I recently attended a speech contest. Despite a variety of styles and personalities, the best speakers shared four traits:
The best speakers were themselves. They didn’t project false confidence, unfelt humility or fake personas. They started where they were, in terms of confidence and experience, and moved forward. The winning speaker even joked about being nervous.
- Speak from the heart and trust your audience. Let yourself be nervous—listeners want to like you and will support you as you gain confidence moving through the speech. (But be careful of seeming pathetic; audiences don’t want to pity a speaker.)
- Ground yourself literally. Balance your weight so you are standing with equal pressure on each foot. Feel the support come up through your entire feet—heels, sides, soles and toes—then rise through relaxed knees and into a balanced pelvis. Engage the core, straighten your spine a little, lift your shoulders and raise your chin. (Practice in a mirror before doing this in public!)
The best speakers allowed short silences to let a point sink in or land a joke. Pauses create emphasis and effect, underscoring what was just said. Pauses also vary the pace of your speech, preventing monotony.
A long pause recaptures the audience’s interest (our typical attention span is about 7 seconds) as we wonder if the speaker has lost their train of thought or if something’s gone wrong.
Calm allows everyone to calm down. It’s natural to speak too fast when you’re nervous—adrenaline’s racing through your body, also the faster you speak the sooner you can sit down. But speedy speakers turn people off: audiences want to be passengers on a relaxing journey.
Calm speaking provides emotional space for the audience. Some speakers make their audience uncomfortable by trying to elicit a stronger response than their words evoke—that’s the difference between telling a funny story and telling an unfunny one followed by “it was hilarious!” Being calm tells the audience that you have confidence in your content.
Calm also lends credibility. While it’s important to believe in what you’re saying, calm gives your listeners space to draw their own conclusions. You’ve probably experienced an overly-enthusiastic speaker or pushy salesman. How did you feel? Like they were trying to force you to agree with them? And how did you react; probably by resisting the person and their message? When we speak calmly we present ourselves as so secure and truthful that we don’t need tricks or coercion.
Calm does not mean boring. Raise your voice, get animated, show your passion. Just be sure it’s honest.
- Breathe. In through your nose-2-3-4-5, and down to your lungs. This will calm you and make you look confident.
- When you practice your speech, time it. Record it. Can you add more pauses? Try again with seemingly unnaturally long pauses—how does that look in playback?
One of the best speakers that night left the podium as he spoke, walking up the aisles of the auditorium and forcing his audience out of our lazy passivity. It worked well!
But be careful: too much movement distracts and exhausts the audience. This doesn’t mean you should just stand there. Move your arms, hands, feet and head. Turn your shoulders, take a few steps. You don’t have to go overboard; just make small gestures to drive home a point or underscore ideas. Moving about a bit is visual stimulus; it gives the audience something to watch.
- If you don’t naturally move your hands when speaking, practice doing so. Over time it will become more natural.
- Avoid pointing because it can seem aggressive and rude, especially in some cultures. Instead, try a palm-up open hand, which is more of an inclusive, positive gesture.
- Keep those hands away from your face! Also out of your hair, jewelry, pockets…
4. Eye Contact
The best speakers looked around. Whether or not they made actual eye contact, they appeared to. They connected, turning broadcast into dialogue.
Tip: Sometimes actual eye contact distracts both you and the listener. Occasionally a speaker locks onto one person and forgets to sweep their gaze to include everyone. If you’re speaking to a group you may prefer the method of looking at the spot between people’s eyebrows. It feels like connection but won’t distract you, or your audience, and you’re less likely to get locked in.
The 4 traits listed above will make you a better speaker in both group and one-on-one situations. Watch speakers (live or on TEDtalks), paying attention to their hands, feet, heads, voices and breathing. Learn what works and doesn’t, then practice practice practice (in a mirror or on video) until your delivery supports your wonderful content. Be brief, be clear, and be yourself.