Improving public speaking means so much more than doing vocal drills, practicing your body language, or even rehearsing your presentation materials.*
A big part of it is doing some deep thinking about what “good” public speaking means to you.
One of the things that trips many of us up when we decide to work on our speaking is that even though we know that we want to be better, and may even have an idea of specific things we especially want to improve, we don’t usually define what “better” means. What does “better” look like? What does it sound like?
Trying to improve without a clear idea of what “better” is to you is like trying to reach a destination without an address or map.
Here’s where the fun comes in. You need to know what you like in a public speaker so that you have ideas and inspirations to work from – these are your maps. This means you have an outstanding reason to grab a bowl of popcorn and plunk yourself down in front of your computer for an epic YouTube binge!
To get an idea of what speaking characteristics you admire, which speakers inspire you, and what you might want to emulate, you need to watch a lot of public speakers. You need to watch them very closely, taking note of their mannerisms, of how they use their voice, their bodies, of how their talks are constructed, how they move on stage, how they interact with the audience, how they tell stories. You want to figure out specifically what it is they do that you like so much. You want to be the Sherlock Holmes of dissecting how people deliver their speeches and presentations: you want to notice everything.
And you want to do this with a whole bunch of different speakers, because your goal isn’t to find one speaker to copy. It’s to figure out what kind of speaking styles and mannerisms you prefer and then find your own way of blending and adapting those mannerisms so you come up with a style all your own.
Let’s say that someone says they love Simon Sinek’s talks. We ask that person why they like Sinek so much, and they reply “Everything. He just really inspires me. I was totally energized by his talk.” This kind of answer means that the person in question hasn’t actually thought about they way Sinek talks or the discrete reasons why Sinek made such an impression on them.
You want to get really granular. If you decide you like someone, ask yourself why you like them. Then ask why again. And again. Drill down. Notice what you like and what you don’t like. Here are some examples of characteristics I especially admire in some of my own favourite speakers:
Seth Godin: Highly structured content with a clear story path and logical build-up. Outstanding body language and energy, despite limited facial expression.
Marie Forleo: High intensity and strength in body language. Clear diction and enunciation. Expressive through body and face – she doesn’t hold back her expressions of excitement or emotion.
Rex Murphy: His delivery can be a bit robotic, but his use of language is masterful. This man is one of the best wordsmiths I’ve ever heard.
Ken Robinson: delightful story crafting. I also like his vocal mannerisms – the clipped, almost staccato speech patterns and enunciation. He conveys high energy despite not really being able to move around the stage.
Lucy Worsley: Bursting with delighted curiosity and energy about her topics. Lots of vocal variation, plays with the way she pronounces words, which gives her speeches a visceral, almost tactile quality. Tony Robinson shares these same characteristics, and I adore watching him.
When working on my own talks, I take inspiration from these speakers. I like to use words like Rex Murphy, to have brisk delivery like Ken Robinson, to emote with energy like Lucy Worsley and Marie Forleo. To work the stage and move around like Seth Godin. I don’t try to imitate them, but I do look to them for ideas and inspiration. This has helped me develop and improve my own unique style of speaking.
You can do this with any speaker who catches your attention. Even if there are popular speakers who don’t particularly resonate with you, try to figure out what it is about them that people like and what it is you don’t care for. Knowing what doesn’t work for you is just as important as knowing what you does.
There are loads of ways you can find speakers to watch. Check out the TED website or the TED Talks channel on YouTube. Search for subjects that interest you and add “lecture” or “talk” to the search terms. Search “Nerd Nite” on YouTube for some awesome lectures by people who aren’t necessairily pro speakers. Look up big thought-leader type conferences like Hubspot’s Inbound Conference or 99U . Don’t limit yourself to public speaking events and lectures, either. I love watching documentaries, and when I come across a documentary narrator or presenter that I especially enjoy, I dissect their performance (Lucy Worsley, Tony Robinson, and Mary Beard being three of my favourites).
This really is a fun activity, one you can also easily do with other people. Get some people together and watch a bunch of talks instead of watching a movie.
Do this, and you’ll have a very clear picture of what “better” or even “awesome” means to you, and you’ll have a direction in which to point yourself. You’ll have your map.
And you’ll have a ton of fun as well!
*Thank god for that, too. Because even though practicing and drilling and rehearsing are completely and fundamentally necessary, even I’ll admit that it can be dull, frustrating work.