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Public Speaking – A Primer

The ability to captivate an audience on your chosen topic is a key skill that signals your professional maturity and development.

Public speaking is one of those things that in our minds defines a more mature and experienced professional. Having outgrown the daily workload and becoming more involved with the needs of their industry, they take on a role of leadership and education, in turn inspiring a new generation of professionals to grow up.

We check out updates and social messages on Linkedin, TED Talks give us food for thought, and Youtube and other vlogs present us with facts and opinions brought by our industry champions.

It can at times feel hollow or meaningless, as if someone made a video or presentation just to be heard, or to push their personal agendas. It is easy to believe that public speaking is empty self-aggrandizement or attention seeking.

But public speaking is much more than that.

The ability to speak in public will market you as an authority, open up business and job opportunities, brings attention to your causes and expands your professional network. It attracts mentors as well as people seeking to be mentored by you. It can also pave the way to different markets, sectors or levels inside markets and sectors you already move around in.

In this post I will put up some of the basics of speaking in public, so that you can practice as well as analyze speeches you watch for these techniques. In future posts I will also focus on the benefits and caveats and the strategic importance of public speaking.

The Three Goals Of Public Speaking

You want people in your audience to be entertained, because people who feel amused will remember what you said, and they will be more receptive to your message. You want people to be informed, because sharing “secrets” and being the senior professional means that the audience must feel that you have more to offer. If they walk away feeling they already knew all you said and offered little to no new insights, they are not receptive to your message and might even detract from your message! Finally, you want them to be persuaded and take action on your words.

All efforts at public speaking will focus on one of these goals, but all these elements must be present for a speech to be sucessful.

Structuring Your Speech

Like all great stories, a speech has a beginning, a middle, and an end. When setting up a speech, you start with your ending, the goal you want to achieve. This goal determines the further structure.

If you want to entertain people, your speech likely follows a setup-punchline structure, like a stand-up comedian’s act. If you want to inform people,your structure needs to include basic information to get people up to speed before revealing your new information. And if you plan to persuade, you need to structure a need, a problem to solve, and then end with how your solution works to solve that problem.

Example: Entertain

Any video by James Veitch seeks to reach this goal primarily, but the original “adventures in replying to spam” exemplifies the type. First is the introduction, namely that he has done what everyone would have wanted at least once, namely to reply to email spam and see what happens. This also creates a bond with the audience, instantly. The setup then follows with increasingly ridiculous messages, eventually reaching a punchline of exchanging song titles as messages.

James seeks to inform you about what actually happens when you reply to spam, and encourages people to do the same, but those are secondary goals to entertainment.

Example: Inform

Four Billion Years of Evolution in Six Minutes is an informing talk by Prosenta Chakrabarty about how we view the process(es) involved in evolution. He begins by explaining how we view view evolution as a theory, and how his experiences in the classroom made him rethink how to present these theories. He finally concludes with the information that all species alive to day are about as far along in evolution, just following different paths and forms.

He seeks to entertain us by using graphics to underline his points, and persuade us to rethink how we view other people and species, but informing us on how to view evolutionary processes is his primary goal.

Example: Persuade

Adam Carroll’s talk When Money Isn’t Real illustrates how people’s perception of value and the importance of money changes when we can’t actually see or feel the presence of that money. He proceeds to illustrate this with an example of how using real money in his family’s monopoly game changes their strategies from when the money was obviously fake. In doing so, he seeks to persuade the audience to re-examine how they view money and value in a cashless society.

It is entertaining, because he uses a family game to frame the talk, and informing in that he explains the psychology of cash versus cashless, but the primary purpose of the speech is to alter our perspectives as viewers.

Speaking Like You’re In Charge

You will notice that there are some common factors in public speeches that help to pace and focus what the speaker is trying to say.

First off, speaking slowly, your words will have more weight, and listeners easily pick up on your words. When you move from one topic to another, like transitioning a presentation slide, pause for just a second and observe the audience. This will reconnect you with them as well as snap up attention.

When you make a key statement, emphasize the words of importance. The sentence “When observing these people I found out…that quality checks. were. not. performed. At all!” will draw attention to the lack of quality checks as well as underscore that this is obviously not a good thing.

Your voice is your most powerful tool, and you can learn to improve its use just like any other skill.

Vary your voice in pitch and adapt it to your story. Raise your voice’s pitch at questions, and lower it when you answer. “But do you think they CARED? No! Like how it looks like in written form, variations in your voice makes your speech more interesting and captivating.

Grabbing Your Audience

There’s more than just your voice and a solid story structure that governs how well received your speech will be. Different people require different stimuli to grab and keep their attention. You need to be aware of those and make sure you hit as many of those buttons as possible, by adapting your speech and presentation to the audience, so that they feel they can relate to it.

  • Cultural differences
  • Gender differences
  • Seniority differences
  • Educational differences
  • Political differences

For example, in the USA there is great respect for being friendly and accommodating, while in the Netherlands being honest is a great virtue. Any anecdote you bring up needs to take this cultural difference into account. You will not score points in the Netherlands for lying through your teeth and getting away with it, nor in the USA by boasting on how you repelled a person on the street in a stern manner.

Differences in gender and seniority in your audience have to do with the experiences they are familiar with. Convincing old people about “young people problems” is less successful, like asking a crowd of new arrivals in the labor market about their experiences with managerial positions.

Education is special in that it comes with a volume of language of its own. People with university degrees will have different vocabularies than those from engineering schools, even if they have the same exact size of vocabulary learnt. Adapt your speech to your audience, use terms they recognize, and avoid using difficult words “just because you know them”.

Graphics are a great way of supporting your story and keeping an audience enraptured, especially because a lot of people are image-oriented in nature. How to skillfully use graphics in a presentation is a post subject all on its own, and whole books and careers have been made about this topic.

Body Language And Posture

Your body language must fit your persona. If you want to exhibit power and confidence, stand up straight and smile. This will make you feel, and look, more confident. You will want to make few gestures, which distract from your story, or moving around to much on a stage. Anything you do that draws attention to yourself from your story means the impact of the latter becomes less.

That said, altering your body language to fit the story is a great idea! Raise an open hand, palm up, to the audience and raise an eyebrow when asking a question. Spread your arms and shrug to indicate something is unknown. Roll your eyes at a statement you want to debunk. Imitate the mannerisms of a person you are imitating in the story as well.

Those forms of acting can help underscore your story by merging the vocal with the visual elements and make them into a single whole. The videos I linked previously all show elements of these changes in body languages.


Using these basic techniques you will be able to analyze existing speeches and use this knowledge to create your own. Make sure that you entertain, inform and persuade, so that you have the greatest benefit from your speeches. Adapt your tale to match the audience.

Following up on this post, I will go in-depth on the benefits and dangers of public speaking, how to use it strategically (and where!) as well as how to overcome the fear of public speaking, whether hesitating at the start or stage freight during the event.



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