I had to take the Merritt Parkway eastbound at 6 p.m. to get there, which meant the half-hour drive took an hour, but I agreed to go because I’m speaking on Sunday to Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, and I needed the practice. The Cosmetic Chemists turned out to be a nice bunch of folks, and they were interested in the Sound – in fact, they had spent part of the day doing a beach cleanup at Short Beach, in Fairfield – so it was well worth my while..
As soon as I got in the car for the drive home I began thinking about what went well and what didn’t, and how I should revise the talk for Sunday. That got me thinking about some truisms of public speaking:
1. It is virtually impossible to be over-prepared when you stand in front of a crowd and talk. Every time I give a Long Island Sound talk – and I’ve given several dozen over the last couple of years – I realize this again. I have a friend who owns a business that trains people to speak in public, and one of his mantras is “rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.” And even when I’ve rehearsed, there are a couple of seconds when I first look out at the audience and think, “I could really bomb here tonight,” and there’s at least one time when, intimidated by all the expectant faces, I find that the words catch in my throat and I have to force myself to perform.
2. The audience will tell you how you’re doing. You can see on their faces when they are interested and when they aren’t. If I hit a stretch where interest flags, I try to change my tone of voice or speaking rhythm until I get (as quickly as possible) to a section that grabs them, and when I do, I can see people literally straighten up and pay attention again.
3. People like to hear stories. See number 2 above.
4. A talk or lecture is not a reading, and it shouldn’t sound like a reading. Another of my friend’s mantras is: Use the voice you use when you’re telling your friends a good story. Even if there are parts of my talk that I have to read, I try to rewrite them to sound like talking. But for the most part, I try to know the material cold so I can just tell it instead of having to read it.
5. Slides and PowerPoint presentations get in the way of communicating with the audience. Speakers who use slides or PowerPoint often spend as much time looking at the screen or fiddling with the equipment as they do looking at the audience. I once went to a conference at which the keynote talk was given by an ecologist who read a lecture while showing PowerPoint slides filled with different information from what he was reading. To understand what was going on, the audience had to chose to listen and ignore the slides or read the slides and ignore the lecture. I got nothing from the talk, and I’m pretty confident that few others did either.