by Ken Gibb

I know two people who are about to make important public speeches and in their different ways they are concerned to make the right kind of impact and not make mistakes. I do a relatively large amount of lectures, presentations, seminars and the like. It is par for the course for an academic and also if you are explicitly involved in knowledge exchange. I enjoy it when it goes well and I hate it if I don’t think or know that it hasn’t.

When I became a Faculty lecturer I realised that this was going to be a significant part of my working life and I had better work out some mechanisms and supports to help me overcome any problems speaking in public. I did some lecturer and media training, read some good books (e.g. Max Atkinson’s Lend Me Your Ears) and got on with it.

Actually, I did bit more than that. Periodically through my life I have had a stammer. For those who have a speech impediment there is no need to explain further but for those who don’t, they typically fall into two categories: those that are inherently physical and those are essentially in the mind. My form of problem – being unable to complete certain words and instead freezing on them – was it turned out something going on inside of me and not caused physiologically. When I started full time lecturing it was pretty obvious that I was struggling in certain classes, as I was also when speaking at some conferences and on other platforms. So, for the third time in my life I went to speech therapy.

What I found out from simply talking through the underlying causes of the problem was that, first, I needed to prepare properly and focus on things I was comfortable talking about (lecturers can find themselves in front of classes well outside their comfort zone). I used to worry about being asked questions I could not answer and that pushed the probability of stammering into near certainty. Second, I realised that I was not contributing to meetings, avoiding chairing and making up reasons not to make points – because of the risk I might stumble or stammer.

Third, I thought more about the things I knew already about my own problem. For instance, and somewhat bizarrely, certain individuals made me stammer (and there are not necessarily folk in positions of power). Equally strangely, I know before the fact when I am going to stammer – I can see the problem word lying ahead of me as I construct the sentence I am speaking. This makes me try to avoid the word or find a synonym. The problem is you can’t simultaneously provide a coherent smoothly deployed argument to the external world while internally trying to think of a non-stammering way to do it. Instead you blow up. The fact that a potential stammering episode lurks under the surface also makes you incredibly self-conscious and also very aware of how others speak and communicate.

Now this may all sound terrible but I think, now, that working one’s way through it reflectively, reading about speaking techniques and watching good speakers all helped. To an extent it is a phase that I have now, happily, largely passed through. Today I still sometimes stammer giving a paper or teaching but I am no longer that worried about it. I know if I prepare properly, try to add value in some way compared to the normal ‘talk to powerpoint’ mode, and just get a bit of perspective – it is not that big a deal and audiences are not generally out to get you.

Like blogging, you need to find your own voice. I would probably like to be more consistent but it is no longer a chore. Instead it is usually quite a bit of fun (for something that can be very important). Recently I have given evidence to Parliamentary Committees and done live tv and radio. This kind of public speaking is ok and I find I can thus far cope with it. This is so because I think I know what I am talking about, I know that I have survived doing media work before and I will have done my homework. As a result, I have really not been that nervous or unable to function as once would have definitely been the case. I even quite like to play what BBC presenters call ‘that’s a good question bingo’ and actually engage in proper Q&A and be quite relaxed if I don’t have a pat answer.

As I am a big fan of lists, here are a few thoughts about public speaking as a result of these experiences.

  • I rather self-consciously try to be humorous as a rhetorical device. I have two notebooks full of quotes and jokes. Just yesterday in a traffic jam I found myself scribbling down two great quotes from James Joyce heard on the radio. The big problem is not telling the same audience one of your favourite stories for a second time. You also need to go easy on these things, judge what is appropriate and make sure that it is the argument that they are listening to not for the next joke. And of course what I think is funny may not not be to who are listening. Know your audience.
  • I try to mix up my audio-visuals, including alternatives to powerpoint like prezi.
  • Some people I have heard speak effectively and remain in the memory work with a very straight but impressively clear presentation style. This can work just as well if you can be disciplined. This is what my colleague Jack Parr calls the ‘John Wayne’ style – you come into town, get off your horse, tell it straight, get back on your horse and leave town.
  • Narrative and logical progression are incredibly important. Also, Max Atkinson argues that you need to speak steadily and at a level of argument slightly below what you are comfortable with – audiences don’t necessarily follow at your pace so try to marginally simplify but don’t ever patronise.
  • Try really hard to prepare, speak and plan for the timed allocation you have to speak for. If that also means extemporising to finish on time, do that and even have a plan B (to coin a phrase). Try not to skip slides or race back and forward in your powerpoint.
  • Finally, if despite your plans and efforts, the worst things happen, you can’t answer a question [tell them you’ll get back to them and do so], technology fails [have a paper back up] or your paper simply does not work as a presentation and you confront a sea of baffled faces [rehearse it and test it with others informally especially if it is a new idea or application]. If all else fails, don’t worry and be happy. Tony O’Sullivan used to present the Scottish House Condition Survey publication at an event with teeming hundreds in front of him. I asked him how he kept so calm and normal. He argued that you have to recognise that there are much more important things going on in the world than your ability to speak through nerves – get a bit of perspective, man.

In the end I am a bit longer in the tooth now, fairly relaxed about public speaking and usually up for the challenge. I hope I have a bit of that perspective these days but at the same time I know I have to put the time and thought into each presentation and actually try to get something out of it that feels creative to me.

Good luck.