It’s easy to spot a dull speaker – just count the number of nodding heads in the audience. You can add a little sizzle to your presentations by learning to deliver a palatable blend of facts, figures, philosophy, humour, and the unexpected. The result can be rewarding – happy audiences, rapt attention, and more support for your cause. Pep up your next presentation by considering this advice…

Develop your speaking skills

1. Use appropriate attention-grabbers.

Handouts, audiovisual aids, props, yarns, facts and figures, questions, show-of-hands, anecdotes, humour and demonstrations – all are capable of complementing your speech and of holding the attention of your audience. And all of those techniques are essential if you adhere to this basic principle for success: show them, don’t tell them. If you illustrate your points with examples, demonstrations, or analogies that are visual or oral, you’ll keep them interested.

2. Involve the audience.

Involvement keeps people from nodding off. Try asking questions and for a show of hands. Work in some role-play. Keep the audience active. Remember, you’re up there to speak; they’re out there to listen. If they finish before you do, you’re in trouble.

3. Use props.

Anything your audience can see makes you and your message more memorable. Try using props – a football jersey (when talking about teamwork), an account book (when discussing spending), a large toy animal, and so on. But use props only if you feel comfortable in doing so, if they are compatible with your speaking style, and only if they are appropriate to your topic.

4. Do something unexpected.

The element of surprise can lift your performance. Why not break down that physical barrier your listeners expect between you and them? Desert the lectern and move out into the audience. Or at an appropriate moment, to illustrate a point, pull out an inflated balloon from beneath the lectern and explode it; or tear up and scatter a page from your speech.

5. Use technology.

Videos, computer graphics, audio, transparencies, slides, multi-media, and similar devices are all attention-grabbers. They divert attention from your talking head, clarify your content, generate interest in the topic, increase retention, and help to reduce your stage fright. Make sure you know how to use each. But remember, you’re still the most important audio-visual device in the room.

6. Spin a yarn.

The best way to hold an audience’s attention is to tell a story. Scatter anecdotes, real dialogue, and personal experiences throughout your speech to reinforce your message. Start a file of your favourite anecdotes and quotations. In your spare time, rummage through joke and quotation books, magazines, and the Internet; you’ll find dozens of gems that can add sparkle to any topic.

7. Use humour, selectively.

Humour, used well, can reinforce your argument and keep your listeners wanting more. But don’t forget these important points:

  • Make sure it’s a funny story. If you don’t laugh when you first hear a story, chances are nobody else will either. So, don’t tell it if it’s not all that funny.
  • Avoid puns. Puns almost always cause listeners to groan, rather than laugh.
  • Make it sound like the truth. People are more active listeners if they think it’s your story, about you or your acquaintances. Adapt stories to suit.
  • Make sure it’s clean. Never tell a story that can offend in any way. There’s always someone who’ll get upset.
  • Make sure it’s relevant to your argument or the occasion. Lead into it smoothly, making sure it fits into the logical sequence of your speech.
  • Use a dual-purpose funny historical anecdote. If the joke fails, at least the story still gets the point across.

8. Use humour, skilfully.

Every speaker would love to be the life of the lectern, but humour can be hazardous if you ignore these warnings:

  • Make sure you learn the story. Know it inside out. Memorise the punch line. A fumble can cost you the game.
  • Speak distinctly and with poise. Every word must be heard. If the joke isn’t heard, it won’t raise a laugh.
  • Leave enough time for the laugh before proceeding. Sometimes audiences react slowly, especially if the humour was unexpected.
  • Act out the story. You’re putting on a short show, so make it a good one – gesticulate, whisper, shout. Use appropriate facial expressions.
  • Keep it short. Limit the extraneous matter; include only the details that relate directly to the punch line.
  • Enjoy it. Spread good cheer. You’re happy to be telling the story and you’re enjoying yourself. If you look like you are, the audience will join in.
  • Talk to individuals out there in turn, not to the audience in general and, in doing so, smile with your mouth and with your voice.
  • Carry on smoothly if the audience doesn’t laugh. People soon forget that you laid an egg if you remain confident and calm. Don’t try to salvage the situation with an explanation or apology.
  • Avoid humour when speaking out of doors. The laugh tends to get lost, leaving people with the feeling that the point wasn’t funny at all.