In surveys of Americans’ fears and phobias, public speaking often comes up No. 1.
Yet effective communication is also the No. 1 skill that businesses say they’re looking for when they hire, because it’s difficult to teach to employees later on, says Tess George, who teaches a class in public speaking for the Honors College.
“Public speaking gives you the power to inform, motivate and persuade others,” she says. “For most people, it’s not enough to be a good engineer, a good pharmacist or a good farmer: You need to be those things and a good communicator.”
In the class, students work in groups on two presentations: one that’s informative and one designed to persuade. Then each must give a solo talk on a technical subject or a difficult concept—and explain it clearly to an audience unfamiliar with the topic. For their final projects, they give a solo speech on a topic of their choice.
George, who has taught public speaking in the Manning School of Business, at other universities and to corporate clients through her consulting firm, shares some of her techniques for crafting an effective speech and overcoming fear. (Spoiler alert: She does not suggest picturing your audience wearing only underwear, since “I’d just be cracking up.”)
- You need to be yourself and make an authentic connection with the people in front of you. It’s not a performance.
- The audience is there to learn something, not to judge you for minor mistakes. So focus on providing your audience what they need, and take the focus off yourself.
- As you plan your speech, develop a fairly simple, clear message — the one thing you want your audience to remember after they’ve forgotten everything else. Then develop between two and five points that support the main message.
- If appropriate, use props that will engage your audience. For example, if you’re talking about coffee farming methods, offer samples of shade-grown coffee to compare to plantation-grown coffee.
- If you use presentation software, do not read your slides. Use them to complement your oral presentation with visual elements, such as photos, data charts and illustrations. Bullet points are OK, but keep them simple.
Start strong and end strong, because people remember the first thing you say and the last thing you say. Start with a question, a quote, a joke, a story or an interesting statistic that will catch people’s attention. And finish with a clear message about why they should care, or with a call to action.