There's a pervasive idea of 'a good way' to do public speaking, which some people can do and some can't. I think that's wrong, and disheartening for many. So I gave this talk a couple of times while I was in the Civil Service.
Some of you may remember British politics before Brexit. You had a series of very dominant political leaders – Tony Blair, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg – all renowned as very skilled public speakers. And all of them basically identical. There was a sort of easy, natural charisma, which could turn into sombre and serious when needed. And for a while that was the standard of public speaking in the UK.
There’s lots to complain about in the British political scene right now, but at least we’re seeing quite a range of public speaking styles – many of them quite successful in different ways. So Boris Johnson is very different to Jeremy Corbyn, David Lammy is very different to Ruth Davidson – but all of them make people sit up and take notice. And of course not forgetting Theresa May – not always renowned as a public speaker, but I don’t know how many of you remember Theresa May’s speech as PM. I personally quite liked it – and felt it was something very different to much of what I’d seen before.
So why’s all this relevant to us? Well a lot of us do public speaking as part of our jobs. And many of us have been on public speaking courses. And they’re good, but certainly the ones I’ve done have this kind of implicit idea of the good public speaker that you’re supposed to aim towards. (Which I suspect is probably the Blair/Cameron/Clegg style).
I’m not convinced by that. Let me explain why. As many of you know, I’m very interested in public speaking and performance. I used to do a lot of theatre, as an actor and a director and a standup comedian – and I also used to coach newcomers in all of those skills as well.
In theatre you know that, even if you’ve got a great actor, you don’t get them to do roles they’re fundamentally unsuited for. You cast them in roles that fit them.
That’s even more true for public speaking. Just think about the experience of doing a public speech. You’ve got to think about what you’re saying, are you getting the right message across, what does this audience want, etc.. And on top of that there’s so many things you’re told to do and not do as public speakers – stand still, breathe properly, don’t fidget, look at the audience, etc. etc.. And even if you’re aware of all that, you can’t just easily do it, particularly when you’re full of adrenaline.
So I’m of the view that becoming a happy and confident public speaker is about finding a style that naturally works for you, and building on it by knowing:
What you’re aiming towards.
What you can feel comfortable about, and
The particular problems that you should be focussing on.
That involves being honest with yourself. Not just in a critical way, but also in a positive way. Everyone here is an engaging person, and even quite unengaging people can find ways of being engaging. Gordon Brown’s given some great speeches.
I’ll use myself as an example. I think my style is best described as ‘energetic’. That’s not a conscious choice, it’s just something that naturally fits with how I speak, move, and carry myself. I’m never going to manage a Barack Obama style slow dignified style of speaking, or a Jess Phillips passionate anger style of speaking – it just wouldn’t fit me.
When you know what you’re aiming for, I think the pressure to be a 'good public speaker', whatever that means, lessens somewhat – you’ve got something specific to aim for. And once I accepted that, it means there’s some things I just don’t worry about as much as I used to. So for example I don’t worry about standing still, or reining in my excessive hand gestures, because it kind of works with what I’m trying to do. I don’t worry too much about boring the audience, because I know that I just naturally pump quite a lot of energy in.
But probably most importantly it helps focus on the specific things you need to get rid of, in order to be better. There’s an old story about a famous sculptor who, when asked how he made a stone look like an elephant, replied ‘I just get rid of the bits that aren’t elephant shaped’. You might not be aiming for an elephant – you might be aiming for a cat, or a bird, or whatever. But when you know what you’re aiming for, you know what you need to get rid of to make it better.
So in my case, I know that the risk of being excitable and energetic is a) speaking too fast and b) going off on tangents, trying to cram too much in, and confusing everyone.
I’ve learned this the hard way. When I first started delivering academic presentations, during my PhD, I once got an opening question (from a friend of mine) which went something like ‘Oliver, that was very fast, and there were far too many slides, and I’m completely lost can you explain it again’. Even after a year or two of delivering presentations at conferences, I used to get complaints from multilingual speakers, who were fluent in English but not fluent enough to follow my spray of words.
Once you’ve focussed on the problem, it’s easier to develop practical solutions. ‘Speak slower’ is one of the most annoying bits of advice for a public speaker – a bit like ‘stand still’ or ‘stop fiddling with your hands’. It’s a natural behaviour, it’s hard to stop it, you’re already trying to remember all the content, and there’s adrenaline. It’s unrealistic to stop a natural behaviour just like that. But once you’ve identified the problem, you can take practical steps to deal with it.
So in my case, the problem was overwhelming people with too much information too quickly. So I’ve found ways to try and deal with it. Wherever possible I script a presentation in advance – or at least write down the key points and how long I plan to spend on each. And I don’t diverge from it, I save any interesting tangents until the questions, so I know that I’m just delivering the key points and not stuffing in loads of extra information.
And of course there’s other practical techniques. [Leave 15 second pause]. Did anyone see what I just did? I took a 15 second pause. Did anyone go to sleep? No. Learning to pause has been an absolute game-changer for me. There’s a sense that silence, or hesitation, is a sign of a bad public speaker. I’ve seen someone literally dive across a table to get water so they didn’t leave too long a pause. But actually, a bit of downtime gives people’s brains time to digest - particularly useful when listening to someone who speaks as fast as me. It can even give a sense of drama.
Of course remembering to pause can be tricky, but again there are practical steps. You might think these are my notes, it’s actually just a big bit of paper with PAUSE written on it. Also I’ve got an app which makes my phone buzz in my pocket every minute to remind me to pause.
Hesitating or stammering a lot might even be good. It might work for your style. Barack Obama is very pausey. Boris Johnson, he, y’know, he erm stammers and meanders a bit and then he y'know SUDDENLY stops doing that and REALLY highlights his key point. It can cause problems of course – if you’re stammering a lot it might obscure what you’re actually saying, and if you hesitate a lot it might look like you are making things up. But the actual hesitating or stammering isn’t the real problem.
One final tip I’d give you – you can play around with precise wording in the middle of presentations, but I think it’s worth scripting your opening and closing lines to give a good impression, by starting off with a good strong opening and rounding off with a proper conclusion because otherwise it just kind of trails off at the end.