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Public speaking: how to focus on people and speak from the heart

Public speaking. Do you have a favorite speaker or speech? What made them memorable? What distinguished the speaker and their speech, from your not-so-favorite speakers? Chances are, the speech impressed your mind or heart. Perhaps, it moved or inspired you, or it highlighted a fresh perspective.

A well-executed speech or oratory often comes across as effortless. As a former speechwriter, I can tell you that behind the scenes a lot of effort and thought goes into what to say in a speech, and rewriting until you have reached that point of done. Before I did speechwriting, although I did study writing and rhetoric at university, oratory, or public speaking is something that was part of my life from early childhood.

Update 7 September 2023: I recently did a YouTube video going over some of the tips inside this blog.

Even so, though I have given speeches since my teenage years, each speaking assignment is a new opportunity to get nervous and fearful. That’s a common experience around the world, even for experienced speakers. But over the decades, I have a practiced way of dealing with that, and it helps me overcome any fears before I speak.

Oratory background

Although I now live in Australia’s Northern Territory, I grew up in a family and culture steeped in oral tradition and oratory in the Pacific Islands. Because oratory is embedded in traditional and ancient Polynesian culture, oratory skills can be developed from a young age. Polynesia is located in the vast Pacific Ocean, bounded to the east by North and South America, to the west by Asia and Australia, and to the north by the Arctic. The Pacific Ocean is the vast ocean that my ancestors have sailed and navigated through millennia.

Growing up, I was around men in the family who spoke in oratorical ways. In my family, my wise grandfather often spoke to us from the heart. In my child’s mind, he was like this sage and poet. He could see into our future and I always felt his love through his words, even now though he has long departed this mortal life. And in keeping with cultural tradition, my father was an orator. So I have heard the power of words, ancestral proverbs and metaphors, and the use of rhetorical devices in speeches since childhood.

Oratory was a part of traditional island life for the chiefs. When a chief who was an orator did give what appeared to be an extemporaneous (off the cuff) speech, it was something they had thought about, and pondered deeply, as part of their preparation long before they were speaking it. I can remember the way my father would labor out loud and thoughtfully over his speeches, reviewing proverbs, sacred family knowledge, ancient history, and text related to genealogy, for example.

In this post, I discuss four key elements of public speaking: audience, setting, tone and substance. You’ll be able to identify little changes you can make to focus on the people and speak from the heart. As you do so, my hope is that you will see a significant transformation in your public speaking. Read and re-read this post as many times as you need to, to assist in your public speaking efforts.

1. Audience

Connecting with your audience – this is about hearts and minds – is by far your biggest challenge as a speaker or orator. Think carefully about your audience. Do your research. Know your audience and know them well. What are your audience’s traits and associations? What’s your connection to them, if any? What’s really important to them?

Thoughtfully consider how you will begin your speech, how you will greet your audience, and introduce yourself, and how you will end your speech. These seemingly simple things are very key things. Starting your speech on the right note from the beginning is a good thing to aim for.

Tailor your message

Adapt your message to your audience’s communication needs. For example, if you’re going to communities to speak about housing, and your audience is mostly young families, children, and grandparents with no engineering background, you don’t hit them with an academic-flavored speech that sounds like a lecture in engineering.

Tailor your message to your audience, to everyday terms and language, and pitch it at a level that people will understand. What about literacy, be it English literacy or health literary, and language fluency? These are very important considerations.

Think of the one person in your audience who may not understand the advanced topics that the rest do, and speak to that one. Is your audience multicultural or First Nations, and diverse, which means that some of your audience will have English as a second language. Consider their communication needs, potential barriers, and how you might address them.

If you’re speaking to a professional group, it’s wise to tailor your speech to your profession’s setting.

Science & non-science audiences

Understand the differences when communicating to scientific and non-scientific audiences. For scientific audiences, you can get away with industry-speak including the temptation to fall back on industry jargon, acronyms, and abbreviations. But may I caution you to reduce or, better still, remove the use of jargon, abbreviations, and referring to people by their first name only when speaking in large audiences where you don’t know everyone, and there are likely to be new people attending. Because, chances are there are always people in your audience, it could be the boss, who’s new and still getting to know who’s who, and learning the ropes with industry jargon. Think of that one person and write for the one, when you’re speaking to industry-specific audiences.

For non-scientific audiences, which is most of the population, it’s important to explain scientific and medical concepts in everyday language. Relate it to people’s everyday lives and activities for relevance and understanding. Do it visually as well, if you can, using props whether it’s images or very short video.

2. Setting

As a public speaker, be very aware of the setting. These are factors like the venue, location, and geography of where you are speaking, yes. But it’s also about the significance of the time, place, location, occasion, the history behind it, and who is there in attendance.

Reverend Dr Martin Luther King’s gifted oratory in every speech, including I Have a Dream given at Washington DC on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, is an example of addressing the setting and its significance. His masterpiece – 16 minutes long – responds perfectly to his setting (and audience, tone, and substance). He evokes the memory of Abraham Lincoln with references in his speech to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, America’s Declaration of Independence, and the freedom of slaves, to persuade America to right the wrongs of racial injustice.

Wednesday 28 August 1963, Washington D.C, USA – Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968), one of America’s most high-profile civil rights leaders, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He addresses the 250,000-strong crowd – black and white – attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They were marching for voting rights and equal opportunity for African-Americans, and an end to racial segregation and discrimination.

I Have a Dream is perhaps, the most quoted speech in the English-speaking world. King was in his 30s. As you listen to it, note again how the master orator sets the scene and places the listener and readers into his setting.

Master execution stirs the soul

An analytical perspective. No matter the country you are listening to I Have a Dream from, King’s master execution of setting, tone, and substance, using rhetorical devices, often stirs the soul. To read the speech in full, here it is

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., delivered a speech to a massive group of civil rights marchers gathered around the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom brought together the nations most prominent civil rights leaders, along with tens of thousands of marchers, to press the United States government for equality. The culmination of this event was the influential and most memorable speech of Dr. King’s career. Popularly known as the “I have a Dream” speech, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. influenced the Federal government to take more direct actions to more fully realize racial equality.

USA National Archives

3. Tone

Tone refers to how you speak to someone, in this case, to your audience. It refers to your manner and attitude and body language as you speak. So here are some fast tips to help you connect with your audience:

  • Don’t talk in a boastful or arrogant way. It turns people off, fast.
  • Speak with humility and quiet confidence.
  • Keep it simple and identify with your audience early.
  • Be mindful of your presence when you enter the room and as you speak.
  • Be appropriate, professional, and respectful of the setting and audience.
  • Speak sincerely and from the heart

Self-awareness

Good public speaking requires self-awareness. So, it’s worth spending time to ponder how you come across when you care about an issue or speak in front of a room. Practice in front of a mirror and record yourself on video so you can gain awareness of your facial expressions, your body language and also how you sound. I write about these techniques in more detail here.

If you want to influence hearts and minds, then you need to sincerely bring your own heart’s journey and logical evidence-based arguments to the fore.

Speak one on one

Think of public speaking, whether it’s a speech, podcast, or presentation, as a one-on-one conversation between you and the listener. Visualise it. Imagine it. It might be a packed-out room, but treat everyone as an individual listener. This is an invaluable perspective I learned from studying broadcasting during my university years.

Speak as though you are speaking one on one to each person in the audience. Use personal pronouns like you would when speaking one on one to a person. For example, consider that you are speaking to a million or thousand or a hundred audiences of one, rather than an audience of millions, thousands, or hundreds.

With that perspective, there’s no need to say words like: ‘You guys’ or ‘Hi you guys.’

A warning about jargon, acronyms & the like

One of the biggest communication risks and challenges – across many professions and industries- is the overuse of jargon, abbreviations, and acronyms in speeches, meetings, and gatherings. They are thrown around with abandon.

So, my strongest advice is to avoid acronyms, abbreviations, and jargon as if your life depended on it. It’s not good communication to default to jargon and acronyms in open meetings. They add communication barriers to your speech and it annoys people because no one wants to feel like they don’t understand what’s being spoken.

Also, reducing words to letters and abbreviations takes away the power of a word. For example, what do you feel or think when you hear or read the acronym: HTLV? You could be wondering what it means and looking for an online dictionary in frustration. (I’m assuming you are not a researcher in this field in which case your response will be one of knowing).

But what if I told you that HTLV refers to: human T-cell leukaemia virus type 1 and it can cause a type of cancer called adult T-cell leukaemia/lymphoma (ATL). Does your view of the term change now that you know what the acronym stands for? There’s a different feeling you get when you actually say the words out loud, and discover what it means. That’s not possible when only an acronym is used. Apply caution to using acronyms, for example, to medical terms that lay people, and many health workers, have not had to learn about or train in. This advice applies to any industry and profession.

4. Substance

This is where it all comes together. It begins with your thesis, or your central idea. Followed by supporting ideas and evidence, if this is a speech arguing a point of view.

The substance is about your actual speech, the words you chose to express your ideas and point of view, and supporting evidence and phrasing. It should connect to your audience, to your setting, and be in the right tone.

Some fast tips:

  • Practice speaking your central idea or thesis out loud to friends to see if it makes sense
  • Study the great speeches you admire
  • Study a wide range of speeches to identify style and delivery
  • Build your argument after your thesis statement
  • When introducing an idea or new information, assume people don’t know what you’re talking about. Explain and describe succinctly.
  • Be clear and simple in your expressions.

And remember, using jargon, abbreviations, and acronyms diminishes your opportunities to be understood.

A word of warning about using words to promote misinformation and disinformation. Whatever you do, be honest in your speeches on topics and issues. Disinformation refers to the deliberate effort to misinform people, whereas misinformation is due to ignorance and people not realising they’re spreading incorrect information.

The fact is that deliberately and unintentionally using words and public speaking, to mislead and misinform people can lead to unsafe and fatal outcomes for the people who believe them. Look at scammers and scams as a case in point. It erodes people’s ability to trust accurate information. It erodes trust in leaders, democracy, and governments.

Unfortunately, there’s a tendency in many organised networks and individuals seeking power and gain to misuse words to disinform and persuade the public at large. And the reality is that believing dishonest words and misinformation often has unintended and tragic consequences for individuals and communities. It can destroy lives. Another case in point is the unbelievable January 6 Riots on America’s Capitol Hill by mobs determined to overturn the results of the presidential election.

A year after Reverend Dr King’s Speech

Finally, substance brings together the full force of your words, ideas, your arguments. There’s power in well-crafted speeches to inspire, motivate and help people see a vision that never seemed possible before. I come back to Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s speech to explain that further.

King had used the “I have a dream” theme before, in a handful of stump speeches, but never with the force and effectiveness of that hot August day in Washington. He equated the civil rights movement with the highest and noblest ideals of the American tradition, allowing many to see for the first time the importance and urgency of racial equality….In the year after the March on Washington, the civil rights movement achieved two of its greatest successes: the ratification of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished the poll tax and thus a barrier to poor African American voters in the South; and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in employment and education and outlawed racial segregation in public facilities. In October 1964, Martin Luther King Jr., was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

History Channel

Book recommendation

If you are looking for a one-stop shop of historical speeches to study, I highly recommend William Safire’s Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History .

And no, this is not an affiliate link. and I don’t derive any income from you clicking on the link. It’s a reference book I bought more than a decade ago, I’ve used it in the past, and it’s one of my favorite books.

All the best in your public speaking journey. If you’d like to learn more, check out How to Practice Like a Pro. Although I wrote it initially to help people prepare for media interviews, all the practice techniques equally apply to public speaking and oratory.

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Vienna Richards
Vienna Richards
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