Last week, I discussed 5 bad public speaking habits you should leave behind in the New Year. Now, here's the companion piece: 5 practices you should cultivate to excel at public speaking in 2015.
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As the title to this blog states, these are "extraordinary" ways to help yourself become a more successful speaker in the approaching year. They aren't part of the standard package of advice on public speaking preparation and practice you'll hear everywhere in the coming months. Instead, they're elements of a performance persona that will help add depth, color, and interest to your speaking engagements. Consider them if you want to reach a new level of leadership, presence, and influence when you speak.
Observe Other Speakers Regularly.
A recent comment from a client about a talk he attended following my Executive Presentation Skills program sums up the essence of this advice. “I experienced this presentation on an entirely different level,” he told me. “I noticed things about this speaker's voice, body language, pace . . . even how he organized his ideas.” Indeed.
We often become so wrapped up in our own efforts (part of the “speaker-centric syndrome”), that we may forget there is much to learn from others' speeches and presentations. If you want to improve as a speaker, you need to experience the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that's out there in the world of meetings, pitches, panels, keynotes, remarks, lectures, toasts, eulogies, and sermons. From testimonials to TED, see how others weave their magic or try their best but fail. Borrow or avoid what you need to to find your own path.
Listen to Audio Books.
Your vocal tools—how you use your voice to make your valuable content come alive—help determine whether others consider you a talented speaker or a forgettable one. Here's a cheat sheet with the 5 key vocal tools you need to be that kind of talented speaker.
Like everywhere else these days, visuals predominate in terms of what people pay attention to when you speak. But how you sound follows close behind. The best way to improve your vocal skills, then, is to eliminate the visuals in your own practice sessions. Record yourself and listen to the results, training your ear. To help in your efforts, listen regularly to audio books. Voice actors are highly skilled at using this performance tool, and the novels they read from may allow you to hear the full vocal palette in action.
Make 20% of Your Reading from Outside Your Field.
This is advice from one of the teachers at the academy of dramatic art in London where I trained as an actor. Allow me to pass it on to you.
If we aren't busy being siloed in our offices and cubicles at work, we're doing it to ourselves through professional study that allows little time for other reading. Yet if we want to be interesting speakers in our field, it's important to allow the rest of the world in. Cultural, philosophical, artistic, and historical references will not only add spice to your talks in your industry; they can also help you make points that are stronger and more eye-opening because they come from an unexpected direction. For instance, my blog last week began with a quote from Dickens's A Christmas Carol, and also included references to Hamlet, Leonardo da Vinci, and Cinderella. Now, that's an interesting crowd for audiences to hang out with!
Presentations today are as content-heavy as they've ever been. PowerPoint decks that are bullet-riddled and more literary than visual are partly to blame. But as speakers, we're guilty too. If there's one mistake we generally make, it's paying too much attention to our material and not enough to what should be taking place in the room or auditorium.
In the give-and-take of public speaking, what matters most in terms of performance is the speaker's presence. Not in the sense of some mystical quality vested in charisma; but just in terms of being fully present in the here-and-now, and the exchange of influence between speaker and audience. When you talk to a group (as opposed to "delivering a presentation") and pay attention to their reactions, you're there for them. Mindfulness is the quality of being fully present in the moment, and cultivating it is a key skill to being an effective speaker. I highly recommend Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness as a gentle, lovely handbook for learning and practicing this attribute.
Get Into Your Body.
When Edward Gibbon presented the second volume of his monumental work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the Duke of Gloucester, brother of England's King George III, the prince declared:
“Another damn'd thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?"
When we're not scribbling out our own presentations on legal pads or keyboards, we're often doing so in our minds. “Always, think, think, think! Eh!” we might say to ourselves. But when we speak in public, we physically perform our talks . . . and our audience watches us do so.
So, my question as 2015 approaches is this: Do you get your body into the act? As the last of the extraordinary speaking habits to cultivate, think of how you can literally become a more active speaker. Observe, practice, and use body language—and not only gestures and eye contact, but movement in your performance space, along with facial expressions. Take a look at these body language rules for more powerful public speaking. And avoid these 7 deadly sins of negative body language.
Consider a movement or yoga class, an acting course, trying out for a community theater production, or enrolling in an improvisation class. Let the New Year find you not thinking and scribbling only, but moving to the music of the song you're "singing" for your audience.
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