When You Have to Address an Audience
“I HAVE to give a speech tonight,” conveys how most people feel about speaking publicly. They do not want to. In fact, they dread it. But circumstance often compels them to give a speech.
And you might be quite surprised as to just how frequently this “calamity” strikes. Vital Speeches of the Day reports that on an average day in cities such as Los Angeles and New York there are thousands of audiences meeting. And it notes: “They all want a speaker.”
Yes, whether in connection with school, your job or an organization to which you belong, chances are that sooner or later YOU will have to address an audience. If you are not eagerly awaiting the day (unless it be to get it over with!), you may appreciate a few guidelines that can take some of the “pain” out of public speaking.
First, it is good to reflect on why giving a speech can be so discomforting. You probably like to talk. And yet there are many strange “phenomena” that may have afflicted you when standing in front of a group—trembling knees, perspiration, quivering lips and dryness of mouth. Why? Likely because, while animated in a one-to-one conversation, you are intimidated by a group of people. The individuals form a mass called an “audience.” An audience demands something of a speaker. Too, if you do not give speeches regularly, you undoubtedly feel amateurish, inexperienced.
Finally, it is well known that many persons find most speeches (and, hence, speakers) boring. A very common complaint is: ‘I am frustrated by lecturers who didn’t really say anything.’ So you may be anxious about your discourse being a trauma both for you, and for those listening.
What can help to offset all of this? Obviously, since you are an individual and audiences vary greatly, no one “formula” will cover all situations. Still, there are several elements you cannot afford to ignore if you hope to overcome your fears and persuade an assembly.
Teachers of public speaking frequently expound: “Preparation is the key!” While valid, this is often misinterpreted by the hearer to mean ‘You must know lots of facts and statistics about the subject.’ On the contrary, in order to do your best, you should prepare in two ways:
1. Become not only knowledgeable on the subject, but compose a definite message for the occasion.
2. Give serious thought as to how best to reach that particular audience.
Consider the merits of both of these. While how well you say the words is important, what you say—your message—is more important. Your style might need polishing, but if your material is clear, your argumentation sound, you are generally ahead of the clever wit who charms his audience without really telling them anything. Such a man is an entertainer, not an informative speaker. In time, people will not take him seriously.
One experienced speaker said encouragingly: “Have something to say. Get up and say it. Sit down. No one has yet come up with a surpassing way.” Yes, you can, without a single embellishment, greatly influence others if your talk is positive and to the point.
Furthermore, if, while preparing, you keep before your mind the audience—their background, what you estimate their present views of the subject to be—you are aided to include specific material that will fit them. Acknowledging local circumstances, making application to their personal lives, explaining why this is important to their families—these are the strongest lines of reasoning. Such application can take abstract material and ‘pull it down out of the air’ and put it into the reality of day-to-day living.
In this regard, a man who has been giving lectures for over sixteen years noted: “I find that when I refer to local places or customs, my audience perks up. For example, I might ask: ‘Do you think a man living on ————— Street, right here in ————— City, cares about that question?’ I have encouraged other speakers to strive for relevancy in any tasteful way that they find to be natural for them.”
If you do not know much about your audience, a little investigation (as by talking with someone who does) could do more for your presentation. than hours more of research into the subject itself. And even when this is not possible, you probably know at least the general composition of the group. Will the assembly be made up of salesmen, tradesmen, homemakers or older persons? Can you not determine which aspects of your subject would be most helpful and thus most interesting to them?
So prepare well, but prepare to communicate. Are you sure that you can clearly identify your main points? If you cannot, how will your listeners grasp them? After determining your main points, you must figure out how much you can put across in the time allotted. Then give thought to how to enhance that message. All of this says, of course, that you must write your talk down (or at least make some notes) and arrange the material in logical order.
However, as to how many notes to use while actually speaking, even the experts disagree—encouraging anywhere from ‘just a few’ to a word-for-word manuscript. But they do concur on these aspects: Never just talk about it as you remember it; have some notes as a guideline. Do not memorize and recite your speech. Much of your audience may ‘hang on every word,’ but only to see if you will remember them all!
Now those who have seen a powerful orator in action might argue against stress on a definite message fitted to a particular audience. They might expound on the virtues of personal charisma, drive and enthusiasm. Still, before judging, examine the effect of this ‘dual preparation’ on the reluctant speaker.
The Message Lives!
If, as you deliver the lecture, you keep your mind on the subject you worked hard on—not on yourself—this will dispel a lot of nervousness and audience fear. Make up your mind that, even though you may feel weak, your message will be mighty!
Thus, if you believe in your material and are filled with it, you naturally will have conviction—a heartfelt sincerity that people sense and trust. By concentrating on your information, your delivery ought not to lose emotional impact. To the contrary, you should let your feelings emanate right out of the subject itself; then your emotions, gestures and bearing will be genuine. You will appear dedicated and will be convincing. You will hold your audience. You will motivate people.
On the other hand, if you are overly concerned with your attire, the impression you are making or your “style,” it will show in your presentation. It will distract and obscure.
Furthermore, a definite message aids delivery by giving you better control of your timing. Thus you will not be rambling on too long, as many speakers do. Why not practice out loud, checking your timing? Oral practice may seem silly, but, according to many, you will be amazed at what it will do for your confidence and time control.
There are two “danger zones” to steer away from with this approach to public speaking. One is the tendency to get swept away with all the interesting facts your research has unearthed and then to jam them into a “run on and on” speech. No, it must be remembered that the vast bulk of your research is to prepare you—so that you have a full grasp of the subject and feel confident. In your talk, you will usually have time only to develop three or four main points at most.
Secondly, when you are well prepared the tendency is to get too complicated, not only in number of points, but in your wording. Avoid long words or terminology that the audience may not understand. Even in a technical discourse, when talking to men in a select field, problems frequently arise over differing views of certain “trade terms.” Thus, the wise lecturer heeds the plea for clarity made by the Bible writer Paul over 1,900 years ago: “If the trumpet sounds an indistinct call, who will get ready for battle? In the same way also, unless you through the tongue utter speech easily understood, how will it be known what is being spoken? You will, in fact, be speaking into the air.”—1 Cor. 14:8, 9.
Moreover, if you yield to either of these pitfalls, you might give an impression of looking down on your audience. Such superiority never wins people to your point of view. Rather, it alienates them. The fact is: simplicity also conveys empathy. Obviously, you are trying to communicate and not squander other people’s time in an “ego trip.”
A man considered a Master Teacher, even by unbelievers, was Jesus Christ. In reading his discourses, it is fascinating to note his simplicity and humility. People were drawn to him. He made obvious points. He taught deep truths in simple language. (Matt. chaps. 5-7) Nearly two thousand years later, after countless attempts to obscure or twist the nature of his message, it stands.
For all these reasons, while you may never feel fully comfortable when it comes to public speaking, do not despair. Despite a world overflowing with what one authority called ‘deadly speeches,’ you can endure the experience and even refresh others. You will find that many people are eager to learn. If you really say something, if you show that you want to give them something, you may be surprised at the result. That monster named “Audience” is not so terrible after all.