Public Speaking Skills: First Principle of Great Communication

We all need public speaking skills, even if it’s only the skill of asking a question at a local meeting of the Parents and Teachers’ Association. Over the years I have seen even very experienced public speakers forget the most basic principle of oral (spoken) communication.

Before sharing with you some general advice about principles of oral or spoken communication, I am assuming that you know that great presentations take hours, sometimes days, of dedicated preparation. I do realize that if you make presentations to clients on a regular basis and it’s only the actual content that changes, you won’t have to spend a great deal of time preparing after the first couple of times.

However, I base all my seminars on the principle that to present at your best, you must be prepared to prepare. Both your material and your self.

First Principle: Aural and Visual Communication Are Very Different

The saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ can be true. Keep that saying in mind when using visual aids. Use a picture, diagram, flow chart or other image to convey visually what you’d need a thousand words (or so) to say. Your use of visuals in a presentation should illuminate the meaning of your spoken words.

Great presenters support their visual images by speaking in detail about what is being conveyed visually. That tactic is very useful and extremely powerful. It focuses the minds of the listeners simultaneously on the message which they’re receiving both visually and aurally (by listening).

When you show a slide of a rose but you talk about lemons – not that you’d dream of something as silly as that – but when there is a conflict between the visual image and what you’re talking about, I need hardly spell out for you the sort of confusion that follows. Human beings find it difficult to combine aural and visual media of communication. That is, we find it difficult to listen to your words (aural communication), while simultaneously being asked to take in even slightly different information which you’re conveying using on visual aids.

Yet, time and again that is precisely what even the most experienced public speakers do.

They spend their preparation time really well by distilling some complex information into a great diagram. By ‘great diagram’ I mean one that is clear and easy to understand. They prepare by creating that great visual and then go on and on and on -about something else.

Once again, I’ve often been astounded to pay a huge entry fee to hear great public speakers present their information to a targeted audience of people keen to hear them. I’m just relaxing into the presentation when up on the screen comes a diagram that looks like a circuit for a computer. Boxes all over the place, a few arrows going both ways or in circles and a colour scheme that confuses the listeners even more.

Given my background I’m sorry to have to say this, but University lecturers have been the worst offenders to date. The others are the people whose information is extremely up-to-date and very valuable but they haven’t ever invested even a second of their lives learning how to present their gems.

To quote Dorothy Sarnoff, one of my favourite writers on the subject of public presentations:

“Speechmaking confidence comes from knowing that you have something worth saying, and that you can say it in a way that’s worth listening to”. (Sarnoff 1981: 42)

My approach to public presentations is inspired by something Albert Einstein is alleged to have said:

“If you really understand something, you can make it understandable to a ten year old.”

So, be like Einstein: keep it simple. Your words and your visuals.

There’s a related rule I use in my own presentations. You don’t have to follow it, it’s just my advice. That rule is:

If your visual aids don’t stand alone, or make sense by themselves, dump them. If you don’t discard them, please at least have a very good second look at them. If your visual material is going to require lots and lots of verbal explanation, sorry sweetness, but they’re too complex for a public presentation. You can of course include them in your conference paper. That’s a different medium of communication altogether.

So to sum up that fundamental principle of good oral communication: never confuse your eager listeners by presenting difficult-to-follow visuals which in turn, are out of synch with what you’re actually talking about.

Public Speaking Fear Can Mar Your Presentation

A big reason for under par presentations is one with which we all feel some empathy. The person speaking is a world expert on the topic but….s/he is has such high levels of fear of public speaking that it becomes easier to hide in visuals. Worse still, some very nervous speakers resort to standing there and reading their presentation. I know from having worked with even the most nervous people imaginable that everyone can conquer their public speaking fear. If fear of public speaking is more of an issue for you than preparing your talks and presenting them using clear and simple visual and verbal language, I urge you to get the help that will conquer that fear.

Copyright $copy; 2010 Dr Jeannette Kavanagh

— Dr Kavanagh works in Melbourne, Australia to help people overcome their public speaking fears. Jeannette has helped thousands of people overcome their fear of public speaking. For more information, visit her website: Sign up for a FREE Public Speaking Success program.

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