Want greater public speaking presence? Here's how to have a conversation with audiences and get them to like you.
Chances are, you want to come across as a more confident and memorable speaker. That's as good a one-two punch as any for public speaking success.
Still, there are some more subtle aspects of a winning speaking style to be aware of. I’m talking about speaking with simplicity, clarity, a conversational tone, and being seen as likable.
As a speaker you should always try to speak simply and clearly. One of history’s most creative thinkers, Leonardo da Vinci, said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The most famous speakers in our language left an historical legacy because plain speaking rings in their phrases. Here are some examples:
- Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
- Winston Churchill’s “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream.”
- Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”
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Great speeches—and remarkable presentations—contain far more ‘nickel’ (simple) than ‘dollar’ (sophisticated) words. Anglo-Saxon’s concrete direct quality usually has more impact than Latin’s flowery oration. The greatest thoughts are always expressed most simply, because simple language can be understood by everyone.
Consider this excerpt that shows the power of simple language. Corporate speechwriter Richard Dowis wrote it:
Short words can make us feel good. They can run and jump and dance and soar high in the clouds. They can kill the chill of a cold night and help us keep our cool on a hot day. They fill our hearts with joy, but they can bring tears to our eyes as well. A short word can be soft or strong. It can sting like a bee or sing like a lark. Small words of love can move us, charm us, lull us to sleep. Short words give us light and hope and peace and love and health—and a lot more good things. A small word can be as sweet as the taste of a ripe pear, or tart like plum jam. Small words make us think. In fact, they are the heart and soul of clear thought. 
Did you notice that this entire 141-word passage consists of only one-syllable words?
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Have a Conversation with Audiences
When your words are simple and clear, you have a conversation with your audience. That’s key to successful public speaking. Why? Because both you and listeners are at your best when you are conversing with each other. That’s when you are most natural and least self-conscious. Isn’t the thought of having a conversation with someone less intimidating than an upcoming speech?
Because you’re at ease in a conversation, you look and sound more like yourself. You gesture, and color your voice in a way that’s much closer to the real you than during “public speaking.” You’re relaxed, and it shows—so you’re much better at expressing genuine passion and empathy. Any audience hearing you in that vein will relax into the conversation, becoming more open and receptive. Why wouldn’t they? If you’re genuine and enthused about your topic you’ll be more enjoyable to listen to than if you’re trying to be a good speaker.
Can You ‘Chat’ About Important Topics?
There’s another reason being conversational is vital to speaking today. Television—and now videoconferences—have changed the game. TV started it all by bringing people into everyone’s living room. Suddenly, performers weren’t speaking from public stages with us in the audience. From news anchors to game show hosts, they were in our homes. And they became very good at being conversational—at just chatting with us—because their performance demanded it. Mass communication became closer and warmer and more casual than it had ever been before.
These days, experts and everyday people alike chat with us via Zoom meetings, webinars, podcasts, and FaceTime. We even see them fumbling to press the right button to get things started . . . why, they’re just like us!
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The result is that more than ever we expect speakers to be conversational, even about important issues. Watch a video of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech from 1961 and compare it with a speech on the same occasion by any of our recent presidents. You may be struck by how far we’ve come toward conversational public speaking, even in highly formal settings. To connect with listeners—no matter your topic or profile—you must strike a balance between professionalism and having a conversation with those listening.
A Magic Bullet of Speaking Success: Likability
And it’s important to be likable too. The speech coach to President Ronald Reagan (who possessed some charm as a speaker) called likability a “magic bullet,” and considered it a critical factor in speaking success. “If your audience likes you,” he said, “they’ll forgive just about everything else you do wrong. If they don’t like you, you can hit every rule right on target and it doesn’t matter.” 
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Get an audience to like you, and they will more likely enjoy being in your company. Many business presenters keep their distance from the audience because they’re more attuned to their content than to listeners. You need to go in exactly the opposite direction. If it’s clear to people that you care deeply whether they understand—and if you’re working at establishing a relationship with them—they’ll sense something happening in the room. It will seem to them like a shared experience. And indeed, it will be. They’ll think of this speech as something memorable. If that happens, it’s guaranteed that they will think the same of you.
 Richard Dowis, The Lost Art of the Great Speech (New York: Amacom, 2000), 89.
 Roger Ailes, You Are the Message (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 83.
The above article is excerpted from my book, Speak for Leadership.
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking training and overcoming speaking fear. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching and corporate group training worldwide. In 2022 for the ninth consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of the World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was named in 2019 as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." Speaking Virtually offers strategies and tools for boosting your online presence. His latest book is Speak for Leadership: An Executive Speech Coach's Secrets for Developing Leadership Presence. Contact Gary here.