Tips for Speaking to an Audience

Many experienced speakers employ devices which give added effect to their speeches. Some of these are:

Repetition

Repetition of a word a phrase or an idea is useful for emphasis:

Physical illness can be caused by fear. Fear of failure, fear of other people's reactions, fear of the unknown. Fear of something which may not even happen.

Verb signals

An indication of what will be coming later in your talk is an effective method of maintaining audience interest. Use transitions to draw your audience a 'road map' of your talk. For example:

In a few moments I will provide some statistics that will interest you...

There are four ways of understanding this. Firstly - second - third - finally

I'll now provide some evidence and examples to support my last statement.

Examples and illustrations

Use examples, anecdotes or verbal illustrations to interest and to suit your audience. An example that comes within the experience of the audience can create empathy and 'break the ice'. For example, if you are addressing a group of Communications students, it would probably be useless to explain something by comparing it to a complicated scientific process. A comparison with activities of the news media would be more enlightening.

Asking questions and inviting participation

Asking questions of your audience throughout your talk helps to maintain interest. It also develops a relationship between you and the audience. Asking questions also means that your words are not merely being aimed at the audience; you are inviting them to participate and drawing them in to a mutual thinking process, eg:

Has anyone considered the large number of people who are permanently affected by road accidents?

Who can suggest some alternative uses for plastic bubble wrap?

Someone's home is broken into every seven minutes. Can you believe that?

Talking directly to the audience

If the members of the audience can be made to feel like individuals, the speaker has won half the battle to maintain interest, eg:

I see from your reaction that you've read something similar, Sarah . . .

Eye contact

Make eye contact with your audience to establish a bond. This involves glancing at the faces or the members of the audience. Don't be afraid to look people in the eye, but don't stare continuously - a few seconds is enough.

Eye contact not only establishes a bond but also registers your progress. You can gauge audience reaction to what is being said by looking at the faces of the audience. Faces can indicate interest, puzzlement, boredom and pleasure. In other words, the faces of the audience are your barometer.

Speaking well

Effective speaking doesn't only depend on good voice production and articulation. Other factors such as pace, pitch, tone, volume and the use of the pause contribute to good delivery.

Pace

Speaking to an audience requires a slower pace than informal conversation. Pace can be varied: slow measured speech for a point which is serious or needs emphasising; faster speaking to lend excitement or urgency to other points However, the pace should not be so slow that the audience becomes impatient to hear the next word.

Pitch

A low-pitched voice is pleasing to the audience and is comfortable for the speaker. High-pitched voices tend to sound harsh and shrill and will irritate any audience. A high pitch is usually due to shallow breathing and nervousness. Deep, steady breathing and a deliberate attempt to lower the pitch will help to reduce nerves.

Variations in pitch can be useful. For example, the pitch could be raised to add emphasis to a question. Variation needs to be employed with caution, as too frequent use of high pitch can irritate an audience.

Tone

Tone is the quality which expresses feeling. It can lend warmth and sincerity to your voice or reveal how strongly you feel about a topic. This can evoke a similar response from the audience.

In academic presentations a harshly critical or judgemental tone should be avoided. It can make a speaker sound aggressive and biased - have you ever listened to a parliamentary debate?

Volume

High volume or loudness is not the same thing as shouting. The voice should only be loud enough for those listeners in the back rows to hear comfortably. You can vary volume to make the seminar more lively and interesting.

Pausing

Inexperienced speakers think of a pause as a failure in fluency, and try to avoid its use. Experienced speakers use pauses to great effect. Pausing can focus attention on what has been said or what is about to be said, or to prepare the audience for a change in ideas.

* Adapted from: Pitman, 1988, Business Commnunication.

Related tags: Academic skills