Public Speaking

What is in this guide?

  1. What do you use public speaking for
  2. Important things to know about public speaking
  1. Target audience
  2. How you come across
  1. How to structure a speech
  2. How to present your speech well

  1. What do you use public speaking for

Public speaking is very much part of the work of any activist, organiser or NGO worker. You use public speaking to get your message across to large audiences and to win support for your cause. You may also be called on to make speeches to provide information to people or as a way of reporting back to large groups of people.

A good speaker is inspiring, clear and persuasive. Some people struggle all their lives to learn to be good speakers. Many speakers are boring, long-winded and confusing. Most speeches go on for far too long and do not get the message across clearly.

It is relatively easy to become a good public speaker. You have to concentrate on the content and what you are trying to communicate and make sure that is clear. You also have to work on your presentation style to make sure that you do not bore people or confuse them. Practice is the best teacher – you will become better with experience.

  1. Important things to know about public speaking
  1. Target audience

Your speech must suit the target audience that you are addressing – find out before-hand exactly who you will be speaking to, what their issues, problems and concerns are and how they feel about your organisation and the issues you want to talk about. If you are addressing a community meeting get a briefing from people in the area who know what the local problems and issues are. People at community meetings will always raise the most common problems in their areas and if you are well prepared you will be able to help address those problems.

It is also important to fit in as much as possible with the audience you are speaking to – the way you dress and behave should make them feel comfortable. It is not always easy to do this since you may speak to different groups ranging from very formal to very informal, in one day. The best idea is to dress as neutrally as possible and to look neat, tidy and semi-smart without over-dressing.

Make sure that you understand any religious or cultural sensitivity in your target audience so that you can avoid embarrassing yourself or your organisation and offending anyone. Never smoke, drink or eat during an engagement unless it is part of the event, like at a dinner.

  1. How you come across

Sometimes the way you come across in a speech is as important as what you say. Audiences can be put off you if you sound hesitant, unsure of yourself or if you sound over-confident or arrogant. Most audiences feel very comfortable and will listen to you if you are honest, warm, friendly, and show that you care about the issues affecting them. Try to keep eye-contact and to talk directly to the audience.

Never behave in an aggressive way even when someone in the audience is being rude. It is best to always stay humble and to use humour whenever possible to deal with aggressive questioners. You can be firm, but always show respect for people who disagree with you.

Never tell your audience what they should be doing, or how they should be behaving. When you want to change people’s behaviour or to get them to participate in campaigns and programmes, appeal to them to do so. Ask them to work with you. It is important to come across as a person of the people, who trusts people and who wants to work with them in order to solve problems together.

Never brag about your achievements or claim false victories. People understand the problems and generally know what is happening in their areas. They will not be fooled and you will set yourself up to being challenged by the audience if you do not tell the truth. This doesn’t mean that you cannot be proud of your achievements, or confident about the good things that have been done. Just do not be arrogant or claim false victories.

  1. How to structure a speech

When you make a speech, a report, or any other input, it is very important that you get your message across simply and clearly and that your audience knows exactly what you are saying and where you are going. This recipe below can be used for almost any speech. It doesn’t matter how long the speech must be; just change the time you allocate to each heading to fit the time you have been given. Try to make sure that your speech always covers the following:

  • Issue –in your introduction make it clear exactly what you will be talking about.
  • Facts - give the basic facts about the issue or describe the reasons for the problem, and what will happen if nothing is done.
  • Options – briefly tell people what could be done about this issue or problem. Here you can describe a number of alternatives.
  • Proposal – clearly state what you believe is the right way to deal with the issue or problem and describe your organisation’s policies, programmes or plans for dealing with it. Always try to end your speech on a positive note and give the audience a clear way forward.
  1. How to present your speech well
  • Here are some very basic tips to help you become a better public speaker. The same tips can be used when you communicate in meetings or in smaller groups.
  • Do not start your speech with five minutes of greetings or welcoming of everybody. For example don’t go on to mention all the honourables, chairpeople of organisations present, comrades, ladies and gentlemen and so on. It becomes boring and you may leave people out. Just start with "Honoured guests, Madam Chair, friends."
  • Start strongly so that you get people’s attention. You can use a joke, but only if it is relevant and really funny. It is often better to start by saying why you are there and what the issue is. For eg. " A terrible tragedy is waiting to happen to young people in our community – today we meet together as parents to discuss what we can do about the rapid spreading of HIV and AIDS in this area."
  • Don’t fidget and try not to make "er" and "um" noises, which take people’s attention away from what you are saying. Look confident and calm and speak with authority.
  • Make eye contact – look at different parts of the audience so that everyone feels that you are making eye contact with them.
  • Try to speak as naturally as possible, don’t read a speech – rather make notes that you can refer to.
  • Keep your language simple and don’t use any jargon or abbreviations, which your audience may not understand.
  • Try to keep your voice as low as possible and to speak slowly without boring people or treating them as if they are either deaf or stupid. Don’t speak so slowly that people get bored or insulted and don’t race through your speech.
  • Keep your tone normal and human, in the same way that you would when you speak to a respected person in your family. Don’t raise your voice too much, start shouting, or speak as if you are addressing a very formal meeting. Try to change both the pace [speed] and tone [sound] of your speaking, in a natural way, so that people don’t fall asleep.
  • Don’t be scared to use feelings when you speak but never become over-dramatic. It is good to show that you genuinely care about issues.
  • Try not to depress your audience - when you share problems with them make sure that you always point out a way forward to overcome the problems.
  • Don’t humiliate people publicly when they ask questions or disagree with you. Even if they are talking nonsense, try to be nice to them. People do not like leaders who behave in a nasty way.
  • Use humour when it seems right but don’t make a fool of yourself. Audiences want you to be nice and human but they will not respect you if they see you as a clown.
  • Keep your speeches as short as possible; you should never speak for more than 15 – 20 minutes and if you can keep it to ten minutes that is even better.
  • Make sure that you say the most important things at the beginning of your speech and then again at the end since many people may fall asleep or become distracted for the middle part.
  • When you use statistics, make sure they are presented simply and try to illustrate them. For example "Two in every three people in this area have been victims of crime. Look at the two people next to you – these figures mean that only one of the three of you has not been a victim of crime."
  • Be very careful not to say things that will make your audience feel uncomfortable or embarrassed unless you can immediately follow it up with something that will make them feel better.
  • Never say "Finally," or "In conclusion," unless you really mean to end at that point.
  • Always thank people who have invited you and thank the audience but do not make a five minute thank you speech at the end. Keep it short.
  • Practice your speech in front of friends who can give you some feedback
  • Ask someone to take notes during your speech and to give you feedback afterwards about what went well and where you can improve.