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An Insider’s Free Guide to Effective Public Speaking

public speaking insider's free guide storytelling methodology

Who is ‘SternWriter’, and why should you pay him any attention?

For the last 32 years I’ve been a TV news reporter, broadcast consultant, documentary filmmaker and zero-budget activist.

One way or another, these worlds involve public speaking, or other forms of storytelling. What these ultra-competitive worlds have in common is that success or failure is largely determined by the persuasiveness of your public speaking.

In the course of yakking to cameras, convincing clients, pitching to funders, and speeding up carbon drawdown by helping the Inactive become Active, I’ve picked up a few public speaking tricks of the trade.

Which I’ll now share with you.

I’ve never taken a course, read a book, or attended a presentation on public speaking. These storytelling lessons have all been acquired on the job. These jobs have included:

Convincing Strangers

Anyone from the worlds of journalism, filmmaking or advertising, where storytelling is the stock-in-trade, finds the general standard of public speaking unimpressive.

It seems strange to us that the kind of communication skills people demonstrate on a daily basis when talking to friends, family and colleagues one-on-one, suddenly desert them when faced with an audience. Humans, collectively, respond pretty much like humans individually, so why is public speaking so hard?

But this article isn’t for those who are already comfortable with public speaking, but for those who freeze, sweat or gibber when they try to convince groups of strangers.

The good news is that as so many people share your phobia, it doesn’t take much much for you to stand out from the rest.

Whether at public pitching events, debates or office meetings, if all your competitors conform to the tick-box mentoring advice learned from most books, courses and official mentors, standing out when it’s your turn to stand up is pretty straightforward.

If you feel intimidated at the prospect of changing the minds of a bunch of strangers, these tricks will work.

For all our sophistication, we humans turn out to be quite predictable in the way we respond to other humans.

The tricks I’ve exploited while convincing people not to switch off or turn over, fund my films, and take effective climate action work just as well if you’re doing a school show-and-tell, rousing a mob, or getting investors to shower you with gold.

Messages and Messengers

Storytelling doesn’t necessarily require a significant message to move us.

Observational comedy can make you guffaw, whether or not you stroke your chin afterwards. Every day, those clever folk in the advertising industry somehow induce you to buy more stuff you don’t need. They can even get us to pay for giving our data away for free.

So it’s worth learning their storytelling techniques. No one will get your message, no matter how urgent or important, if you can’t deliver it.

Advertisers aren’t the only public speaking experts who use stranger-convincing tricks. Preachers, demagogues, anyone in sales and teachers are all familiar with them, to some degree or other. We all tell stories all the time, whenever we tell each other what happened at work/school today, or why we didn’t meet our sales target/hand in our homework.

This makes it all the more surprising that we find it so hard to tell stories to large numbers of strangers. This paradox has spawned an entire public speaking education industry, especially in the corporate world. Mainly staffed by ex-journalists fed up with not making any money, the public speaking business teaches us how to pitch and talk to the media. Mentors are assigned to stranger-convincing novices, with checklists of Dos and Don’ts.

If nothing else, those wily ex-hacks are demonstrating their powers of persuasion, by making a living from selling all those books, courses, and presentations. At the risk of putting my former colleagues out of business, this article reveals a few secrets I’ve picked up over the decades.

I’ve tried these techniques out on various inexperienced and nervous public speakers, who’ve asked me for advice over the years. They include:

  • a 10-year-old who wanted to enter a national storytelling competition (she came 2nd)
  • a 15-year-old who’d never debated in public (she ended up winning the UK national public speaking championship, including the winning the audience prize)
  • a neighbour uncomfortable with having to be the public face and fundraiser-in-chief of a tech start up (she blew away all the competition when pitching for Venture Capital funding last month)

To Speak, first learn to Listen

Looking at those three examples that came to mind, it’s striking that, so far as I can remember, all the people who’ve ever asked me for public speaking coaching have been female.

I won’t speculate why this might be, but the better you are at listening, the more likely you are to seek help, and to listen to advice.

Conversely, the more confident you are in the power of your own charisma, the less likely you are to pass the first test of public speaking – public listening.

If you don’t empathise with the strangers you’re trying to convince, and make no attempt to understand your audience’s experience, expertise and expectations, you’re unlikely to be very effective. Changing strangers’ minds requires first knowing their minds, and that requires empathy and listening skills.

Empathy, listening and humility are not uniquely feminine. It’s just that I’ve found these advantages to be unevenly distributed between genders.

Real-World Mentoring

I have no formal qualifications, beyond my experience, for waffling on about public speaking.

Nor have I ever read any of those ‘How To Improve Your Public Speaking’ books. But I have spent a lot of time doing public listening, which has informed my public speaking.

I had a couple of informal mentors in my early broadcast career, but mostly I’ve been schooled by decades of covering press conferences, political meetings, business conferences, and observing professional colleagues.

The lessons I’ve learned have been quite different from – often the reverse of – what recipients of ‘proper’ media training or pitch mentoring tell me they’ve been taught.

This article is not about explaining why. I’m just offering , for free, what I’ve found highly effective whenever I’ve used it myself, or mentored others, in real-world situations.

Like the zero-budget, volunteer-based social media network I’m now working for, I”m not asking for any money, so you can take it or leave it…

Public Speaking Theory Test

Imagine you’re sitting in an audience.

This shouldn’t be hard. Most of us do far more public listening than public speaking, but it’s amazing how many people complain about how boring every else’s presentations are, before going up on stage and repeating exactly the same mistakes.

Good public speaking starts with good public listening, and the best way to learn is to teach yourself. I’m just offering a few tried-and-tested techniques.

Stage 1: Love & Hate Lists

When you’re listening to public speakers, whether at the office or watching TED talks online, keep a piece of paper with a line drawn down the middle.

Label one side ‘Things I Love’, the other ‘Things I Hate’.

Listen actively. Pay attention, pause and reflect. Consider the specific things that annoy or please you. No need to draw any general conclusions from your observations…yet.

Once you’ve written down the same observations a couple of times, you’re ready for …

Stage 2: Do & Don’t Lists

Re-label these two columns ‘What To Do’ and ‘What Not To Do.

Congratulations, you’ve now passed the Theory part of the Effective Public Speaking test, and are ready to start the Practical part.

Let’s start with your Dont’s list.

Public Speaking Dont’s

Your Don’ts list should be a litany of things that annoyed you, things that made you start thinking about what’s for lunch, things that made your eyelids droop, etc.

Now try to generalise from them. Work out why these things annoyed, distracted or bored you, and you’ll come up with your personalised What Not To Do Commandments. Everyone has their own pet hates, but most follow a patterns. Here are some common ones:

  • Thou shalt not read from thy script, nor even a Cue Card
  • Thou shalt not cram as much information as possible into yo slides
  • Thou shalt not obviously tick yer entire Things You Must Say checklist
  • Thou shalt not crank out as many words as possible within ya time limit
  • Thou shalt avoid unnecessary and excessive jargon
  • Thou shalt not dry up completely, gabble, nor should you spout bollocks when asked a question
  • Thou shalt not move to t’ next point until t’ first point has sunk in

Different contexts provide different criteria for ‘success’, but being the most memorable, persuasive and enjoyable usually means being the most effective.

What you personally find memorable, persuasive and enjoyable is very likely to be true of others. We’re all the same species of ape.

Public Speaking Dos

What about the Do list? Apply the same process, and see what patterns emerge.

Here are a few things that generally generate engagement, rather than lunch-pondering, when it comes to public speaking:

  • Thou shalt sound relaxed and spontaneous
  • Thou shalt use natural intonation, volume and emphasis
  • Thou shalt use thy hands in an engaging and helpful manner
  • Thou shalt look thine audience in the eye
  • Thou shalt use straightforward language and striking imagery
  • Thou shalt include jokes and pertinent anecdotes, the more personal the better
  • Thou shalt handle Q&A with fluent answers that appear to answer the question
  • Thou shalt leave pauses to allow questions to form in thy audience’s minds
  • Thou shalt answer those questions in a way that makes thy audience feel smart and not dumb

Avoid your Don’ts, cultivate your Do’s, you’ll be the one everyone in the room remembers and wants to talk to afterwards.

Whatever the official competition or prize may be, in the real world of effective public speaking, that usually constitutes ‘winning’.

This concludes the Theory.

Public Speaking Practical Test

The Practical part is based on the same basic trick as the Theory bit – empathy.

Put yourself in the mind of the audience. Make it as easy as possible for them to invest in you, give you the funding, present you with the award, shower you with goodwill, free drinks and unsolicited sexual favours, or whatever ‘winning’ might mean for you.

Here’s one way to go about it, but please pay close attention:

  • Only read Steps 1-4 on this list
  • Ask your most Brutally Honest Friend to read 5-9

SternWriter’s 9-Step Process for Effective Public Speaking

1) Write your script to within the assigned time limit.

2) Invite your most Brutally Honest Friend (BHF) over to help you.

3) Ask BHF to film you delivering your speech to camera, to time, including Q&A.

4) Without revealing your speech, brief BHF on your public speaking challenge, e.g. duration limit, Q&A time. Then show BHF Steps 5-9.

(no peeking, the remaining Steps are for BHF’s eyes only).

5) Your Seriously Daunted Friend (SDF) is about to give you their current best effort. Be supportive, but there’s no point in being polite. They’ve asked you for your help because they think you’re Brutally Honest – don’t disappoint them. Let’s call what you’re about to film ‘Exhibit A’.

When they’ve finished, by all means give them an encouraging smile, but keep recording. You’re about to film ‘Exhibit B’, thus.

  • Tell your SDF to discard their script
  • Ask SDF to imagine a reasonably smart, but easily-distracted 10-year-old has just entered the room and is now standing behind the camera
  • Ask SDF to explain their speech to the RSBED kid
  • Pretend to be RSBED kid and ask a couple of questions
  • When SDF runs out of words, stop recording

6) Now sit down to watch your recordings. It’s time to earn your BHF status.

  • Find two different coloured pens, Pen A & Pen B
  • Ask SDF for their Theory Test paper
  • Place it in front of them, along with Pen A
  • Watch Exhibit A, instructing SDF to use Pen A to tick their Do list every time they do a Do, and place a cross on their Don’t List every time they see themselves violate one of their commandments
  • Repeat, this time annotating Exhibit B with Pen B
  • You will find far more crosses on Exhibit A, and far more ticks on Exhibit B

7) Get SDF to rewrite their speech to reduce the total crosses and increase the ticks.

8) Repeat Step 5 (from Exhibit B), Step 6 and Step 7 as often as is feasible until SDF’s public speaking deadline.

Assure SDF it’s fine to practice on their pets, and not to worry if they awake at night to find they’ve been muttering their speech in their sleep. Tell them this is how athletes cultivate ‘muscle memory’ so they don’t freeze or flub on the big occasions.

9) Once Seriously Daunted Friend has become Seriously Delighted Friend, following their public speaking triumph, graciously receive all SDF’s praise and gratitude for your help, support and insight. You’re welcome.

Nuggets, and other nuggets

Thank you for not cheating and reading Steps 5-9.

While you wait for BHF to come over, why not work on your script. Some tips:

  • Don’t read it in your head, speak it out loud
  • Use a mirror
  • Free your hands and observe what they do as you speak
  • Try speaking more slowly
  • Silences and pauses create time for questions to form in your audience’s head. Ensure the question is the one you want them to ask, and that the next thing you say answers that question at just the right moment
  • You speech will now be much shorter. Keep the offcuts, and relabel them ‘Nuggets’

Your ‘Nuggets’ are now your answers for the Q&A. With sufficient rehearsal and repetition, your Nuggets will seem spontaneous. You will be extravagantly praised for your ability to think on your feet, and for how deeply you’ve thought about the topic of your speech.

Nugget deployment during Q&A gives the impression of spontaneity, ease and logic, regardless of the question asked.

The main trick is to pivot to one of your Nuggets without appearing to do so. This takes low cunning and plenty of practice. Politicians generally provide good role models in both stalling for Nugget-selection time, and friction-free pivoting.

Look out for phrases like:

  • That’s an excellent point you raise, and that’s precisely why...[insert most appropriate Nugget]
  • Correct me if I’m wrong, but if I understand your shrewd observation correctly, it’s related to the critical issue of…[insert most appropriate Nugget]
  • I entirely agree with your insightful remark, and concur that what you just said is absolutely at the heart of this whole issue. The way I see it…[insert most appropriate Nugget]

A Neat Dismount

So there you have it, SternWriter’s free, practical, effective guide to public speaking.

There’s much more to it, of course, but most of that involves just doing.

You now have the scaffolding and foundation – building on it is now up to you. Your four best allies in this are your BHF, Will, Patience and Diligence.

Besides, there’s no need for me to string all this out too much. Your time is limited and valuable, and I’m not trying to make a living by persuading you to buy my book or course.

But being insightful and intelligent, you are of course entitled to question why I’d take all this time, and go to all this bother, to give something away for free.

As a journalist, I know you should always Follow the Money, but where should you look when there’s no Money?

This is the real punchline, concealed at the end, in plain sight.

As Gift Horse Distributor at See Through News, I’ve picked up a trick or two about the Gift Horse Distribution business.

I’m giving away my secrets for free precisely to demonstrate the storytelling methodology I’ve just been teaching you, and to answer the question that’s now forming in your head.

I’m banking on the fact that if you’re still paying attention, you must have found this article helpful.

If so, you’re likely to be interested in more Gift Horses from the See Through News stable.

You might, for example:

See what I did there?