Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Public Speaking for the Masses

Hello all! Welcome to my blog. EMG recently launched a program called "Voice" which provides speaker's training, presentation experience, and general media training to executives who want to represent their companies well in the spotlight. Below is a quick article I typed up in response to a reporter's questions, but I thought it would be beneficial to share with everyone. More about me personally next time...enjoy!

How can executives successfully play to very large crowds?
When a speaker is talking to several thousand people, how does he/she alter a speech to suit the audience?
How do speech messages change when the crowd is large?
How do speakers modify gestures, speech patterns, etc.?
How about dealing with technical issues?”

I was a keynote speaker for two years through the Miss Ohio Scholarship Program, and I have spoken to audiences ranging from a handful of eager listeners to crowds of several thousand. The differences are vast. In a small venue, it’s important to sound casual, confident, and conversational. Having direct dialogue with listeners is crucial, and eye contact is imperative. The game changes when several thousand eyes are focused on you; you’re no longer in direct dialogue with the audience, though you want them to feel as though they are. Let’s be honest, you’re not going to be fielding questions from random members of a 5,000 person audience. To make up for the lack of verbal 2-way communication, it’s important to ask questions (though they may be rhetorical) to keep the audience involved. For example, instead of simply stating, “It is our responsibility to change this situation,” a good public speaker would ask, “It is our responsibility to change this situation, is it not?” and wait for a murmur of agreement from the audience.

Body language must be altered when speaking to a large crowd. The small flicker of a wrist or a pointing finger will be moot, and the speaker must use large, dramatic body movements. This is not to say that they should be a flailing lunatic on stage, but you should use these gestures occasionally at strategic moments. When trying to emphasize a main point, drive it home with a strong arm motion. Walking around the stage is often a good tool to keep interest, so long as it is done in moderation and doesn’t seem like aimless wandering.

The actual words of the speech must be altered to suit a larger audience, as well. Short sentences are better for larger crowds. Longer pauses are more effective. The use of powerful verbs and strong statements is amplified in the presence of several thousand people. They can sense each other’s excitement, which triggers the memory to recall that feeling long after the speech is over. The manner of speech is also important in delivering to large audiences. Projecting the voice, enunciating up to 5x more than you would in normal speech (which will come across as “normal” to the audience after reverberation has taken its toll), and using more exaggerated inflection (the rising and falling of pitch) all lend to a professional-sounding speech.

Every speech coach will tell you that the message must, must be tailored to your specific audience. No intelligent speaker would deliver the same canned speech to a group of teenagers as he would to an AARP meeting. Their interests are not the same, their maturity levels do not intersect, and their life experiences are dramatically different. So what to do when your audience is large and diverse? Keep it general. But not too general. Finding a balance between focusing your point and appealing to the masses is difficult. No speaker wants to sacrifice the quality of his speech for the sake of pleasing everyone, but it is important not to ignore important segments of the audience. Answer: do your research. Overall, who will be attending this speech? Men? Women? Seniors? Parents? Try to narrow it down so you have an idea of who you are speaking to. Then write the speech as it comes naturally. As I mentioned above, shorter sentences are better for big audiences. Complicated explanations can get lost in a large venue, so it’s best to keep things as simple as possible. Leave the complex details behind these main points for a smaller group, so that you can take audience feedback and clarify as needed.

Lastly, I’ll address the wonders and woes of technology. No matter how advanced a system may seem, things can go wrong. It’s important to have a backup plan for major malfunctions, such as a microphone failure or PowerPoint error. I traveled with a backup cordless microphone and small amp, just to be safe. Being unprepared reflects poorly on the speaker, despite the fact that they are clearly not at fault. In situations where a speaker is using computer technology such as PowerPoint or another presentation software, I recommend bringing backup disks of the presentation, a backup laptop, and if all else fails, a paper—yes, paper—version of the slides. Even printing a few main points on large posterboard is better than nothing. In venues like an arena or a ballpark, I recommend prayer. But don’t be too quick to race to the nearest church—you’re in the very capable hands of behind-the-scenes technical professionals who are trained to respond to problems. So breathe easy. And rally the masses :-)

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