Guest post by Sam Eddy
Watch most novice public speakers with a critical eye and I guarantee you will quickly be able to slice up sections of their speech into two categories: the funny bits and the serious bits.
Good speeches balance humor with profound moments, and this balance can be hard for novice speakers to strike. If the entertaining parts of your speech are mutually exclusive to the informative bits, your audience isn’t going to absorb anything you have to say. Making an absorbing speech is not about threading jokes through your content. It’s about finding a way to inject your personality into everything you say without losing the weight of your message.
The Importance Of Content
No one will really pay attention to you unless you’ve got something meaningful to say.
Sure you might entertain an audience. They might enjoy listening to you, but if you are here reading about how to become a better public speaker, I’m going to assume there is more at stake than just pulling in a few laughs.
If you really want to make an impact, you have to be saying something of note. If your content isn’t new and interesting on its own merits you may be able to hold the stage for without embarrassment, but your audience remember won’t anything you said 3 days later.
An important distinction must me made here. To evaluate whether your content is ‘new and interesting,’ the only metric that matters is the audience’s opinion. Is what you’re saying new and interesting to them?
My business Open Change puts me in front of employees from businesses in all different types of industries. My content is employee mental health, how to identify when it is an issue and provide tools to deal with it.
If I were to deliver the same speech I give to business managers to a convention of psychologists, it would bore the pants off the psychologists. It isn’t highly advanced in terms of theory. What’s new and interesting to the business managers isn’t the same as what’s new and interesting to the psychologists.
The important distinction is context. I am giving my audience crucial and practical content that they didn’t know, which makes it worthwhile to them. The next trick is finding a way to make them realize that it is worthwhile.
The Importance Of Character
Most people were conditioned to hate the idea of sitting down in large groups and listening to one person talk at them.
Whether it was school assemblies, church sermons or any other organized event, it is rare that our first experience as an audience member in a public speaking setting was an energizing one.
This means any person about to deliver a speech is not starting from a neutral standpoint. Without having said a word, they already have a lot of ground to make up.
That is where character comes in.
Character is surprising. Character is a unique approach or point of view. Character is the ability to be endearing and relatable. Character is a lot less tangible than content and that makes it harder to teach and learn. Some are of the opinion that ‘character’ is something you either have or you don’t.
You don’t have to be Tony Robbins to make an impactful, character-filled speech. There are techniques you can use to teach yourself to balance content and character so your speeches are rich, memorable and interesting.
5 Tips for Balancing Content and Character
- Use Personal Hooks to Reel Them in
If you want a shortcut to being relatable, there are few more effective techniques than using a story from your own life.
The trick is to embed your content into something that happened to you and create a teachable moment.
When you tell stories people listen. When you give them dry facts they don’t feel so impolite for tuning out. If you do it well and find a really compelling personal experience, the results can be hard to beat.
Check out Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk: ‘The Art of Asking
The story she tells is completely unique to her personal experience. The content is there, but no one could produce that talk from research. She had to have a specific set of experiences to put that moment on stage together.
- Never start with the expected and keep them guessing
The average person doesn’t really know what they mean when they say “that speaker had a lot of character”. Intrinsically they do, but if you asked them to explain what they meant, they would probably come up short.
A big part of coming across as a speaker with a lot of character is breaking with norms. People remember you when you do something different.
You can shock an audience with a startling statistic, or challenge a commonly held belief that crowd is likely to hold. It doesn’t really matter what you do as long as you do this first: write down every obvious way you can think of starting the speech and immediately take them all off the table.
The worst thing you can do is be predictable.
- Bring the audience into the speech
Anyone who claims that audience participation is not a good tool for expert public speaking has never seen Bobby McFerrin’s speech “Watch Me Play”:
What makes this interaction so brilliant is not just that he incorporates his audience into his speech. It’s that he presents his content in a way that makes them happy to be a part of his talk. As an audience they experience something collectively that not only entertains them but cuts to something essential about what Bobby is talking about.
Is there a way you can present your content to your audience so they come to your desired conclusion through their own actions? Nothing will beat the impact you can deliver if your audience can engage out of their own free will.
- Remember why YOU care about what you’re saying
I hope for your sake that when you get up in front of an audience and talk, it’s on a subject you’re passionate about.
If you don’t care about the subject of your speeches, maybe shut down your browser and reevaluate where you’re at.
But if it’s something you care about, think about your speech like this: there is something about your subject that got you hooked in the first place. As we dive deeper into our field we forget what it was like to see everything with fresh eyes. This is referred to as the curse of knowledge and is why industry experts often make terrible teachers.
Try to go back to your early days and try and see your subject matter like you did when it first captured your attention. Then find a way of presenting it to your audience the exact same way.
That is the sort of infectious energy, or ‘character’, that you don’t have to fake.
- Experience, experience, experience, then feedback
Repeat after me: hardly anyone knows how to be a charismatic public speaker the very first time they give a speech.
You can (and should) prepare thoroughly and meticulously. But also be open to experimentation and uncertainty: you’ll never quite know if what you are going to do will capture their attention until you do it.
Audience feedback is crucial, but just remember when that time comes not to let the balance tip the other way. When you are finally up on stage feeding off the audience it is very easy to let your speech swing too far towards character.
When seeking out feedback always try and work out if the content got through. Because the double edged sword of pulling of a charismatic speech is sometimes your audience can love you without learning a thing.
Sam Eddy is the Founder of Open Change, an Australian organization dedicated to improving workplace wellness and employee wellbeing. He is an experienced speaker, and has given talks and workshops for organizations such as ANZ, Commonwealth Bank, Westpack, Deloitte, and Oakam Financial, among others. Sam is a trained counsellor and has a Masters of Science in Pscyhology. He takes a positive yet simple approach to making effective and exciting changes in one’s personal and workplace mental health culture. Sam’s home base is in Melbourne, Australia.
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