Public Speaking and Presentations (1/3): Structure for Success
By David Rose
Have you ever had to give a presentation, present a new idea, initiative or position in a meeting, speak at a conference, give a speech, do a press conference or do an interview? If you’ve experienced any of these, you’ll be very familiar with the unsettling, nerves and adrenaline rush that inevitably comes the first time (and usually more than just the first time!).
If, however, you’ve had to do any of these in a foreign language, you’ll also be no stranger to the often frequent problem of the words not coming when you need them – what I term the ‘goldfish syndrome’: the mouth opens and closes like a goldfish but no words come out!
Why does this happen? It’s quite likely that when you’re talking one-to-one with a colleague or friend this doesn’t happen as often, if at all. Importantly, even if it does, it’s not such an important issue. You can simply ‘explain around’ the gap and your interlocutor will most probably be able to provide you with the missing word(s).
What is it about public speaking that makes it so challenging for all of us?
Well, firstly there’s not always having all the necessary language at your disposal. Unlike in the one-to-one situations mentioned above, when speaking publically it’s simply not appropriate to collaborate with your interlocutors to ‘explain around’ the problem. Imagine how you would feel if a presenter apologised and asked you, the audience, how to say something in English!
Secondly, there’s the well-documented psychological pressure we all feel in public speaking situations. In a nutshell, nerves are primarily due to fear of failure and embarrassment, affecting performance. Not being a psychologist, I won’t presume to offer more detail than this.
What I can offer, though, are concrete, practical tips to help you overcome these two problems and so enhance your public speaking skills.
Specifically, this article deals with how to best structure your message(s) to raise your public speaking success.
Although your message may be clear to you, the speaker, is it so clear to your audience? Not always to the extent you might think. On a basic level when you are simply giving information to others, structure is one of the essential ingredients to help ensure clear understanding. On a higher level when you aim to also influence others, communication without the level of clarity provided by a solid structure means your message has a lesser or zero impact.
There are two basic styles of structure:
The linear structure delivers messages one by one in a ‘stream’:
“We need to improve the way we make decisions… also… we need to have a procedure for this that is agreed between all stakeholders….and… we need to do it consistently faster”
It’s apparently easy for you as the speaker to deliver messages this way, but there are three specific drawbacks:
(a) Overall clarity
Only you know what is coming – your interlocutors only know how many points you’re going to make/have made when you’ve actually finished. Will they be able to fit all of your points into a clear ‘framework’ for themselves?
As you have few, if any, opportunities to choose your words as they are being spoken, let alone pause to catch your breath, your choice of words may not fully reflect your intended message(s) – i.e. is what they understand actually what you mean?
As you have little or no ‘thinking time’, you may both hesitate to find the most appropriate words and make some errors with your English. Obviously, the former will make you appear less sure of your message(s), with the latter risking them being unclear or misunderstood.
Importantly, each of these three issues becomes even more pressing when you are delivering longer and/or more complex messages. Can you sustain a clear, logical and fluent delivery over the space of a minute or more free of hesitation and error on complex topics?
If your answer isn’t an immediate and certain ‘yes’, then I invite you to continue reading!
“We need to do three things: improve the way we make decisions; have a procedure for this that is agreed between all stakeholders; and do it consistently faster”
This second method of structuring your message(s) is often referred to as the ‘Anglo-Saxon Style’. It is very important to note here that this isn’t simply an exclusively ‘English native speaker’ characteristic. Instead, it’s a common feature of all consistently successful public speakers in the international English environment, whether in the corporate, governmental or institutional fields.
In contrast to the three drawbacks of the ‘linear method’, it provides three concrete benefits for you, the speaker, and your audience:
(a) More accurate and precise
Let’s look again at the example phrase above again:
“We need to do three things: pause  improve the way we make decisions; pause  have a procedure for this that is agreed between all stakeholders; pause  and do it consistently faster”
The message is now separated into four sub-parts, with three pauses (versus the one continuous stream of words with no pauses of the same message in a linear structure in the previous example).
Cyclic structuring breaks your message into smaller, more digestible ‘chunks’ separated by pauses, giving you more time to choose your words as you are speaking. With the same language skills, this extra time leads to more consistently accurate and precise language.
A message broken into digestible pieces separated by pauses with more accurate and precise language is simply clearer – i.e. easier for your audience to understand. This is especially important if you work in a mixed-nationality environment where your typical audience contains a variety of levels of English.
(c) Higher impact
The effect or ‘impact’ your message has on any given audience depends on four main factors: quality of content, personalisation to the audience’s knowledge and expectations, appropriateness and delivery.
Assuming your content is valid, appropriate and tailored to your audience, the more correct, precise and clear messages this cyclic structure provides means your communication will have a higher impact.
So, now you’ve seen how choosing a cyclic structure can improve your public speaking skills. Naturally, structuring is just one part of the public speaking ‘puzzle’. We also have to consider other areas, which will be covered by the next two upcoming articles in my series on improving your public speaking skills:
Article 2: Transitions and Signposting – ‘Speaking Glue’
A summary of the key words and phrases used to connect ideas and mark transitions between parts or sections, so better guiding your audience through your intervention.
Article 3: Emphasis, Intonation and Pausing
An overview of the techniques for correct emphasis, intonation patterns and pausing techniques to help you significantly raise your spoken impact.
Have you found this article useful? Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you feel your organisation can benefit from my company’s personalised, cost-effective training services.
You can find out more information about the range of language and communication skills training services on offer by visiting www.lacstraining.com.
© David Rose 2011