Conscious Communication: How to Speak Well in Public

Voice coach VERENA TAY on the two things you can do to speak better in public.

Humans have always been a social species, relying greatly on our voice, speech and gestures to communicate our thoughts and feelings to one another. Yet why is it that some people are considered effective speakers and some are not?

To answer that, let us first consider ourselves. Many of us today have received at least 10 years of formal schooling during which we learned to read, process and organise information, and write. But we are generally not taught how to give oral presentations. When the need arises, we usually do some speech preparation and then wing it: we stand up, say our stuff and hope as best as possible that our audience will understand what is coming out of our mouths.

We have observed the results of such efforts in others, if not ourselves: the audience merely hears sounds emerging from the speaker’s lips; there is no real connection between the spoken words and the speaker, and the speaker does not engage the audience directly. Worse still, the speaker may come across stilted and stiff and seem as monotonous as the famous physicist Stephen Hawking’s computerised voice. Unfortunately, most of us do not have Dr Hawking’s gravitas that will compel the audience to stay focused on our message and try to decipher our words of wisdom. Inevitably, we lose the audience’s attention and our speeches fall flat.

In contrast, millions of people worldwide would tune into webcasts of Steve Jobs’ presentations when he was still alive. Although he was not an actor, Jobs captured people’s attention with his showmanship and succeeded in selling millions of Apple products through the years. What was the secret behind Jobs’ charisma as a presenter?

As a voice, speech and presentation skills coach for about a decade, I have continually shared with people two key principles that can solve our oral communication woes. These points may seem ridiculously simple and obvious, but are absolutely fundamental if you wish to improve your public speaking skills.

Take the time to review a Steve Jobs video or observe any speaker (or actor) that you highly esteem and you will probably note: (a) the presenter believes in what he/she is saying, and (b) he/she actively communicates that belief to the audience. To translate the above principles into concrete action when delivering your speech, do the following:

  • Understand the exact meaning of what you want to say. Be clear about the flow of points.
  • As you say the words, visualise the meaning in your head and consciously intend the words and their meaning to reach your audience.
  • Rehearse your speech out loud again and again, each time making sure that you actively practise this action of consciously communicating with someone (even if you do not have an actual audience listening to you during your rehearsals).

Unless you fully understand what you want to convey, it will be very hard to visualise what you are saying. When you wholeheartedly imagine your words as you speak, you will find several things happening: (a) you will appear more convincing and truthful because your speech and body become more integrated, and (b) you will automatically appear less vocally flat and have greater textures and nuances in your speech.

In addition, it is vital that you must actively direct what you are visualising and speaking towards your audience. Only in this manner will your audience receive your message clearly. Lastly, rehearsals are vital if you are to get the practice of articulating the words, saying the details of the speech in the right order, and communicating with an audience.

So the next time you give a public presentation, apply these simple principles and I guarantee you that you will be well on your way to become a conscious and effective communicator.

Verena Tay is a seasoned theatre practitioner, a published writer and editor, and an active storyteller. Since receiving an MA in Voice Studies from the Central School of Speech and Drama, London, in 2005, she has been teaching voice, speech and presentation skills at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University and other local institutions. She also conducts storytelling and creative writing workshops. For more information:

    Sep 1, 2014
    Verena Tay
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