Time and again, people speak in front of larger crowds. You do it when you present an assignment at university, when you present a case study at work, when pitching your company as an entrepreneur, and when you have an opinion that you want to convey to a group of people.
However, I'm sure you have experienced both professors, fellow students, politicians, colleagues, activists and many others repeatedly fail at following even the simplest rules of public speaking. They look (sound) weak, unsure or outright confused. But mind you – being persuasive is not magic. Let's look at the most common public speaking mistakes people make – and analyse what could be done better.
First and foremost, many people skip the ever-so-vital preparation part of their speech. They live under the impression that they can just stand up and deliver a flawless speech on the spot, without having to look at any notes once. I am certainly not denying the existence of some geniuses of this kind, however, such a talent is very rare. Hence, if you want to sound persuasive, plan what you are going to say. Make notes, practice in front of the mirror. Gain confidence using uncommon or technical words, make sure you pronounce them correctly. For the millionth time over: Practice makes perfect (your mother was right).
Secondly, people are unable to use body language appropriately to support their argumentation. They walk around the room as if they urgently needed to pee, smile while talking about grave statistics (“and 70 people were hurt – smile for the camera! – …”), laugh at their own jokes, use only one gesture over and over again (which by the way looks as if they were hammering something), play with their hair or glasses or touch their body (dear male readers, never put your hands deep in the front pockets of your trousers), play around with a pencil, hide themselves behind a sheet of paper or stare directly at their own toes. And don´t get me started on the disgusting habit of leaning on a desk – come on, you cannot date a piece of furniture and the woman in the first row is certainly not amused either. Look at yourself in the mirror, record yourself, try to find any disturbing movements you make and gradually try to replace them with some “acceptable” ones.
Thirdly, people tend to overuse words such as “I personally believe”, “umm”, “yeah”, “so”, “ladies and gentlemen” (still better than “…gentlemens“, though), “actually”, “therefore”, “basically”, “eee” … you get the picture. Please: Ask your friends to count how often you use your “favourite” filler word – and then get them clap each time you say it. It will be frustrating at first when there will be clapping every ten seconds, but you will improve – and so will your persuasiveness. Personal example: I debated against a Turk whose favourite filler word was “ladies and gentlemen”. Feel like guessing how many times did he manage to utter it within 8 minutes? … 80 times. Remarkable, yet not very appealing, if you ask me.
Lastly, I am very much bothered by people who fail at time management. They spend more than 30% of their allocated time on the introduction and fancy phrases, then quickly run out of time and hence try to squeeze the last two most important points into 40 seconds. Not just that it “doesn´t look good”, it also leaves the listeners wondering what exactly the main message of the speech was. The fluffy nothings in the beginning, the boring intermezzo or the frantic last minute? A simple tip: Allocate an appropriate portion of your time to specific parts of your speech, time yourself and stick to the plan. If something takes you too long, cut it off. If it is too complicated, half of the listeners won´t understand you anyway.
Public speaking is not an exact science. Is it however one of the most demanded and thus useful skills to have, no matter which job you have. It takes so little to become reasonably good at it, but people do not bother. The sooner you get the hang of it, the more great presentations you will deliver throughtout your student time and career.