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What you can learn about public speaking from everyday conversation

Whether you’re an experienced business presenter looking to refine your skills or a rookie struggling to overcome stage fright, there’s a helpful source of inspiration you may not have considered: everyday conversations with the people around you.

The very best public speakers approach presenting as a conversation. Consider the most skilled and effective speakers you’ve heard. In a room of hundreds or even thousands, the speaker’s relationship with the audience feels intimate, doesn’t it?

Let’s explore the similarities and important differences between presenting and participating in a conversation. Then, we’ll reveal how you can apply conversational skills to help ensure you are confident, heard and inspiring the next time you step up to speak.

Presenting and conversing are more alike than you realize -- with one exception

Think about it: When you’re talking casually with a friend or colleague over coffee, beer or maybe a glass of wine, what’s your intention?

  • To share ideas, opinions and information
  • To help your listener understand your point of view
  • To entertain or elicit emotion in the other person

Those are the same goals you’re looking to accomplish with a business presentation, aren’t they? In fact, public speaking is defined as “the process of speaking to a group of people in a structured manner intended to inform, persuade or entertain listeners.”

Another similarity between casual conversation and more formal presenting is the need to connect with the people you are speaking to. In both types of communication, the higher quality the connection you establish, the more memorable and impactful the interaction.

However, the definition of public speaking noted above reveals one important difference between presenting and everyday conversation: the structured nature of the communication and the planning that’s needed to create that structure. Casually talking with people around you is typically spontaneous and unstructured.

To be effective, a business presentation needs a clear framework and simple core message to ensure clarity. Because the stakes are higher and you have a time limit, you need to be sure your audience will clearly understand and remember the key point of what you have to say. That’s why advance preparation for your presentation is so essential: it allows you to  build appropriate structure to best serve the needs of your audience.

Learn more: "Craft Your Presentation By Answering 4 Questions"

When it comes to the delivery of your message, however, it can be very helpful to use casual conversation as your guide.

4 ways to improve delivery by approaching a speech as a conversation

Let’s look at several best practices from everyday communication that you already know and can apply to your presentation delivery.

1. Adjust your attitude

Most of us don’t experience nerves when speaking one on one or with a small group of people, even if we don’t already know them. Why is that? Because it feels familiar. On the other hand, standing on a stage or even in a conference room and addressing a group feels foreign.

It can be helpful for overcoming anxiety to realize that while the circumstances maybe different, you already know how to do this! You’re interacting with more people, but the skillset is the same. Simply think of yourself as the person initiating a conversation.

2. Make eye contact

When talking in a small group, it’s natural to make eye contact with others, and that simple act serves to create an instant connection. However, when you stand up in front of a crowd, you might find yourself gazing at the back of the room without actually looking at any of the audience members. While this might feel safe, it actually makes you more nervous since you can’t judge how others are reacting. It also makes you appear distant to the audience.

Treat a larger group with the same courtesy you would treat a friend you’re having lunch with. Smile and make eye contact with audience members throughout the room, especially those who appear attentive and welcoming.

Afraid your audience won’t be attentive and welcoming? Here are two tips you might find helpful. Before the event, make yourself available to greet audience members as they arrive. Those people you’ve already met are likely to be friendly faces you can connect with during the presentation. If you’re really worried, you can ask colleagues to sit in the audience. A nod and a smile from a familiar face can help to calm your nerves.

Learn more: "Going Live: Tips for First-Time Corporate Speakers"

3. Use plain language

When giving a “formal” presentation, you might feel like you’re supposed to use formal language to make an impression. Of course, it depends on the situation and the people you’re addressing, but in most cases your message will resonate better with your audience when you use the plain language you would use in casual conversation. That means avoiding jargon and terms they may not understand. Keep your sentences short, simple and straightforward.

4. Change your tone and body language

This is an area where even the most experienced speakers can unintentionally alienate people. Some speakers tend to automatically raise their pitch and vocal volume when addressing a crowd, and it can come across like shouting.

Instead, aim for what media training coach Scott Morgan calls a “dinner party delivery.” When rehearsing and giving your presentation, imagine you’re talking with a group of people at a dinner party. Forego talking at people and instead talk with them using an animated expression, a conversational tone and volume, and appropriate hand gestures.

Learn more: "8 Best Practices for Nailing a Media Interview"

One skill reinforces the other

There’s a bonus benefit of connecting your presentation delivery with everyday communication. When you work on these delivery tactics to improve your public speaking results, you’ll find your conversational skills improve as well. Try it!

 

Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com.

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