The secrets of inspirational public speakers

Olly | 24 February 2017

Archive on 4 zw 1 240217


What makes a great public speaker? Having been to three conferences in the last three weeks, it’s a question that’s been on my mind. Luckily, I’ve heard some thought-provoking, humane and entertaining talks (shout out to Fatima Bhutto). But others have been awkward at best and downright dull at worst. Which is why I’m going to beg you to listen to this special edition of BBC Radio 4's Archive on 4. Because if you speak to large groups, or helps others prepare to address conferences or town halls, you’ll find it a funny, moving and very useful hour of radio.

The programme resonates not least for the contribution from TED curator, Chris Anderson. He talks about the fact that live talks can be “the spur by which a group of people decide to act together.” I love this comment – doesn’t it describe what we’re hoping will happen when we plan an event of conference?

Here are five big things I took from the programme:

Get passionate. Sarah Steed is part of Speakers Trust, the UK’s leading public speaking training charity. She reminds us that “passions that we connect with are more important than finesse and technical ability”. If you (or someone you’re working with) is in the grip of stage fright, it’s a useful message to dwell on. Forget about flawless microphone technique and breath control; if you can summon up genuine passion for your subject, you will not fail to connect with your audience.

It’s all about what you don’t include. Chris Anderson talks about public speaking bringing out a sense of grandiosity in people, hence them cramming in too much content. Having once helped someone put a 100-slide presentation together, I have been an accomplice to this crime. My resolution for the year ahead is to help people focus on the core of their message, and not stray too far from it.

Get off the stage! Sylvester McCoy, the former Doctor Who star, shakes up the Q&A portions of his talks by roving around the auditorium talking directly to the people who want to ask questions. If you’re working with an energetic speaker, why not explore ways in which you can break the sense of separation between them and the audience?

Read the room. There are various reasons talks can fall flat, but one recurring culprit is that the speaker didn’t read the room. As Sylvester McCoy says, “If you lose people, be prepared to abandon the script, or at least recalibrate.” This is a skill best learned through experience and repetition, which brings me to my final take-out…

Embrace the uncomfortable. Public speaking can be a terrifying prospect. Clare Mackie shares a tip in the programme; in the run up to making her first public speech, she put herself in situations where she could “practice being visible, feeling exposed and vulnerable”. And as you’ll hear on the programme, her preparation paid off brilliantly.

Here are some more ideas to help you take your speaking skills to the next level:

- Get top tips from the experts at Speakers Trust

- Polish your storytelling skills courtesy of advice from The Moth podcast (a firm favourite with Team Belong)

- Watch Chris Anderson talk about TED's secret to great public speaking

- Check out your local Toastmasters club to develop your speaking and leadership skills

I’m burning up to a few speeches this year and will report back on my adventures. In the meantime, if you have any tips or links you’d like to share, please do leave a comment below.