Preparing to Speak Publicly Help (page 3)
Introduction to Preparing to Speak Publicly
Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel. It is to bring another out of his bad sense into your good sense.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803–1882
In this lesson, we will consider the most important element of your upcoming speech: the audience. We will also consider several other factors, such as the setting where you'll be speaking.
Before you get up in front of an audience to give a speech, you must first answer these two fundamental questions: Who am I speaking to? Why am I speaking to them? The answer to these questions will determine everything about your upcoming speech, including preparation, content, and delivery.
Perhaps you are making a public speech because you are a student in a public speaking class. If that is the case, then your reason for speaking is that you want to succeed as a student. This situation will also define who your audience is: the other students in your class and the professor who is teaching you. Clearly, in this situation, you will want your speech to please the professor, since your final grade will depend upon your performance. However, don't let your desire for a good grade stymie your individual expression. If you follow the advice in this book on crafting and delivering a good, true, and powerful speech, your skills will shine through and you will get the grade you deserve.
Perhaps you are getting ready to speak publicly because you have been asked to do so—making a toast at a friend's wedding, or addressing the members of a church or civic group of which you're a member. Once again, your audience will be clearly defined: the bride, groom, and guests at the wedding, or your fellow members of the church or organization. And once again, you will want your speech to be well received by your audience—you will want to encourage the wedding party or connect with your fellow members on a topic that is of mutual interest.
As you can see, answering the who and why questions also answers a number of secondary questions:
- What is an appropriate topic?
- How long should you speak?
- What tone should you set?
Each of these questions also needs to be answered, which you will see as we go along, but the first and most fundamental questions are who and why. Understanding your own motivation for speaking publicly will help you to work through the anxiety that is natural to experience when getting up in front of an audience, and knowing who will be listening will help you anticipate their response. When you feel anxious about your speech, you will be able to focus all that nervous energy on why you are putting yourself through such an ordeal, and use it to your benefit.
Dealing with Anxiety
As you begin preparing to speak publicly, it is also important to know another fundamental fact: Everyone gets nervous about speaking publicly! In fact, most people list public speaking as one of their biggest fears in life, even people who do it professionally. You've probably seen speeches made by people who do it on a regular basis, such as politicians, and thought that they were perfectly poised and not the least bit nervous. But if you were to ask those people if they'd been nervous beforehand, they would quickly assure you that they'd experienced all the butterflies and jitters that you're feeling about your upcoming speech.
We will deal more fully in Lesson 16 with the techniques you can use to turn anxiety into an asset, but for now it's only important for you to know that anxiety is completely normal. The best way to deal with it is to use the energy of your anxiety to produce a good speech—and then you'll have nothing to be anxious about. The first steps to producing a good speech involve laying a solid foundation for it by analyzing who will be in the audience, deciding what you'll be discussing, and visualizing the actual setting of the event.
At this point in your speechmaking, you may feel as though your public speaking engagement is going to be centered on you. After all, you'll be the one standing up in the front, and you'll be the one doing all the talking. But the truth is that your speech will not be centered around you; you will not be speaking for your own benefit, but for the benefit of your audience. It seems incongruous, but public speaking is an art that is centered on the audience, not on the person giving the speech.
Therefore, it will be important for you to know who will be in the audience when you give your talk. Returning to our previous example, if your speech is to be part of a college class on public speaking, your audience will consist of your fellow classmates and your teacher, and it will be in your best interests to tailor your speech to that audience—since at least one member of the audience will be grading your performance!
Analyzing your audience is usually a fairly simple procedure. If you're speaking to a church or civic group, for example, you are probably already a member of that group and know many of the people in the audience. Even if you have been invited to speak to a group of which you are not a member, you can still gain some basic information on the audience by learning what draws them together. A medical conference will probably be attended by medical professionals, for example, and what draws them together is their mutual interest in medical and health issues. You could safely conclude that such an audience would be filled with well-educated professionals, and they would most likely be interested in a speech that addressed some aspect of health and medicine. A civic group such as the local Lions Club or Rotary Club will be made up of a more diverse audience in terms of education and professional background, but they will all be drawn together in a common interest of serving the local community. In that case, you would want to address a topic related to community service.
If you should find yourself speaking to an audience with whom you are completely unfamiliar, you will need to do a little research before beginning your speech. Here are some methods that will help you gain information:
- Ask the person who invited you for detailed information on the audience. That person obviously feels you have something to share that will interest the audience; find out what it is.
- Spend time talking with some individuals who will be in the audience. Ask them for one or two other contacts with whom you can also speak, and ask them what they would be most interested in hearing about.
- Read about the organization on their website or in their brochures or marketing materials.
- Use the Internet to gain background information on the individuals who will be in the audience and on the organization as a whole.
- Visit whatever venue draws the group together. For example, attend a club meeting or event; if it's a group of local merchants, such as the Chamber of Commerce, visit some of the local businesses that are members. Become familiar with the group's area(s) of common interest.
Once you have gained some insight into the audience, you will need to gather some basic information on the meeting at which you will be speaking. Here are some things you will need to know:
- Where will the meeting take place? (This question is important, and we will address it further in this chapter.)
- How large will the audience be?
- What will be the purpose of this meeting?
- What will the audience expect to hear from those who are speaking?
- Will there be other people speaking besides you? If so, where will your speech come in the agenda?
- How long should your speech be?
- How much will the audience already know about your topic? Will you be speaking to experts in the field, or introducing some new topic with which they are unfamiliar?
- What is the age range of the audience? Will you be speaking to a group of high-school students, to senior citizens, or to a wide mix of ages?
- Will your topic be something with which the audience will be in agreement, or might they be somewhat hostile to your ideas?
As you can see, knowing details about your audience will determine a great deal about the speech you write. In this sense, the audience largely determines what you will say, before you have even started writing your speech! A person could be invited to speak on quantum physics to a group of high-school students, but that speech would be vastly different if it were given to a group of rocket scientists. That's because public speaking is entirely focused on the audience, not on the speaker.
Choosing a Topic
It is possible that your topic has been selected for you, perhaps by your professor or by the person who invited you to speak. But it is far more likely that you have been given a good deal of latitude in choosing what you'll speak about, and even if the topic was assigned to you, you still have a good deal of freedom in choosing how you will address it.
Choosing and narrowing a topic can seem like a daunting task at first, but it is actually fairly simple. The first rule is to choose a topic with which you are very familiar. For example, if you are an avid photographer, then photography would be a natural topic for you to choose. If you have been assigned a topic with which you are not at all familiar, then the natural approach is to speak on what it's like to be a beginner in that field. A person who knows little about photography would naturally want to speak on what it's like to be a beginner in the modern field of digital photography—what you've learned about selecting a camera or what useful resources you've discovered on the Internet. Even if you were a beginner in photo-graphy speaking to an audience of professionals, your approach to the topic would be fresh and unique, and the audience would undoubtedly enjoy hearing a familiar topic addressed from an "outsider's" perspective.
Here is an age-old maxim in the field of public speaking: "Speak to your strengths." In other words, choose a topic that you know a lot about (assuming that you have that option), because you will naturally have something interesting to say about those things that are of interest to you personally.
This rule applies to every type of speech, whether you are giving a persuasive speech designed to change the audience's opinion on a topic, or making a toast at a friend's wedding. You cannot hope to persuade an audience to your opinion if you don't first have an opinion, just as the most memorable toasts are those that display an intimate knowledge of the bride or groom.
Choosing a topic that you know about is not hard, but here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing:
- How I chose my major in college
- Why I vote the way I do
- The fun and merits of my favorite hobby
- A person who influenced me greatly in my childhood
- How to… (change your oil; get married; raise a puppy; etc.)
- How not to… (similar to "how to," but with a humorous approach that emphasizes your own personal failures and lessons)
- How not to… (similar to "how to," but with a humorous approach that emphasizes your own personal failures and lessons)
- The future of… (related to "the history of," but with a greater focus on your thoughts for the future)
- My favorite… (book; movie; teacher; ethnic food; or something else that gets you excited)
Once you have chosen your topic, you will find yourself back at our initial premise in this chapter: Ultimately, the audience will determine what you say. You will need to narrow your topic to suit the audience's needs, creating a speech that can be given within time constraints and which addresses something about your topic that will be of interest to the audience.
Let's say that you choose the topic "my experiences in middle school." If your audience is composed of middle-school students, you might speak on "how to make the most of your middle-school years." If your audience is composed of senior citizens, on the other hand, you might speak on "the golden years of middle school." If you are speaking to the local Lions Club, you might speak on "meeting the diverse needs of middle-school students."
The setting and time constraints will also influence your choice of topic. If you have 60 minutes to speak, you could wax eloquent on your reminiscences of those turbulent years in seventh and eighth grade. If you have only 30 minutes, you might narrow the topic to "my favorite teacher in middle school, and how he changed my life." If you have only five minutes, you might narrow it still further and speak on "the one lesson that I learned in middle school."
In each of these examples, you would still be speaking on a topic that you know and love, but you would be narrowing that topic to meet the specific needs of your audience. The main rule to remember is this: Speak about what you know! Keep in mind, however, that even speaking about what you know means you have to do research or talk to experts who might know more than you in order to make a full and robust speech.
What is the Setting?
The setting of your speech will have an impact upon how your audience responds to your speech. For example, if you are speaking at a banquet immediately after a big meal, your audience will be inclined to doze off. Uncomfortable chairs can make your audience fidgety, while extraneous noise from background music or a nearby party will make it hard for them to pay attention. We refer to such environmental problems as a hostile setting for a speaker. It is not that the audience is hostile; it is the environment of the room which makes it difficult for the audience to pay attention. In this case, passion and belief in yourself and your topic are critical. Have confidence in your unique approach and expression of your topic.
You may not have much control over the setting in which you'll be speaking, but knowing what to look for in advance can prepare you to deal with what you're given—and may very well enable you to correct a problem before you speak. Here are a few things that can create a hostile setting:
- The room is too warm or too cold: Too warm makes people drowsy, while too cold makes them fidget.
- Extraneous noise: This can come from external sources over which you have no control, such as a busy highway nearby, or from internal sources which you can control, such as background music being played in a banquet hall. Noise competes with your speech, so treat it as an unwelcome competitor.
- Seating arrangements: Ideally, you want everyone in the audience to be able to see you and hear you easily and clearly. You may find yourself, however, speaking to people who are not ideally situated, such as in a dinner setting where half the audience is facing in the wrong direction across their dinner tables. Using visual aids in that setting would be an excellent idea, since it would force everyone to turn and face you while you speak.
- Lighting: A room that is too dark makes it difficult to see you, while lights that are too bright can be distracting and irritating to the audience. If necessary, turn off some of the lights before the audience arrives, or consider asking for a different location if it's too dark. Also, avoid speaking with a window behind you.
If you are able to control any of these environmental factors, you will be eliminating competitors and giving yourself extra advantages. If you cannot control the environment, you can still give yourself an edge by knowing what the setting is in advance.
Therefore, you should always visit the place where you'll be speaking prior to the day of your speech. This enables you to visualize yourself giving the speech, which helps greatly with anxiety. (We will discuss this further in Lesson 17.) It also gives you an opportunity to correct any problems that are within your control, while also allowing you to anticipate any hostile environment that can't be changed. If you anticipate problems holding your audience's attention, you will want to plan in advance to have visual aids, for example.
Finally, visiting the setting ahead of time also allows you to plan out the mechanics. You can find out where plugs are located for your overheads or slide projection, find out what kind of microphone is (or is not) available, anticipate the seating arrangements that you'll be given, and so forth. Remember the old saying: "Forewarned is fore-armed." When you are aware of problems in advance, you can take steps to overcome them.
Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at: Preparing to Speak Publicly Practice.
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