In Public Speaking, less is often more

When I started my public speaking journey. I had an image in my mind of what a great public speaker was. To me, a great public speaker was somebody using bombastic body language when speaking in front of an audience. Somebody, using rhymes and rhetorical devices to bring the richness of a subject to life. Finally, somebody speaking with a powerful voice that awed the audience in submission.

There was a lot of good in this vision of where my public speaking journey could take me. This vision inspired me to aim high and to constantly better myself. Nevertheless, feedback I often received at the start of my public speaking journey was “less is more”. In the realm of public speaking, too much of a good thing can end up having an effect that’s opposite to the desired one.

Public Speaking is not a show

Body language and vocal variety are powerful tools to turn a good speech into a great speech. However, it is important to remember that both are a means to an end and not an end in themselves.

If I had to give one single piece of advice on body language in public speaking it would be, “watch your posture!” A strong and straight posture helps speakers projecting confidence and helps speakers with their breathing. Gestures, use of hands and everything else are secondary to having a strong and straight posture on stage. Yet very often these secondary tools are abused by speakers who want to project more passion or to stand out from the crowd, especially in Toastmasters. While dropping to the floor may win you a Toastmasters contest. In a business setting, this will look weird, goofy and may even put the audience off! Hand and arm gestures are good but can become repetitive and distract your audience’s attention after a certain point. Moving around the stage is good, but overdoing it will make you appear less anchored and may reduce your credibility.  

Strong vocal variety can make your speeches memorable and help your audience to join you on a journey. However, it is very easy to overdo vocal variety. A trap that some speakers fall into is to speak too loudly and with too much power. For a short motivational speech, a strong voice can help to galvanise an audience into action. Daenery’s victory speech from Game of Thrones finale is a good example of this. After some time though, a loud voice can morph into a loud noise in people’s minds and the audience might feel shouted at or hectored. I myself have been guilty of speaking too loudly before and I lost rapport with my audience as a result. Another way in which vocal variety can be overdone is by varying one’s tone or one’s pace too often. Too many changes separated by too few pauses can be hard to follow.

In Public Speaking size matters!

I’ll never forget a Toastmasters speech I saw a few years ago at one of my Toastmasters clubs. One of our newest members took the stage and shared her story about her hometown. She signposted her speech using a rather clever structure based on stops on her hometown tramway’s network. However, it was obvious to me that something was about to go wrong, she was going to go overtime and be clapped off the stage!

How did I know this? Firstly, she had four pages of notes to accompany a six minutes speech. Had these notes been written in large letters for easier glancing, she would have been fine. But her notes were four neatly handwritten pages. Secondly, she was going to take us on a long tramway journey and one peppered with many stops. This speech had more than just a handful of main points, many more! Finally, this speech had way too many facts, interesting facts sure; but way too many of them to remember them all and foster a connection between her and her audience.

A good rule of thumb to follow is that one minute of speaking is equivalent to around 100 to 120 words. This rule is very useful if you are going to write a script for your speech. Ten minutes of speaking is this equivalent to two pages of A4 paper, which isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of things. Size matters a lot more than we think in public speaking!

Public Speaking is a conversation

Would you use rhymes, poetry and complicated rhetorical devices in a day to day conversation with a stranger? Most likely not. Therefore, only use them sparingly when delivering a speech.

In the early days of my public speaking journeys, I was very guilty of doing this. I paid careful attention to have my sentences rhyming with each other. I used words like cornucopia, obsidian or banshee. The net result was not the one I expected. Some people were amazed, others felt like I was showing off and the vast majority didn’t get my speeches and didn’t pick me as the ‘Best Speaker’ of the meeting.

Using a conversational language and delivery will make you more approachable, more relatable and will help your audience to understand your message better. By all means have some rhymes and even some poetry in your speech to conclude on a high note. But keep the content of your speech and your vocabulary as simple as possible in order to be understood. Interestingly, a study of Donald Trump campaign speeches from 2016, indicates that his language was easier to understand and may have contributed to his popularity. Being able to convey complex ideas very simply is the mark of a great communicator and of a great leader. Whereas, using complicated language is a guaranteed way to lose credibility and authority in the eyes of an audience.

If you want your speeches and message to be memorable remember than less can be more!

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