• How to speak with authority

Knowing how to speak with authority can be the difference between an average speech and a truly great one. Politicians and actors are the most obvious examples of those we can point to who can command an audience but there is no reason why their public speaking skills cannot be transferred to the world of business.

The power of silence

The best public speakers know the power of silence. They are unafraid of letting the room wait for a moment, which is not the easiest mental hurdle to overcome when the natural urge is to keep talking to fill the silence. Those who are comfortable with allowing silence to do some of the hard work are able to sit calmly for a breath or two and use it to their advantage without worrying about the need to keep talking.

Unintentional silence can be seen as a mistake or a sign of uncertainty. Intentional silence on the other hand is seen as adding an important emphasis on what has just been said. Instead of seeing moments of silence as issues for concern, make them work for you and in doing so, make your next statement that much more poignant.

According to a University of Minnesota study, many of us listen to the content of a speech while simultaneously evaluating the content and looking for confirmation that the content proves us right. Both of these get in the way of your audience comprehending the content. A timely pause can enable your audience to process what they have just heard in a matter of seconds (they’re smarter than you think). Whilst the pause sits with the audience, it also can work for you; having that second or two allows you to realign your thoughts and gather the words ready for your next sentence. Allowing yourself a short window to focus on what’s coming next will help you to express yourself with more clarity. Put simply; pausing in public speaking lets your mind catch up with what you’re saying.

Try this in your next speech at work. Before you practice (you should definitely be practicing!). Go over your speech and note down the impact points. They could be sales figures or a major achievement or cause for concern. Leaving a pause afterwards will ensure your audience, no matter the size, sits up and takes notice.

Bill Clinton and the art of gesturing

You are probably aware that your voice doesn’t sound to you like it does to other people (ever heard heard yourself back on an answering machine – you get the idea). Essentially, you’re hearing it from an internal perspective, they are hearing it from outside. If you are taking public speaking seriously, it is imperative to record your voice as soon as possible, get used to it, and identify the areas where you can improve.

Our voice can often be weak and sound nervous because we haven’t warmed up our vocal chords, mouths or body properly. Here are some helpful warm-up exercises from communications expert and five-time TedTalker, Julian Treasure:

  1. Stand up, arms up, sigh out:
    as you lower your arms beside your waist.
  2. With your lips say:
    “Boh Boh Boh Boh”
  3. Then
    like a horse flapping its lips.
  4. With your tongue, say:
    “La La La La”
  5. Then roll your tongue:
    like a machine gun.
  6. Alternate your pitch, start high and then low, and repeat:

These actions definitely aren’t a quick fix to change your tone for public speaking, they will take time. You can start by asking for help from colleagues or family members, or record yourself delivering a presentation. If vocal issues are a priority, try listening instead of watching the video since visuals can easily absorb your attention.

Use your body

As discussed in the article on the banishing your nerves, our natural instincts in public speaking situations is to enter a ‘fight-or-flight’ response based on a prehistoric fear of being watched. Physically, this response can translate to an involuntary ‘body wrap’ posture at the podium. This awkward, defensive stance makes you seem uneasy (making the audience uneasy too). To counter this, as U.S public speaking guru, Jerry Weissman argues; ‘connect to your audience by opening yourself up, and using your arms and hands to illustrate your points. Extend an open hand in friendship’. That reaching out might feel somewhat unnatural outside of a public speaking class but importantly you will look comfortable to the audience.

One specific recommendation which is universally acknowledged to show openness in public speaking is to make outstretched gestures to the audience with open palms. This may be because it has evolutionary underpinnings as it shows that we have nothing to hide or ‘no weapons, no tools’ as it is referred to. If I’m showing open palms, it signals to everybody that I’m not going to harm you and I’m exposed. Consequently, on that basic human level, the audience will feel more relaxed and receptive.

The best public speakers have the ability to be completely at one with their audience in every setting, across every dimension. They make every person in every audience feel as if, ‘they’re speaking to me!’. Eye contact in this instance is certainly a good thing but at the podium Weissman states that, ‘eye connect’ is even better. When you begin any speech, slowly ‘sweep’ the room with your eyes. As you get to your primary points, look your audience members in the eyes, one after another. Share those affirming nods!

Try this at your next presentation: be animated and passionate (see How to Speak Like a World Leader for pointers on hand gestures so as to not over do it!) Try moving back and forth on stage, going first toward one person in the audience, then toward another. As you walk, smile and speak with conviction. Monitor your cadence. Deliver a phrase to one person in the audience, then pause. Shift to another person and deliver a second phrase. Continue to repeat this process, but subtly, with individual audience members throughout your presentation.

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