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Communication is Key: The Art of Public Speaking

At the core of public relations is communication.  Media relations, product launches, television appearances, presentations and crisis management efforts all require effective communication techniques to convey key messages to affected audiences. It is not about the words, however, but the effective communication of ideas to provoke thoughts in the audience that leave a lasting impact. Even the most seasoned speechwriter cannot save a poor public speaker.  To ensure that key messages and ideas resonate, the job of a speaker is not to talk but make the audience think. The speaker is the vehicle through which the key messages are communicated; if the audience does not remember the speaker, they will not remember the message.

I had the opportunity to participate in a session at Black Isle Group in Toronto— a company that specializes in leadership communications and the development of public speaking skills— with Barry Kuntz, the Managing Director.  I got to experience the first module, Communication Principles, in Black Isle Group’s “Speaking with Impact” program. The main focus of this first session is on the basic style and method. When it comes to public speaking, Kuntz explains that it is common to get stuck in the trap of playing someone else instead of being the unique person one is in natural conversation. “I always find it remarkable that certain individuals can be social, engaging and stimulating in a casual-like setting at a bar or coffee shop,” he says, “yet, when you do something as simple as ask them to stand up and share their story with the room, they immediately switch their demeanor.” Through its various workshops, Black Isle Group teaches public relations firms, entertainment figures, corporate groups and CEOs to overcome such public speaking anxiety and develop impactful communication skills to influence intended publics.

Through the two-hour session, I am officially rendered a better public speaker, as Kuntz helps to dispel traditional notions of public speaking through his powerful advice, video review and analysis of prominent speakers.  After an initial introductory conversation, Kuntz directs me to a podium in front of a camera to address an imaginary audience through a cold read of a speech.  He tells me that the cold read is apparently relatively good for a first attempt, but the difference between it and another two hours later is remarkable.  Through the session, I learn that the basic elements in effective communication style remain the same in any situation- whether speaking in an interview setting, in a boardroom or at a podium in front of thousands.

Kuntz highlights Black Isle Group’s basic pyramid model as a guideline for effective communication. The first thing to do, he says, is to write the conclusion. Think of the message you want the public to take away in the form of a headline of a press release or a news article, with a subtitle underneath. The speaker should always state the conclusion first, so that no matter what happens, the key messages are always communicated. Next, include supporting messages to back up your claims- the Who, What, Where, When and Why.  Thinking in terms of the pyramid prevents the trap of wandering towards a conclusion, thinking out loud, or providing too much information.  This way, even if a speech or presentation needs to be cut short at the last-minute, the main messages are always communicated.  The basic pyramid structure is applicable to communication on any scale. In handling media, the pyramid model prevents rambling or divulging too much information and ensures communication of key messages even if the proper questions are not asked.  To that point, Kuntz advises to keep answers to a maximum of 30 seconds to avoid information overload.

A core principle stressed through the “Speaking with Impact” program is that public speaking should mimic natural conversation- a speaker should not speak to the audience, but think in terms of having a natural conversation with them.  As Kuntz points out, in everyday dialogue we very seldom speak in complete sentences, do not use impeccable grammar and we pause everywhere and anywhere. We don’t speak to commas, colons or even periods in some cases.  We don’t make consistent eye contact. Kuntz explains that most people believe that eye contact must be maintained 99 per cent of the time in a public speaking situation. Persistent eye contact, in contrast, makes situations uncomfortable because it is not natural. The only time that eye contact is essential is at the end of a thought or idea to ensure the message is communicated to the receiver. Natural speech is peppered with pauses; we layer our pauses and vary the length to stress the importance of an idea or when we are thinking of the next thing to say.

Unknown to me, my initial dialogue with Kuntz upon entering his office was videotaped. When played back, I watch as I carefully choose my words and often pause before ideas and when deciding how to react to a particular question or provide a piece of information. When Kuntz asks about a sensitive situation, I take a whole seven seconds to answer. In terms of eye contact, my natural gaze glances everywhere, yet I do not seem unfocused or uncomfortable. My grammar is not perfect and I use my fair share of “ums,” but he reassures me that this is okay-as long as the “ums” flow with the natural conversation. My animated hand gestures are ok as well.  Body language and gestures are what makes people unique, Kuntz tells me.  To this point, he advises that speakers should write the way they speak as an individual’s own conversation style is always the best and most genuine.

Kuntz stresses the importance of the two elements of pace- the rate of words and the rate of ideas.  The rate of word delivery refers to the normal pace at which one speaks and the rate of ideas refers to the pace at which ideas are stressed. The challenge of public speaking is to present these ideas at a digestible pace. The idea is what gives the audience a cause, and after they are given ideas they require time process them. Kuntz highlights the importance pausing before and after key messages in the delivery of ideas. The first pause reveals you are thinking about what you are going to say next and that you are in control, knowledgeable and command respect. The second lets the audience digest and think about what you just said. This—coupled with the end-of-thought eye contact— emphasizes your key message. Strategic pauses engage the audience because they force them to think along with the speaker instead of trying to learn and think at the same time.

 

In a second attempt at the speech, Kuntz instructs me to pick out three words in each stanza that stand out in my mind. He asks me  to pause before and after the word for three seconds and to take a long pause before I began. Although pausing for three seconds felt like three hours at the time, when played back, it is more reflective of a natural conversation than my earlier attempt at public speaking and is more engaging because the pauses prevent the trap of being controlled by the dialogue and the words from getting lost . Further to the point, Kuntz advises to always pause before answering any question from media or other key audiences. Although a speedy answer may seem the best to some, it produces uncertainty with the audience if the answer comes too quickly.

 

To illustrate the key points made throughout the session, Kuntz points to footage from Denzel Washinton’s The Great Debaters and from John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech at Rudolph Wilde Platz in Berlin. The Great Debaters speech— in which an African-American boy describes the lynching of African-Americans to an assembly hall of white people at Harvard University in the 1930’s— begins with a 30-second pause. In fact, Kuntz tells me that 66 per cent of the powerful speech is in silence. In his historic 1963 speech at the Berlin Wall, John F. Kennedy does not speak to, but has a conversation with, thousands.  He speaks in improper grammar and even pauses six times in one sentence at one point, yet the speech is often hailed as one of his most memorable. It is immediately clear that these are examples of effective public speaking that evoke a strong audience response and leave resonating words and ideas

 

Near the end of the session, Kuntz hands me a new script and—practicing the skills discussed—asks me again to address, inspire and affect the imaginary audience in another speech.  Drawing motivation from the footage I had just watched and using the basic principles outlined by Kuntz, the third and final read is natural, controlled and authoritative-despite it being a cold read and my unfamiliarity with the subject matter. Through my experience at Black Isle Group, it is apparent that public speaking is very much a physical skill that develops with practice. In today’s climate—where presentation is key and public accountability is heightened—the ability to verbally communicate thoughts and ideas effectively is essential and increasingly expected.


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