The Art of Speaking Eloquently

I am standing on the podium, looking out at the sea of faces before me, as I am about to deliver a presentation on a subject I know well. Very well, in fact. I have been in this business for many years and I know absolutely and thoroughly what I talk about. I am even regarded as a guru in this field.  Yet, my palms are sweating, my heartbeat’s racing.

I can feel that lump in my dry throat. I am not sure if my voice will tremble in the first few minutes.

Speaking at a presentation, meeting, conference call, business dinner, or simply, a cocktail session is not an insurmountable task, by any means. But if you are speaking to impress, to be remembered, to be visible, to convince, to ooze confidence and to be diplomatic – this is certainly a very different ballgame altogether.

Success in speaking, as in everything else, is not accidental. Nobody is born a good orator. It requires planning, combining powerful expressions, practice and careful follow-through. These can be developed, cultivated and nurtured.

In today’s highly competitive world, people are often judged based on how they are perceived. People are judged, not always by what they know or the depth of their knowledge, but on how they deliver their message : how they sound, look and their body language.

This is the unfortunate truth.

Success in speaking, as in everything else, is not accidental. Nobody is born a good orator.

Today’s audiences are stimulation junkies. And as Patricia Fripp very aptly puts it, “All speaking outside our home is public speaking, there is no such thing as private speaking”.

So, what is the essence of it all? What are those ingredients that distinguish one speaker from another?

I am a firm believer that every presentation or talk, regardless of platform, must contain a ‘wow’ factor. The ‘wow’ factor is when your audience says, “Wow, he/she is just wonderful, impressive and breath-taking”.

I am not referring to subject matter knowledge or intelligence. These are assumed. After all, you wouldn’t be speaking up there if you didn’t have these fundamental qualities. I am referring, instead, to a state where the audience just cannot get enough of you, akin to a performer in a concert. Not only do you start with a bang but you grab the audience’s attention right from the outset all the way until you deliver your final words. When you finish and depart, you leave them wanting more.

This does not necessarily have to be speeches and presentations to large audiences; this could apply to your meetings, office motivational talks or any speaking you do. In sales talks or pitches, it is clear that people buy from people they like, connect to, and who engage them in a talk or presentation.

What would be our biggest challenge when speaking to any audience? That’s simple. We know that, while we are saying such smart, intelligent things, the problem is the audience is not always listening. They get distracted constantly. So how do we ‘hook’ them, so that at the very least, we have 80 percent of their attention?

Let’s consider some of the essentials in speaking, examine what it takes to get the ‘wow’ factor and explore proven techniques to hook your audience.

1. Decide how to begin.

First impressions are the most critical. Be precise with how you start. This should be planned and memorised to perfection so that delivery is natural. Hook your audience, right from the start, using techniques such as stories, analogies, jokes or simply tell them something amazing. Design your sentences to create interest and anticipation.

2. When talking about graphs, charts, tables and numbers, make it interesting.

Avoid cliché words such as “increase”, “decrease”, “important” and “approximately”. One of the greatest gifts of the English language is its vocabulary. Learn to select words that everybody knows, but are not often used. Select words that enrich your voice and make you sound impressive. A simple counterpoint would be the words “important” and “essential”. Just say these two words aloud and you will easily see that “essential” is far richer than “important”. With an electronic device such as a microphone or telephone, the effect is further enhanced. And this is just one example.

3. Following on from the second point above, learn the art of selecting “wet” rather than “dry” words.

Compare “around” and “in the region of”. Both words mean the same, but the second sounds far richer. In fact “around” sounds as dry as a desert!

4. Use articulation, clustering and pausing when speaking.

This will make your talk more entertaining, more understandable, more memorable, and consequently, less boring. Pausing at the right places for example, helps get your message across wherein your audience is able to conceptualise and digest what you are saying with ease. Using more adjectives (enormous, substantial, etc.) helps you articulate better (Compare British English vs. American English).

5. Hook your audience with various techniques that create anticipation, cluster them in sets of threes and construct sentences in a way that your audience will focus on what you’re about to say, then say it.

Use rhetorical questions to connect with your audience. Use repetition techniques and opposites as they attract attention and appeal to audiences.

6. Use intensifiers and softeners.

Depending on your objectives, intensifiers tend to make you sound confident and convincing. Examples of intensifiers are: “It certainly was a pleasure to meet you yesterday”, instead of “It was a pleasure to meet you yesterday”. “It is NOT cost effective” rather than “It isn’t cost effective”. Softeners, on the other hand, serve to make you sound diplomatic and non-committal. Softeners leave room for different interpretations and are sometimes useful in Q&A sessions. Softeners are words such as “more or less”, “quite”, “pretty”, all in all, etc.

People are judged, not always by what they know or the depth of their knowledge, but on how they deliver their message : how they sound, look and their body language.

Nine pearls of wisdom for speaking in any business environment

  1. Speak slowly and with purpose. Be crystal clear at all times. Every word should be pronounced to the end of the word and pronounced to perfection. Do not swallow any part of the word. Remember: People who are stressed, nervous or unsure, speak fast.
  2. Speak in the shortest sentence possible using the best vocabulary.
  3. Always pause at commas and stop at full stops. Allow your audience time to grasp and understand what you have said.
  4. Construct your sentences using verbs rather than noun combinations. Use direct speech rather than indirect speech. Avoid passive sentences at all costs.
  5. Use adjectives to articulate when speaking. Use powerful word combinations to sound confident.
  6. Select words that make your voice sound rich. Avoid cliché words or phrases. Ensure that all words used are understood by everyone in the audience.
  7. Practise, practise, practise. Do not leave anything to chance. Success comes with proper planning. Luck is just a bonus.
  8. Just as you plan your beginning, plan your ending as well. Leave your audience on a high, wanting more of you.
  9. Watch great speakers and observe the above. Watch some clips of great movies and political speeches. Body language, or the non-verbals, has without a doubt become more and more critical in recent years. In fact, it is suggested that it is not always the mind that controls the body, but that the body also has the ability to control one’s mind.

So, be aware of your body language : your eye contact, mimics, posture, gestures and the position of your legs.

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Five tips on body language

  1. Maintain eye contact at all times with your audience. Pay special attention to hostiles/potential hostiles.
  2. What about my hands? What do I do with these very vital limbs, but only vital until I find myself in front of an audience? Hands should never rest in pockets or be folded in front of you. Gesture as you speak and let your hands drop, to the sides, when you’ve made your point. The pyramid pose is acceptable, now and then.
  3. Stand with feet the same width apart as the width of your shoulders, like a block of cement. Do not lock your knees or elbow joints.
  4. Do not pace too much during the presentation. Make deliberate ‘big’ movements instead.
  5. Manage your stress by first discovering what happens to your body when you are stressed and then research how to control it. Stress is always good as it ensures we deliver peak performance but it requires control so that it does not become all consuming or embarrassing.

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