You’re sitting in an auditorium, patiently waiting for the keynote speaker to take the stage. You came to this conference for this moment. You wanted to hear, learn and connect with this person. The speaker steps up to the podium – and begins reciting carefully designed remarks.

The words are well crafted but the connection … falls flat.

Even the most beautifully written campaign speech, keynote or presentation can dull an audience into a coma if the speaker is more concerned with delivering a perfect script than with connecting with their audience.

Harnessing the art of public speaking is absolutely a learnable skill and one many organization’s see as an essential professional attribute necessary for career growth and succession planning. No matter where you are in your career and your affinity (or lack thereof) for public speaking, you should absolutely invest time into strengthening this capability, right now.

In my experience preparing C-Suite execs and elected officials in advance of headlining PR opportunities, keynotes and political debates, it’s the individuals who lack authenticity; who overzealously focus on the words on the page; who are generally more interested in talking at their audience than with their audience, who flop.

To really connect with your audience, keep these simple but effective strategic communications tips in mind before you take the mic to deliver your next stump speech:

  1. Know your audience: Seems like good common-sense doesn’t it? And yet, ‘knowing your audience’ often seems to be an afterthought for many. Your audience should be the first thing you think about, even before you put pen to paper. As a public speaker, you must understand that each member of your audience perceives information differently. Communications is highly subjective after all. Take time to understand what motivates your audience – why are they there, why are they listening to you, why do they care? Suspend your own agenda and overly scripted message for a moment and think first about their needs.
  • Be self-aware: Not to get all psychoanalysis-preachy on you but there’s something to be said about taking time to connect with yourself in order to meaningfully engage with your audience. You must be self-aware; notice your tone, your pace, and your body language. Your non-verbal communication is as important as your verbal communication. Take cues from your audience. Are they looking at you or at their smartphones? Shift gears when you need to and don’t forget to move your body in a way that feels comfortable to you; even the subtlest of gestures can have a big impact. This is the key to looking authentic and sustaining your audience’s ongoing attention.
  • Be clear about your purpose: Now that you’ve acquainted yourself with the needs of your audience, go ahead and think about the objective you are trying to reach. What is your call to action? What impact do you want to have? What’s your point? You don’t necessarily need line by line remarks, but you should have a bird’s eye sketch of your speech. Bring your narrative full circle with a dash of anecdotes and a sprinkling of proof points to ensure your purpose and value add to the audience are clear.
  • Practice and Repeat: I have coached individuals who have actually said to me “I’m not going to bother rehearsing. I want my remarks to be natural”. I’m sorry, what???? These are the individuals who need preparation time the most. You should absolutely hear and watch yourself rehearse. Consider rehearsing in front of a mirror or recording yourself on your smartphone. Better yet, ask someone else to observe you. Without proper rehearsal time, you risk losing sight of tip #1, the needs of your audience, because your brain is desperately trying to suss out how best to communicate your purpose! Unless you are Tina Fey or Will Ferrell and trained in the art of improve, do yourself a favour; prepare yourself.

While it’s true some folks are skilled in the art of public speaking – don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you have the gift of the gab that anyone is listening to you. Keep connection with your audience top of mind and the rest will flow.

Michelle Coates Mather

Director, Strategy, Syntax Strategic