Imagine walking through your hometown on a sunny afternoon. Picture the familiar sights and feelings that were synonymous with your childhood. Maybe you smell an aroma of pine trees or hear the reminiscent sounds of taxi drivers swearing at one another as they honk their horns.
Suddenly you’re cut out of your nostalgic state when a group of people come up to you asking for your help. They’re not from the area and don’t need to mention it twice. Their facial expressions say “We’re desperately lost and need your help!” before they get the chance to tell you themselves.
The group inquires about the best restaurants, sights to see, and favorite local attractions. Without missing a beat, you mention the most delicious cafe you frequented with your friends back in high school. You explain that the trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting a nearby museum and that they absolutely cannot miss taking a walk through your favorite park.
Your new friends are visibly elated, thanking you over and over and commenting on what a great tour guide you’ve made. While debating whether or not to accept their tips and quit your day job, you start to wonder why this was so easy for you in the first place.
In a way, you’ve just given a speech to your new friends all about your hometown. You’d given speeches before that had gone well only after lots of practice, trial and error, and insurmountable nervousness. What made this particular instance so much easier and more comfortable than all the others, especially when tasked with coming up with everything on the spot?
Too often we make the mistake of thinking there are great secrets to speaking in public that take a lifetime to master. In reality, each time we have a conversation with a peer or explain something to a friend we are, in our own way, giving a small speech.
That being said, why is having a conversation so much easier and how do we translate that to speaking our mind in front of a crowd? Let’s break it down into three key attributes:
We know the subject matter
This may seem like an obvious key to success for effective speakers. Know the material and half the battle is already over, right? Wrong. Think about a class presentation you gave in which you’d researched the subject extensively, were discussing a novel you read, etc.
There’s a good chance it was a lot harder than explaining what there is to do in your hometown. It’s not enough to know the subject matter – you have to know you know the subject matter. Let me say that again:
You have to know you know the subject matter.
Too often we give speeches that fail to show they are a collection of hours of research and careful study. We are self-taught experts on a topic but stammer in front of a crowd because any lack of confidence in expertise is exacerbated in front of an audience.
Remember when you were playing tour guide? There wasn’t a doubt in your mind you’d be believed when proclaiming what the best restaurant in town was. How could you be challenged? You knew for a fact that you did not have to tread lightly around such statements because you felt, comparatively, like an expert.
You had complete and unwavering confidence that your opinion was valid and had some credentials. Knowing the subject involves having a validated stance and the confidence that your stance will uphold or be improved when challenged. Of course, it helps if you know you’re the only expert in the room.
We know our audience
Knowing your audience was an asset when having confidence in your bold statement, but it doubles as an asset when selecting a topic.
Knowing the crowd is a vital filter for the content of your speech as nothing will engage (or disengage) your audience faster than the relevance of your content. Keep everything you say relevant and, when delivered effectively, you will keep everyone engaged.
Relevance is particularly helpful when using anecdotes or analogies in a speech. If you want to use an example that is popular locally, then know it will only strike a chord with people in your area.
Your audience has to care – and that’s all about relevance
You knew the group of out-of-towners had little interest in personal stories about your connection with the town or would want to hear about the school you attended. They wanted to know where to eat and what to do, and this was the information you provided!
They remained so engaged in what you were saying because it was relevant information on their journey to discover your hometown. The audience engagement stemmed from the content you delivered and, most importantly, how you delivered it.
We are confident and passionate
The most common mistakes made while speaking in front of a crowd are failures to make proper eye contact, mitigate a number of filler words, and fluctuate tone effectively and organically.
The fastest way to start to correct all of these issues is to master the use of confidence and passion. Think about when you’re having a normal conversation with your friends. Do you say “um” a lot? Are you debating in your head where to look and what to say?
The biggest difference between a speech and a conversation is often not what we say but how we feel.
Sure, confident and passionate speakers aren’t perfect, but those who can effectively showcase this passion in a speech are the ones you’re more likely to listen to.
Recall your experience as a tour guide – you were speaking about the place you grew up! You were a self-taught expert in a place you’d spent so much time. Overflowing with confidence and passion, your audience would’ve believed you if you said the sky wasn’t blue because you had that much credibility.
So what can we learn from tour guides?
A knowledge of subject and audience and an ability to show passion gives confidence and credibility. Giving insights into subjects, playing on relevant topics, and doing so while giving off the comfort of passionate, organic conversation makes any audience feel like they are being spoken with rather than preached to.
Your ten minutes as a tour guide most likely felt like a conversation. Pick up a microphone and take center stage because you’ve just given a great speech.
I would like to thank Professor Paul Horn of Babson College for allowing me to use, elaborate on, break down, and analyze his tour guide example. You are truly an expert in the field and a testament to skilled public speaking.