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A Simple Approach to Becoming an Effective Public Speaker

Are you afraid of speaking publicly? Or maybe you just haven’t tried it because you feel you lack talent? Have you been overwhelmed at the reams of advice in books and online? If so, you may like this simpler approach to learning public speaking.

But first, why take the trouble? For one reason, because having public-speaking skills can improve your work prospects. As Money Instructor.com says about public speaking for business, “Employers consistently rank public speaking and related communication skills as one of the top skills they look for in employees.” Even if that is not your concern, you may wish to have such skills so you can promote a cause, speak up at the PTA, or give speeches at school, club, and community events.

Learning to speak publicly doesn’t have to be complicated. Speeches are like faces: there are many kinds, but the basics are the same. In fact, according to The Public Speaking Institute, the basic tools for effective speaking can be applied to all genres, or kinds, of speeches. Once you know the basics, any adjustments for genre can be made fairly easily.  

Good speeches are a combination of quality content and effective delivery. We will briefly focus here on simpler ways to develop the content, and in a future article, on key aspects of delivering it.

A speech without good content is like a gorgeous body with an empty head. We may be dazzled by a charismatic speaker, but if there is nothing to take away with us, we will feel cheated. Speeches need information that benefits their audiences, and that is organized so that listeners will understand and remember it. Put even more simply, good content is giving your audience what they need to know.

So first, find out what your audience needs to know, and then research your topic to see what you can add to their knowledge. How can you find out what they need to know? Ask them. Talk to people who will be attending, or who share similar interests and backgrounds with them. You can call related clubs and organizations, and also ask to talk to some of their members. Doing this helps even if you already have an assigned topic, because you will be able to see how to narrow it down to exactly what aspect the audience is interested in. The topic ‘sewing’ is too broad, for example, but if you find that your audience is interested in quilting techniques, that could become your theme. The narrower your theme, the easier it is to develop the content of your speech.

The theme will also help you narrow your research. You need just enough to help you add to what your audience already knows about your theme. Use the internet or talk with professionals to get deeper material and the latest information. Also, don’t forget to check your facts, so you don’t lose credibility.

The next step is the part that many people find most difficult about speech preparation: organizing all the information into a smooth-flowing, logical speech that stays within its time limit. But really, that doesn’t have to be complicated either.

My husband, an experienced speaker, explains it this way: “Tell your audience what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.” That sums up the basic structure of your talk: introduction, body, and conclusion. If you tell the audience what your talk is about when you start and then review the key points at the end, your introduction and conclusion will be good enough; other skills can be added later. So we will focus now on organizing the body, the part of your speech with all the information.

As you look at your information, remember that ‘less is more.’ With too many points, you cannot develop any of them well, nor will audiences remember them. Ginger Public Speaking.com says that good content is as much about leaving information out as putting it in, and the University of Pittsburg advises just three main ideas at most for short speeches, and a maximum of five for long ones. In more than forty years of experience, we have found that two main points are usually all you can do well in short talks of five minutes or less, three ideas for medium-length, and no more than five for longer speeches of thirty minutes or more.

But how can you reduce all your material to so few main ideas? By ranking your notes in order of importance. First, eliminate anything that does not clearly relate to your theme. Then decide which of the remaining points are main ideas for developing your theme, and which points support those ideas. For example, if the health of dogs is your theme, then food or exercise would be main ideas, whereas the virtues of meat over grain would be a supporting point.

Of those main points, decide which two or three support your theme the best. With the dog-health example, you may decide that food, exercise, and medical care are most important, and leave out grooming. Then do the same for your supporting points.

There—now you have the basic structure of your content: a theme, two or three main points, and two or three supporting points for each main one. There are more things you can do to enrich your content, but if you follow what is here, you already have enough for a satisfying speech.

Next is to arrange those ideas in logical order, so your audience can follow you. Think of what makes sense for your material, and which order will ease the move from one point to the next. A simple way that works for most speeches is to go from the least important to the most, because the last point usually has the greatest impact on audiences. A speech on driving behaviors to avoid, for example, could begin with daydreaming, followed by using mobile phones and ending with driving while impaired.

Finally, after your ideas are in order, you need to think of transitions, or how to leave the point you just finished talking about and go smoothly on to the next one. An easy way is to mention the previous main point and show how it relates to the next one. After talking about texting while driving, for instance, you can say “Even more dangerous than texting is driving while drunk,” which leads nicely to your next point.

And that’s it—you have a speech! Basic, yes, but good enough to give the audience what they need to know. It can get you started. That is more important than having a hundred unused speaking techniques in your toolbox. After you get comfortable with speaking, you can gradually add as many other techniques as you wish! Next article, we’ll show you how to do the same with your delivery.