consultant and media trainer Dr Gilda Carle, referring to studies of audience reaction to speakers, says: ''The strongest impact a speaker makes on the audience is through use of facial and body expressions." Stand up there on stage wishing the whole ordeal was over, shoulders hunched forward, voice in a soft quiver, and your speech will have a better anaesthetic effect on the audience than a Dormicum tablet.

The next consideration is length - short is best, but often there are strict timeframes to take into account. This is the best advice I could find: "A speech is like a woman's skirt: it needs to be long enough to cover the subject matter but short enough to hold the audience's attention," said anonymous.

If all else fails, visual aids can help. Make 'em bright and big, and slap slogans all over them. The audience will have a visual memory of everything you say. It's a lesson well learned by successful Instagrammers.

We spoke at length to the CBE after the talks were over. He was delightful, charming, eloquent, funny, creative and enormously impressive. Perhaps the organisers of events at which people are required to stand up to speak, should think about how to let people shine in their best light.