The 3 Golden Principles of public speaking

As a business owner, you may occasionally need to speak in front of an audience. It might be for a business pitch where you are trying to persuade investors to back your business, or a sales meeting where you are trying to secure a key deal.

If you do need to do any public speaking, you won’t want to fall flat and fail. So to help you impress we asked professional speaker and author of ‘Insider Secrets of Public Speaking’, Ian Hawkins, to reveal his 3 golden principles to follow when you’re making a speech;

Let me show you behind the scenes of public speaking. In May, I was on stage talking about the potential that we all have to achieve amazing things.

As a speaker, it can be very difficult to take an objective view on whether or not a speech has been a success as you’re the only person in the room who hasn’t seen it.

Audience members telling you afterwards that they enjoyed it is nice but not conclusive proof you did a good job. But I think on this occasion, I did do a good job. Why? Because as I gave back my tiepin mic to the sound guy he asked if everything in my speech was true. ‘Yes,’ I said. He nodded. ‘Very inspiring.’ And I think he meant it.

Getting the seal of approval from a sound technician, who let’s face it, has heard a lot of speeches, is quite the pat on the back.

A learning curve

Becoming good at speaking in front of an audience has, for me, been a long journey. Once told I had no business being on a stage, I spent five years as an agent in the UK’s largest speaker bureau, working with the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, Karren Brady, William Hague and Michael McIntyre.

I threw myself into the open mic standup comedy circuit and learned from my mistakes with a dogged determination.

The process of learning to speak well in public is the same as learning anything: get over your fear of failure, and the road to improvement opens up.

I’ve paused in writing this in a café to talk to a couple of fitness coaches at the next table. Their most difficult clients are the ones who are scared of getting out of breath. I haven’t overcome my stage fright, but I understand it is part of the process.

There are really three things you need to get straight before you go on stage (leaving aside checking your flies). There are, I think, three golden principles that all good speeches have in common, and when you get these straight, how your speech takes shape becomes a more natural process.

1. Authenticity

We all live in a world of spin, polish, professionalism and filtered content. When an audience sees a speaker live in front of them, they have a rare opportunity to participate in an unmediated experience – so don’t waste the opportunity by pretending to be someone else.

The greatest public speakers – whether they are declaring war or telling a joke – have something about their message that is unique to them.

James C Humes once wrote, ‘If Winston Churchill had had a speech writer in 1940, Britain would be speaking German today.’

Having written speeches for other people, getting under the skin of whoever is delivering the script and finding their tone of voice is the hardest part of the job – but once done, the rest flows much more easily. How many actors who have played a soap character for years read a script and say, ‘My character wouldn’t do that?’

There should be something about your speech or presentation that makes it impossible to be told by anyone else: if a story isn’t personal to you, the speaker, then why use it?

Even if the events in a story happened before you were born, you should make them relevant to you.

This is one of the reasons to ditch the script wherever possible: great speeches don’t just happen on the page, they have to come from the heart. If you’re telling your life story, you shouldn’t need to look at a card that tells you who you are and what you did next.

Authenticity is vital, s an audience member, I’d rather see the speaker who falters through expressing their heartfelt emotions than we do from the slick professional who has every adjective and hand gesture choreographed in advance.

2. Audience

Apparently you’re supposed to imagine the audience is naked, but I’ve found few people who can do that and remember their speech when under pressure. Easier, I think to lose the assumption that audiences are adversarial: the majority of audiences want speakers to do well.

Usually the speaker is there to facilitate the audience in some way – whether it’s explaining a complex piece of data, thanking the mother of the bride or providing entertainment. They don’t want you to be bad, though they might need you to bring more energy into the room than there already is.

If the audience is against the speaker, there is usually a good reason for it (the event is running late, they haven’t had a break, the speaker has had some bad publicity), and good speakers deal with this early.

But even when the audience is on-side, you must not ignore their needs, even if those needs are as humdrum as a chance to go to the toilet: no joke here, you try and concentrate with a full bladder.

When you’re putting together a speech or presentation, your first thought should be about the audience’s experience: if you were in the audience what would you want to listen to? What would you (as audience) want from you (as a speaker)?

So: don’t get onto a stage without having a really clear idea about what you want to have achieved by the time you leave.

You can talk to an audience, you can talk with an audience but if you talk at an audience, don’t expect your words to have much traction. Find out who they are, and why they are there, and make your message relevant and useful to them.

Put the audience’s needs first, and you will avoid a lot of trouble.

3. Authority

I have left this until last because I think that one of the most important factors in overcoming a fear of public speaking is recognition that it is an act of leadership. And so, the following mantra is really important:

YOU OWN THE STAGE.

If you don’t believe it, you shouldn’t be there.

You can be vulnerable of course – it’s one of the most attractive things a speaker can be – but you cannot doubt that you have authority to say the things that you are saying.

You can admit to failings and mistakes – so long as you are in charge of what you are talking about. Audiences like to be guided, and if you lose your authority they will stop listening to you.

This is one of the reasons why you should never open with an apology; it immediately undermines your authority. And one of the reasons why you should never open with a joke is because when it falls flat (and even the best jokes sometimes do) it is difficult to recover your authority afterwards. Even comedians don’t open with jokes.

I’ll say it again, because there is no getting away from it: speaking in front of others is an act of leadership.

I believe in the power of speaking. When an audience invests their trust in someone who steps away from the script, looks them in the eye and connects in a way that you cannot get outside a live experience, it is a powerful moment for everyone in the room.

The moment should startle, sparkle, reach deep and make ripples. And more than this: I sincerely believe that everyone can achieve this moment, wherever they are starting from.

We are all on a journey of improvement, trying to make each speech better than the last. Fear or not, the journey can be fun if you do it right, and when you have your seal of approval from the sound technician, you’ll know you’ve cracked it.

About the author

This guide has been written for ByteStart by, Ian Hawkins, author of ‘Insider Secrets of Public Speaking’ and a member of Toastmasters International, a nonprofit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of more than 14,650 clubs in 126 countries. There are nearly 300 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7000 members. Find your local club at Toastmasters.org

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