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Talking the Talk

If there is one characteristic that distinguishes those who excel at giving presentations or demonstrations it is proficiency in public speaking. Public speaking, like most skills applicable to teaching, is not a simple matter. It requires understanding how to engage audiences and how to hold their interest while stimulating reflective thinking.

The “mechanics” of public speaking can be concisely stated and accounted for. The “performance” aspect of public speaking, on the other hand, is more difficult to define because it is a struggle to pin down such things as passion and style. (The ability to understand and harness the performance qualities of public speaking may be innately stronger in some people than others, but everyone can understand, develop, and improve, with effort, over time.)

For the purposes of this article, presentations are defined as talks where the presenter is the main focus for an audience. Eyes and ears are primarily fixed on the person speaking. Presenters need very strong speaking skills to maintain their audience’s attention and interest. Those who provide demonstrations also need strong speaking skills, but they can rely (at least partially) upon an activity, object, specimen, or living creature to serve as the main focus of their audience’s attention.

Taming Stagefright

During his stand-up comedy routine, Billy Crystal would tell audiences that he always got the “jitters” before going on stage. “It’s not unusual,” he noted. “The fear of public speaking is the most frequently named fear there is. It was mentioned even more often than the fear of death, which was second.” After pausing, he’d continue by saying, “I guess that means the greatest fear imaginable would be speaking at your own funeral!”

It’s true that most of us will experience feelings of stagefright whenever we speak before an audience. Over time, however, such feelings become more familiar, and as such, less debilitating. In other words, while stagefright may never completely leave us, it can be tamed.

Though I’ve taught workshops for docents and staff educators for more than 25 years, I still feel adrenaline course through my veins each time I stand before a group. While this is happening, I find it useful to remind myself that I am providing the audience with a service; that I am eager to share my interest in, and enthusiasm for, the topic; and that the audience realizes that I’m human. I’ve come to consider nervousness an ally — increasing my energy level, heightening my awareness, and reminding me to be a lively and informative presenter.

The Mechanics of Public Speaking

Whether you provide presentations or demonstrations at your institution, these are some general rules that may assist you.

Outline your talk. Don’t deliver a speech verbatim, or memorize a talk. Such presentations usually sound “canned” and have far less vitality and spontaneity. In addition, should you lose your place or thoughts while delivering a memorized presentation you will have to reconstruct everything on the spot. If you lose your train of thought during an outlined presentation. you still have the gist of your conversation, know the direction and major points you are trying to make, and can continue.

Modulate your voice and speak casually. Controlling your voice can be an exceptionally challenging task; however, it is essential as your voice can hold or lose an audience’s attention. Even the most interesting information sounds boring if delivered in a monotone. Strive to be expressive.

Try to relax. Breathe! A nervous voice is thinner, more shrill, and harder to understand than a relaxed one. Enunciate, and speak casually. Avoid talking in a formal, clipped, or academic manner as this tends to be off-putting. Pace yourself When nervous, most people begin to speak faster, and some more softly. Neither of these qualities — faster or softer — are appropriate when speaking before an audience.

It is always revealing and often very useful to record your talk and listen to it. When you do, try to ignore the content while focusing on the sound of your voice. Also, ask a fellow docent or staff member whose public speaking skills you respect for his or her feedback.

Make eye contact with your entire audience. Look at the people before you. As you speak, work to establish contact with everyone, not just with one or two people. Allow your eyes to peruse faces. If possible, move around so that you can see everyone. Be aware of those people off to the sides or in the back.

Be seen and heard. Be certain that everyone can see and hear you (and see a demonstrated activity/ object/specimen/animal). Ask your audience if they can see and hear.

As a courtesy to members of the audience who may have difficulty hearing, it is often best to use sound amplification.

On occasion, shift your audience’s physical relationship to things. When appropriate, ask people in the back to come forward. Move around and through your group when possible. Be sensitive to your audience’s perspective. Remember that few things are more frustrating or discouraging that not being able to see or hear.

The Performance in Public Speaking

As previously stated, the “performance” inherent in public speaking is more subjective and less easily defined than are the “mechanics,” but it is no less important.

Involve your audience. Don’t allow your audience to remain passive. During presentations, people develop “listeners’ fatigue” fairly quickly. Bring your audience out of passivity. Invite them into your talk. Ask them open-ended questions. Have audience members share their thoughts, experiences, or ideas. Ask them to offer opinions. Even rhetorical questions (questions meant to provoke thought rather than oral responses) will involve and stimulate people.

When giving demonstrations, have your audience make observations “How would you describe this?” “What are its main attributes?” Have them make comparisons. “How is this different/similar to … ?” Ask for hypotheses “What do you think will happen?” Give audience members opportunities to participate by employing the same types of open-ended questions you might use during a gallery tour.

Be lively. Enthusiasm is contagious. But, then again, so is ennui. Surely you’ve experienced how yawning makes others yawn. Ignite people’s curiosity and interest by expressing your own interest and enthusiasm. If you sound tired with your talk or demonstration, your visitors will pick up on it. If enthusiasm is something you must manufacture, then manufacture it! If you can’t, then it is time for a new assignment.

Let your personality come through. Be yourself; don’t be scripted! Allow your own personality to weave into your “performance.” If you have a good sense of humor, laugh. If you just love the mathematics involved in something, revel. Remember that audiences make note of, and enjoy, speakers who convey an easy, approachable personality. So, cultivate your own style and share it while you perform your teaching responsibilities.

Practice, practice, practice. Public speaking takes plenty of practice. With practice, your level of comfort will grow. As comfort grows, so does confidence. With confidence, we can shift our focus from the mechanics of public speaking to its performance. And, through a strong performance, your speaking will be at its most effective and memorable.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Talking the Talk,” The Docent Educator 9.4 ( Summer 2000): 2-3.

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