Unaccustomed as you may be...

25th September 1998 at 01:00
You are on the podium. The future of your career, the honour of your school and the standing of your profession all depend on the words that are about to come out of your mouth. In the final part of our series on how to make the most of yourself, Chris Johnston looks at the art of public speaking

Talk is cheap, so they say, but some people would pay a lot to avoid speaking in public. Whether it's a talk at a low-key meeting or a full-blown speech at a formal ceremony, public speaking sits beside creepy-crawlies and tax returns in the list of things that strike fear into our hearts.

And many of us have good reason to be scared.

It may stem from a childhood memory of the first time a teacher asked you to read aloud in class. You might even recall the word you mispronounced that produced howls of laughter, while you slunk in your seat.

Speaking to an audience makes us vulnerable. We are being judged not only on what we are saying, but how we are saying it, what we look like and how we are acting. It is not surprising, then, that most people prefer not to stand up and risk making a fool of themselves.

Sometimes, though, you have no choice. The head picks you as the ideal host for this year's awards night. You can't say no, so there is only thing to do: prepare.

Teachers make their living from speaking in public, but there is a big difference between the classroom, where students have a vested interest in listening, and a school hall, where your audience has a vested interest in doodling, says Keith Henshall, chairman of London-based communication training company One Clear Voice.

Because of this, he believes teachers have to spend more time than others working out the interests, opinions and attitudes of their intended audience.

Tailoring your message to those who hear it is the most important thing to keep in mind. We have all sat through turgid speeches from speakers who clearly did not have their audience in mind. If you do not work out the point of your address and stick to it, you are going to bore your listeners.

Cristina Stuart, managing director of communications training company SpeakEasy, gives the example of a head addressing students whose exam results have been disappointing. "Morale is going to be low, so rather than berate them, she should put herself in their shoes and think about how they are feeling - they will need to be bolstered up."

Resist the understandable temptation to write your speech in full before delivering it. The written word is ideal for conveying complex ideas and detail, but next to useless as the basis for a presentation, says Professor Max Atkinson, who teaches an MBA course at Henley Management College. Many rules of speaking contradict those we follow when writing: repetition, for example, is best avoided on the page but vital in speeches because it helps provide emphasis or contrast.

It is better to base your speech on notes, with bullet points to remind you of the structure. Formal and informal presentations have just three parts: a beginning, a middle and an end.

Nerves are almost inevitable, but there are ways to beat them. Keith Henshall tells speakers to visualise the event going well before they enter the room. "Picture yourself delivering the speech - the audience is interested and they are listening - and pattern your mind to expect it to go the way you want it to."

His other tip is to convince yourself your audience is willing you to succeed (after all, who would hope for a boring presentation?) and ride the wave of goodwill. Many will be grateful that it is you up there and not them.

Visiting the venue is another way to conquer nerves. This should make you more comfortable on the day, and make you aware of any distractions.

Imagining yourself there is a technique used by Stephen Greenhalgh, who teaches in Devon. A chef before retraining as a teacher in his late thirties, he got his first taste of public speaking at university, but was thrown in at the deep end when he became involved in his son's campaign to lower the age of consent for homosexuals.

"Sometimes you spend a lot of time thinking about what you are going to say, but you don't think about the presentation. You have to bear in mind all those elements," Mr Greenhalgh says.

Eye contact is the best way of making your audience feel involved. It will also allow you to watch for signs of boredom. If the audience is restless, move on to a new section or pick up the pace.

Mr Greenhalgh also advises against using jargon and acronyms, and ensuring that you get your message across in the time available. Take care, too, not to sound patronising.

Visual aids are useful, but Mr Greenhalgh says they should not be relied on. "What they should do is reinforce the message, not become the message." Humour should be used with caution. Although an icebreaker is a good way of establishing rapport, your credibility will be in tatters if a joke backfires.

If something does go wrong, such as losing your train of thought, or being disturbed by a latecomer, take a few seconds to gather your thoughts while sipping water and taking a deep breath.

Anyone who has made it through the baptism by fire will tell you how satisfying it can be to have delivered a powerful, effective speech.

Contacts: One Clear Voice, 0171 592 0909; SpeakEasy, 0181 446 0797

Key points for the podium

* Always keep your audience in mind and tailor your talk to them and their needs * Be yourself - don't use different accents or unfa- miliar long words or terms. Speak in your own style and use your own strengths, rather than copying others * Know the point of your presentation * Be knowledgeable - it is always better to know too much rather than too little * Don't be boring. Boredom is the biggest barrier to effective communication * Prepare your presentation well in advance * Write down your ideas, then form them into a three-part structure * Rehearse and invite feedback * Acquaint yourself with the room you will be speaking in * Dress comfortably and appropriately - never wear something you haven't worn before * Resist the (understandable) temptation to have a drink beforehand Source: Bodytalk: the Skills of Positive Image by Judi James, Pounds 9.95 from the Industrial Society, 0171 262 2401

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