8 Tips on Public Speaking

I was invited to give a short talk to the chambering students and the young lawyers of the firm a short while back. The firm wanted to try to kick-off a regular public speaking series, sort of toastmasters-style, so the first session involved a senior partner and I giving some tips and sharing some practical advice.I shared some tips which I personally find useful when public speaking, or which I have observed from good public speakers, which I distilled down to 8 points.

1. Have passion
Genuine enthusiasm shines through a speaker’s face and voice, so it is important to have passion for the topic you are speaking on. Whether it is an area you have knowledge on, or a specific topic which you feel for, all this greatly enhances your ability to naturally make your speech more interesting.

2. How to learn long speeches?
I think it is important to write your own speech, using your own words, which will be words you will be comfortable using. Based on that fully written speech, then make cue cards setting out the different points, and then throw away that speech you wrote out.

Never try to recall what you had exactly written word-for-word, and just speak naturally as it comes to you.

For me personally, aside from writing out the main points I will be making, I also like to write out the connectors or a connecting sentence I will be using to help me launch into that specific point or section. I take a quick glance at my cue card, it may read something like “To highlight some of the deficiencies present in the system…”, and then it helps me trigger the next section as I tend to sometimes stumble at this ‘connector’ stage.

3. Make it interesting – use stories
I have always enjoyed listening to speakers who use their own personal stories, practical experience or interesting anecdotes to help highlight their speech and emphasise certain points.

For instance, I remember attending a corporate litigation conference, where one section dealt with debt restructuring by way of a scheme of arrangement or compromise. A typical speaker may just highlight the various provisions of the statute, and then cite case law interpreting the various provisions. But an interesting aspect of the talk was when the speaker spoke of an exercise he himself conducted, where a white knight company came in to revive an abandoned housing project, and they had structured the revival by way of a scheme of arrangement in order to restructure and waive the liquidated damages claims the purchasers had in order for the white knight to continue the construction and to hand over the apartments to the purchasers.

If these stories are drawn from your own experiences, you just need to tell a story as it should come naturally to you.

4. Rehearse and practice
I read a quote somewhere that ‘Every hour of practice goes into a minute of speech.’ That may be taking it to an extreme but it does emphasise the importance of practicing your speech a few times. It is especially important if you are using jokes or stories to spice up your speech. If you accidentally slip out the punchline too fast, or you miss out certain elements in your story, then it will just fizzle and flop in your speech.

I hate doing this, but I do force myself to practice a speech in front of a mirror. I try to force myself to make eye contact with myself to observe myself, although I always find this very uncomfortable. Especially important, is that if you are standing, observe in the mirror your body language, whether you sway from side to side, whether you are shuffling your feet or shifting your body weight too often. Practice really does make perfect.

5. Sign posts
This is a personal favourite of mine which I use often, what I call ‘sign posting’. It is the use of audio cues to help guide the audience along your speech.

My style, especially in an argumentative format, is to set out clearly from the start what it is that I will be demonstrating and my conclusion. E.g. “I will be first highlighting the strengths of the pupillage system, namely this and that. I will then move on to the weaknesses of the present system which then ultimately leads me to the conclusion that the present pupillage system provides inadequate training for pupils.”

This can just be a matter of style and it may sometimes be better to keep some things in surprise and you can slowly lead the audience to the ending.

Sign posting will also involve the use of words such as “firstly”, “secondly”, “moving on to my next point”, “allow me to expand on this” or “to conclude”. All this will help sign post the important points and orally guide the audience during the speech.

6. Tone
How you say something is almost as important as what you say. Tone is a little bit more difficult to explain just through words and it has to be practiced and demonstrated. But it is the effective use of peaks and dips in your voice, where you vary your volume to a whisper or emphasise certain important words.

7. Opening and Closing
Do pay attention to your opening lines and your closing.

Often you may hear of good speakers opening their speech through an impactful quote. Humour is always a good thing to start the ball rolling, but it is down to a speaker’s style whether or not to inject some humour into the speech.

8. Handling of Q&A
A lot of times, a speaker will open up the session to Q&A at the end, and there is a big danger that the entire session then fizzles out when the speaker spoils the good speech by not being prepared for the questions.

Even when preparing your speech or presentation, you should anticipate the questions that may be asked. I read somewhere that you can anticipate 80-90% of the possible questions that my pop up. A slightly sneaky way is to also possibly omit something, and then have a pre-planned answer where you can then impress the audience. What if this important omission is not picked up and no one asks you the question? Well, you then chip in, especially during any moment of silence, and say “A frequently asked question is blah blah blah”, then you can launch into your prepared answer. Sneaky I know, but effective.

You should also take the opportunity to have the last word even after the Q&A, have a parting line ready, or summarise some of the points raised during the Q&A. That will help to leave a lasting impression on the audience.

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