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Public speaking: How do you measure up?

Posted on June 20, 2016

Martin Crewe is Director, Barnardo’s Scotland.

‘Are you a brilliant public speaker?’

As chief officers of voluntary organisations there is increasing pressure on us all to be ‘great communicators’, so it’s a pretty loaded question. 

I need to state straight away that I do not pretend to be a brilliant public speaker … but I am improving. I have been director of Barnardo’s Scotland for 9 years now and speeches go with the job. However, my early efforts were truly awful so from my own grim experience I am happy to offer my scale of public speaking:

Level 1: Read speech from prepared notes; success is reaching the end without being sick on stage.

Level 2: Look up occasionally from prepared notes; success is reaching the end with some of the audience still awake.

Level 3: Present a speech from notes with occasional ad libs; success is a polite round of applause at the end.

Level 4: Deliver a speech using only a prompt sheet; success is eye contact with the audience and questions at the end.

Level 5: Perform centre stage with no notes: success is energy and excitement, your own and your audience.

So, if you can do Level 5 are you a brilliant speaker? Not necessarily. You can be oozing self-confidence and have fun delivering what you think is the most moving and insightful speech since Nelson Mandela but the judgement of your brilliance rests with the audience.

So what is it that an audience wants from a speech? Well, in my view it’s a combination of three things: expertise, passion and gravitas. The balance between the three will shift on each occasion but as charity chiefs we have to demonstrate some degree of each.

The chief officer will rarely be the most expert on a subject and frontline workers are often the most passionate but the thing we should bring to a speech is gravitas – if the boss is talking about something then it must be important!

If we consider expertise, passion and gravitas as points on a triangle then as individuals we will each have a ‘comfort zone’ within the triangle in which we like to operate. As my public speaking has improved my comfort zone has expanded – I can appear to be expert, do a bit of passion and lay on the gravitas when needed.

But even if you are a confident speaker and tailor your speech to the audience, you won’t impress everyone. Because the problem is that an audience is made up of individual people all of whom receive communications differently. Some people like facts and figures, some people like visuals and some just want passion. One person’s inspiring speaker is another person’s show off!

This isn’t all an elaborate argument to say that Level 1 presentation skills are acceptable but it does mean that that you can answer the question “Are you a brilliant public speaker?” with a confident ‘no’ – because there is no such thing.

You can tweet Martin on @CreweMartin.

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