Public speaking myths exploded

Public speaking myths explodedA good speaker can have the world at their feet. Bill Clinton can command $150,000 an hour and is famous for making everyone in the room feel that he is speaking to them and only them. 

Malcolm Gladwell can receive up to $80,000 for a speaking engagement. Seriously, no one else can talk about spaghetti sauce like him. Watch him at work on

Locally Generation Y guru Peter Shehan has skyrocketed to the top of the speaking circuit and garners an estimated $25,000 per gig. Mini, Hilton, Goldman Sachs, Subway and other major corporates give him rave reviews for his talks on talent management, innovation, Gen Y and how to implement ideas.

Other staples on the speaking circuit include KPMG partner and demographic guru Bernard Salt, economist Saul Estlake, head of innovation research agency Tomorrow Mike Walsh and banking advisor and author of Bank 2.0 Brett King.

“Futurists are the hottest speakers right now,” says Julie Winterbottom, head of O2 Speakers agency. The future of business, rather than the triumph over adversity tales (sorry to all those mountain climbers, AFL players and Olympians); keynotes on disruptive trends, technology and consumer behaviour are the presentations companies are paying speakers agencies for. Clients are looking for detailed, specific results.

“They are saying what is the ROI, what does the speaker know about us, why are they relevant?” says Winterbottom. More briefing calls with clients and multiple site visits are the norm for major players.

“They need to come in with some kind of knowledge of what the company is facing,” says Winterbottom.

The preparation process must include an understanding of the audience and why they are there.

“There needs to be that conscious focus on the audience,” says Mark Hunter, the 2009 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking. A former school principal, Hunter was paralysed after a water skiing incident 30 years ago. He now speaks around the world, runs master classes and works with businesses.

Most of us don’t get paid for our speeches, presentations and/or MCing – it’s part of our jobs – but this doesn’t mean that we can’t approach the task of planning, preparing and really nailing a speech the way a professional does. Here we explode some common beliefs about the art of public speaking.

MYTH:  Public speaking is a natural gift

REALITY:  Do the work

Forget the idea that the best public speakers are really good and really natural without any effort. It’s bit like thinking a concert pianist hasn’t done much practice. Peter Shehan had spoken at 500 schools before he even spoke to a corporation.

“If you can keep a group of 300 teenagers from getting bored, you’ve got to be pretty good,” says Winterbottom who always looks for speakers with “match fitness” – many, many hours of presenting under their belts. “Take every opportunity you can to get up and speak in front of people. That is the only way you are going to get good,” she says.

For more on preparation, defer to Apple CEO Steve Jobs, one of the most admired speakers in the world. The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs

MYTH: It’s all about the document you are presenting

REALITY: It’s way more than that

“It’s not about the content. It is all about the method and technique,” says Colin James, a highly regarded facilitator and corporate trainer.

“Content is of course important, but the impact for the audience is making the content come alive, bringing vitality and memorability to it.”

“You can know the entire Hamlet script off by heart, but that doesn’t mean you know how to present it.”

So remember, just because your slides are ready, it doesn’t mean you are.

A mistake people often make is to centre their planning on a PowerPoint presentation they can send to people afterwards, and so it becomes half way between a document and a presentation – and ends up being neither.

Dan Hill, a senior consultant with Arup, is a designer and self-described urbanist with an international reputation for cutting-edge work in design and technology for companies such as the BBC, Monacle, Channel 4 and his blog City of Sound. He speaks regularly around the world and is often introducing audiences to new concepts in technology and innovation. Hill uses a fascinating mix of short video fragments in his presentations, which he describes as “moving photographs”. Watching him speak is a bit like watching the most interesting show and tell session you’ve ever seen.

Hill’s tip: “Do the presentation as a performance, and so more like a narrative, and highly audio-visual.” If the presenter wants to offer notes, Hill suggests preparing a separate text to print on demand, or a PDF to share afterwards.

MYTH:  Bullet-points are brilliant

REALITY:  Don’t overload a slide with too many different ideas, it dilutes the message

When Hill presents, he uses as little text as possible, avoiding bullet-points, using images and video instead. Hill likes to “talk over” the images, rather than the deathly PowerPoint style of presenting where the presenter reads out the bullet points that the audience can already see in front of them. Zzzz…

MYTH: A keynote doesn’t need any props

REALITY: Engage the senses – all the senses

Good visual content is a break for delegates. “A good two-minute video can explain something a lot faster than you can,” says Winterbottom.

Increasingly, video is now a major part of many presentations. People like scientist Paul Davies use video with marvelous effect to explain the theories he is discussing; a short view of a meteor shower; a diagram of how the chaos theory works helps his audiences to really ‘get’ what he is talking about.

Even cooler is the experience of watching a live cartoonist during a keynote. The cartoonist works in tandem with the speaker, translating into pictures what is being said. At the end of the speech, a copy of the drawings serves as a brilliant way of retaining information of what was said. RSA Animate is a world-leader at bringing ideas to life through cartoon and regularly does an animated version of big ideas. Cartoonist Patrick Chappatte’s fresh discourse, The Power of Cartoons, is proof of how simple drawings can have incredible power.

Corporate advisor, consultant and chairman of Logictivity Jonar Nader works with clients including Deutsche Bank, Ogilvy and Microsoft. His keynote addresses are epic productions involving months of research and planning. Nader is passionate about the music he uses in his keynotes; researching pieces for each address he gives. He even works on music to set the mood as guests enter the space he will be speaking in. No detail is left to chance.

Visually, his keynotes are never dull. If he wants to discuss a retailer’s poor shelving habits, or a bank’s bizarre approach to ATM litter, he will offer not one but 20 or so photographic examples. It makes his theories and ideas that much more persuasive – and riveting.

MYTH: You just need to prepare the main points of the talk, you can just add the sauce as you go

REALITY: Know your material backwards

Says Nader: “Please, never, ever read to me on stage.” Nader believes that many people grossly underestimate the skills needed to present. Nader not only speaks widely but gets to watch a lot of other keynote speakers. He believes there is a dearth of content and a serious lack of preparation.

“You need to be a multi-faceted person on stage,” he says. “A performer, an entertainer, an educator, an inspirer, captivating, engaging and absolutely clued to the content and the audience.”

A speaker can choose to present without preparation but it shows. (My favourite is the panel session at conferences where a major attraction has done no preparation and can only repeat what others are saying. It’s a bad look.)

Colin James is known for running full-day workshop sessions. So well does he know the content that at a recent session, he was able to go through a presentation backwards.


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