Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dos and Don'ts of Public Speaking

This blog post is intended for writers who are given the opportunity to read portions of their work aloud. However, others who have to speak in front of an audience may also find some of the suggestions to be helpful.

I have over thirty years public speaking experience. In high school I was a member of our championship forensics team and was an award winning competitive public speaker in the Serious Interpretation category. This advice is the product of my experience as well as my frustration when I have witnessed public readings I have found to be embarrassing.

1. Do  know your time limits and plan for them.  If you have a short time frame to work with, say five minutes, select a passage that fits within those parameters including any prefatory comments you need to make to set up the scene for the audience. Time yourself. If it goes long, consider choosing another passage or perhaps change your beginning or ending places so that it fits in the time frame.

2. Don't Ramble or waste time. I have been to a few open microphone sessions where a writer is one of several speakers, but once they have the mic it seems as if s/he will not relinquish it without a big hook coming out and taking him/her off the stage. I particularly hate it when people ramble, because it demonstrates they were not prepared.

If you are given five minutes to speak, that five minutes starts from the time you are given the floor or handed the microphone. Rambling for four minutes before you start reading does not mean you still get to read for an additional five minutes. Nope. If you are given five minutes, you have five minutes. Especially if you are sharing a stage with others. That means that there will be members of the audience who came specifically to hear someone else speak. If you go over your time limit, (by more than a minute or two), you will be cutting into others' time or causing the program to go long.

Recently I saw an author bring her book to the stage, but her opening was not a statement used to set up her reading. Instead she rambled on and on about her life. She spent her entire time speaking without any discernable purpose, used up her entire time and never read a single word from her book. It became nothing more than a prop she waved in the air.

A different example of wasting time was when I delivered an academic paper at an international conference. I was one of three speakers in a session and I was given the last speaking slot. We were all to have an equal twenty minutes to present. However, the first speaker was a college professor who had not timed his presentation until the night before. He became irritated about the brevity and felt this time constraint caused him to eviscerate the heart and soul out of his talk. He complained about this. Repeatedly. Not just to the panel moderator in private, but during his talk.

He took time during his speech to complain that he did not have enough time. He probably spent a total of three minutes during his talk saying, "oh I cannot go into more detail about that because I do not have enough time."

He also ignored the moderator when she told him that his time was over, and continued speaking for a few more minutes. This cut into the time left for my presentation. I was professional about it and was able to condense and speed up some of my presentation so the session did not run overtime.

3. Do make a script that is easy to read. One of my pet peeves is authors reading from their physical books. I think it is fine to read directly from a book if it is a picture book where the pages are read and shown to an adoring crowd of children. Otherwise, it is often awkward for someone to read directly from a bound book. Not only do you have to fight with the binding, losing your place if it closes, but the font is generally not large enough to read with ease.

If you are reading your own story, then make a script off of documents you have on your hard drive.

Boost the font. Make it 18 or 20 point. Make it bold. Whatever works best for you to read without difficulty.

Print it out, and make it so that your paragraphs do not have widows or orphans. It is best to read to the end of a paragraph and then turn the page.  Number your pages.

My personal preference is to put the printed pages onto construction paper. This makes it a script where the pages can be changed with ease. I find this easier to use than plain paper with a staple on the top. I also find myself being distracted from the reading by concentrating at the stapled copy in a reader's hand to assess how many more pages they are going to read. A script with separate pages will remove that distraction.

4. Don't think that reading glasses will make reading from a physical book easy to do in public.

It will not. Wearing reading glasses while trying to read from a physical book will make you have to look down more often. This will hurt your performance. As your head is turned downward, your voice will be focused downward. Or your throat will be at an acute angle and this will change the tone of your voice and your ability to project your words. Alternately, you could hold the book upward so that your neck is straight and your voice is projected well. This will also cause the book to cover your face making it hard for your audience to see your facial expressions or to have any eye contact with them.

5. Do entertain your audience. Express yourself in a manner that will captivate your audience's attention. If you are reading passages with dialogue, create different voices to help them understand and follow who is speaking. Use eye contact to engage the audience with you. Having rehearsed your talk enough times and having an easy to read script will allow you to look up and at your audience.

Remember, if you are sharing the stage with others then many in the audience will be there in support of other speakers. They may know nothing about you. Make them sit up and take notice of your performance. Make them feel as if they discovered someone new to admire.

6. Don't bore your audience. Rambling at the beginning of your talk is lethal for grabbing and maintaining an audience's attention. Once lost it is hard to get back.

Fumbling with a book and reading glasses as well as speaking in a monotone is also high risk behavior for losing your audience.

Whether you realize it or not, you are competing for all of the audience members' attentions. Make it worth their while to pay attention to you and not make a mental list of errands that need running or check their email on their iPhone. They could be other places right now, but they are chose to spend a portion of their lives at whatever venue you are speaking. They could change their mind at any moment and leave to go to the bathroom or go home.

7. Do your best to be heard. It is frustrating when a speaker does not project his or her voice well enough to be heard or does not know how to properly use a microphone. If someone objects when you start speaking and says, "I can't hear you!" make sure that the situation is resolved before you continue with your planned talk. This may mean readjusting the microphone to being closer to your mouth or forcing yourself to SPEAK UP!

8. Don't think you do not need amplification.  I have seen speakers at a podium decide they did not want to use the microphone that is provided. Even after someone in the audience complained. Most of the time speakers are mistaken when they think their voice is loud enough without amplification to be heard in all corners of the room. I only knew one woman who could pull that off with ease, because She Could Project. Loudly. When she chose to project her voice, it was as if she used a megaphone. She was the proverbial exception that proves the rule.

I remember a sad case of a female politician who had become feeble in her old age. She was a guest speaker at an event and when it came time for her to speak, she could not make herself heard by using the microphone. It had worked fine for all the speakers before her, but it seemed as if it stopped working when she took the stage. People scrambled to find a replacement microphone, they tested it and then handed it to her. We were all hopeful this would resolve the problem. She took the microphone and then it became clear that her anemic vocal performance was not due to technology, but due to her inability to perform anymore.

This was heartbreaking for me, because I had looked forward to hearing her talk and knew she had a wealth of knowledge and a lifetime of experience that was worthy of hearing. I stopped straining to make out her words, and instead accepted that I could not hear her unless I was standing next to her onstage.

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Here is an example of a recent public speaking appearance where I read a passage from my novel. You can see how I used a script, varied my voice to entertain the audience, tried to use eye contact and did my best to be heard over the ambient conversation of those in the restaurant who were not there for the literary event.

I was the only participant to stay in the 5-7 minute time frame mentioned at the beginning of the event. (The video running time is just over seven minutes, but that includes the introduction given to me before I started speaking.)





If there are any other pieces of advice in public speaking that I did not mention, but you think should be included in this list - please leave it in the comment section. Thank you and I hope this advice is helpful.


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