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Wisdom is in the telling of the tale:Ten tips to get them listening to you now

The mountain loomed closer and closer. Suddenly the train whistle shrieked. From pot, he moved on to crack. Finally I began to believe in myself. And then the sick child began to laugh.

Those are a few of the riveting journeys shared at a recent public-speaking contest held by Speakers Gold, a Toronto speakers' bureau searching for new talent. About 20 speakers, from as far afield as Winnipeg, were vying for their shot at podium prime time.

As a sometime speaker, I was asked to be a judge. Fellow judge, image-consultant Ayla Tezcan, and I were asked to critique each three-minute presentation and provide "constructive criticism" a la American Idol's acerbic Simon Cowell.

Having to produce such quick, concise feedback gave me a crash course in public-speaking dos and don'ts. And since presenting capably and confidently is a skill required of every business leader, I thought I'd share my conclusions: 10 rules for standout public speaking.

Tell stories! Don't just tell your audience what to do. Don't offer assorted bits of hard-won wisdom. Unless it's rooted in memorable stories and relevant experiences people will identify with, your "content" means nothing.
Tell your own stories. No matter what your rank or title, if you want people to heed your messages, you must establish your own credentials through personal experience and original thinking.

There are many highly paid speakers who simply synthesize other people's thoughts and recycle great quotations, but these are trusted experts who have been building their brands for years.

Whether you're making a sales presentation or delivering a keynote speech, if you want to appear credible and authoritative, you have to earn your audience's respect, one painful personal lesson at a time.

Own the platform. This means making the best use of both your movements and the "stage" on which you are speaking.

At the competition, the first few speakers stayed by the microphone stand. They spoke well enough, but as the succeeding speakers roamed the stage with the hand-held mike, they literally upstaged the podium-clingers.

A big part of public speaking is finding movements, gestures and body language that look natural and underscore your meaning -- just as actors and dancers use precise movement to tell their stories. But don't overdo it! Some speakers wandered aimlessly across the stage. Random movement detracts from meaning, rather than adding to it.

Develop a few "big" gestures for effect. One speaker strode confidently into the aisles to involve the audience in her story; another demonstrated an emotional crisis by dropping to his knees and slapping the floorboards to create a violent thunderclap. Learn to use grand gestures. But sparingly.

Stay within your time. Sadly, the most experienced speakers were among the worst offenders, some taking five minutes or more for their three-minute speeches. This is unfair to your audience, as well as to other speakers. Three minutes isn't a lot of time for an after-dinner speaker. But it's a lot more uninterrupted time than most of us ever get in day-to-day life, so you must make the best of terse opportunities.

Move us. Use descriptive language, tone of voice and telling details to get your message across. Don't just tell us somebody was hurt; tell us how they suffered. Don't describe someone as brave, wise or honest -- explain how they demonstrated those qualities.

Use visual descriptions. Tell us how things looked, how big the mountain seemed, how close the train came. Create pictures in our mind and we will recall your message much longer than we will remember facts or rules.
Speak up. Develop your voice. On the contest night, some speakers unwisely chose to leave the microphone behind. (Perhaps they don't realize the absurdity of asking, "Can you hear me in the back?") You can't move people if you can't reach them. A quick way to lose credibility is to say, "I don't need a mike," and then prove you did.

Don't try to say too much. One speaker tried to take us on a full mountain expedition in three minutes. Going overtime, she managed to give us glimpses of her journey but the story wasn't coherent. She should have described just one dramatic situation, and used it to illustrate her key point. Better to leave the audience wanting more than to attempt too much, and not communicate a single clear idea.

Include a call to action. Tell us how we should use the information you've shared. What should it mean to your audience? How should they put your message into practice in their lives? Your compelling stories and brilliant insights mean nothing until you draw the line between your experience and the needs of your audience.

Rick Spence is a writer, consultant and speaker specializing in entrepreneurship. His column appears Mondays in the Financial Post. He can be reached at rick@rickspence.ca

This article was written by Rick Spence, Financial Post
Published: Monday, June 23, 2008
Posted with permission from the author.
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