When addressing an audience, public speakers want to ensure that the message they are conveying is heard. It’s not always easy to speak in a way that makes people listen, though.
Dr. James O’Rourke, a Teaching Professor of Management and the Arthur F. and Mary J. O'Neil Director of the Fanning Center for Business Communication at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, says that people pay most attention when the issue applies to their own self-interest, when they know the person giving the address and when they are engaged because of how the message is presented.
Public speakers often are at a disadvantage because they don’t know the interests of many people in the crowd, unless the topic is specifically tailored to a need shared by everyone in the room. And name recognition can demand attention but many speakers aren’t universally known. That’s why presentation is so important.
“That’s well within your control,” O’Rourke says. “You can become a better storyteller. You can become a better public speaker. You can make the experience better for all of those in the room.”
O’Rourke points to Sonya Hamlin, regarded as an expert on effective communication. Hamlin surveyed business managers to determine the most positive speaking styles. A majority said they like people whose speaking style was warm and charismatic, as well as speakers who are friendly and approachable. And they like a speaker to be organized. But the key is to be warm.
“Being warm is a characteristic you have to work on. It’s something you have to develop,” he says. “But if you can develop it, believe me, you can hold an audience.”
Public speakers also must be cognizant of the inherent obstacles that can undermine effective communication.
One common obstacle is for a speaker to rely on stereotypes, the effect of lumping everyone together based on the behaviors of a few.
“The problem with a stereotype is, of course, that in some respects, it works,” he says. “Your task as a communicator is to look at that audience not as a group or class of people, but to look at them as individuals.”
Prejudice is another obstacle that people often encounter without thinking. O’Rourke recommends holding off making a judgment as long as possible. Speakers also must be aware of feelings, both their own and those of the people listening, and understand that the message may cause an emotional reaction.
Language also is important to consider when speaking. Don’t assume that everyone will understand the meaning of a particular word.
The last obstacle, like language, is culture. Different cultures have different expectations. Some cultures communicate differently, through silence or body language, for example. Speakers must temper their own expectations with this understanding.
Finally, it’s important to develop a strategy prior to making a public speech to know how you plan to make people listen.
There are three key things to consider, according to O’Rourke: Audience, purpose and occasion.
Often, audience is as important as content, and speakers must consider who they will be addressing. What does the audience already know about the topic of the speech? Is the audience older and experienced, or younger with less knowledge?
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that some subjects are off limits just because of age, experience or knowledge of the subject,” he says. “It merely means that you’re going to talk about it in a different way, choose different words. You’re going to go at it in a slightly different way.”
Speakers must understand why they are making the speech and then convey that to the audience. Is the event formal or ceremonial? Is the speech meant to inspire toward the future or serve as a memorial of the past?
O’Rourke recommends that speakers consider both their goals and the audience’s likely expectation. Review how the speech is organized. Make sure facts are supported. The speech should give listeners something they can use. It should be logical with reasonable and clear points. Use words the audience will understand and identify with. Maintain a pace so time doesn’t drag. Try to answer questions the audience might have while understanding that some points might create fears that need to be allayed.
Visual support can help. Some issues are better explained visually than verbally, particularly complex data. One trick is to incorporate both words and visuals to make sure everyone is engaged. Try to keep things simple. Don’t present a visual that doesn’t relate to your speech. Use visuals to reinforce the spoken points.
Consider how the speech is best conveyed. Speakers can read from a script on occasion, but trying to memorize an entire speech can create issues. O’Rourke recommends giving an extemporaneous talk, which means that the speech is well-organized, researched and rehearsed. By knowing what you’re going to say and in what order, the message can be clearly delivered for maximum impact.
Of course, sometimes the toughest part is simply beginning to speak. People often use humor to break the ice, which can be effective unless the speaker isn’t funny. O’Rourke advises speakers to use personal experiences or to talk about a current or local event, depending on the audience. Start with something familiar that the audience can identify with before venturing into areas they know less about.
“Tell them where the speech is going,” O’Rourke says. “Don’t leave them in the dark about the direction of the talk. Visualize for them and demonstrate what it is you mean.”