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A Few Principles of Public Speaking

Large or small, in an auditorium or in a museum gallery, audiences respond to the same basic principles of public speaking.

  • Begin by presenting the overview or theme that will thread itself throughout your talk. Your audience needs to understand what you will be teaching them and to have some sense of a unifying concept.
  • Avoid confusing or technical terms whenever possible; use simple, conversational language and hone your ideas to their sparest, yet still informative, form. If you must use an obscure term, or are attempting to introduce new vocabulary, be certain to explain fully, and in a manner consistent with the listener’s ability to comprehend.
  • Relate each new object or important piece of information back to your main concept or theme to keep listeners “on track.”
  • Beware of tangents, unless they are brief and directly relate to your subject. They can confuse listeners and distract you from your own train of thought.
  • Use questions from the audience to create something of a dialogue. Questions clarify, and can enlighten both the listener and the speaker.
  • When you are asked a challenging question, or one requiring some thought, do not try to answer quickly to “cover up” your surprise. You risk giving misinformation or saying something you will have to modify later. Instead, give yourself a moment to think. And, if you simply don’t know the answer, say so.
  • The “art of pausing” works better if fillers like “um . . .” or “well . . .” don’t substitute for silence.
  • Be relaxed enough to laugh, especially if something spontaneously funny occurs. Be a part of the joke, not its subject.
  • Cultivate enthusiasm. If you are enthusiastic about your subject, it will seem more interesting and worthwhile to your audience. If you feel less than enthusiastic, do additional research, speak with staff, or find something that makes the subject more interesting to you. Remember, what you feel inside comes through to visitors.
  • Select clothing and accessories you feel comfortable in, and that do not dominate or distract. Visitors should be by Molly Dempsey looking at the collection, not your wardrobe.
  • Enunciate and project! Nothing is more frustrating for listeners than not to be able to understand or hear what is being said.

Most importantly, public speaking requires practice and strong knowledge of the material you want to present. Work on your presentation and your style with friends, family members, or other docents. Tape record yourself and listen to it as visitors might. A more critical approach would be to videotape your tour to improve control of body language and gesturing, in addition to speaking voice, intonation, and content. And, be sure to practice often. Chances are, when you are satisfied, your audience will be, too.

Molly Dempsey recently graduated from Boston College with a B.A. in English. In addition to her responsibilities with this publication, she is a freelance production assistant for a film and video company in Seattle. WA.

Dempsey, Molly. “A Few Principles of Public Speaking,” The Docent Educator 1.2 (Winter 1991): 7.

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