4 speaking essentials to inform an audience

The topic Speaking to Inform was the top request in my recent poll asking what people would like to hear about in my blog.

If you are delivering a public speech the goal should be to communicate as clearly as possible. In business settings, the more succinctly you communicate information, the better. This might not be true of an after-dinner or humorous speech. A speech can be entertaining even though it contains little or no new information. However, when you are speaking to inform, your audience will appreciate hearing information that is relevant to their concerns delivered in a manner they can absorb.

I believe there are four main ways of speaking to inform. More or less information can be delivered in an unclear or clear manner.

4 ways of speaking to inform

1. The foreign policeman

The least-useful form of communication is to deliver little or no information in an unclear manner. A classic example would be a tourist in France, who does not speak the language, hearing a command from a gendarme. The amount of information is minimal, but failure to understand could be fatal.

Acronyms convey information in an abbreviated form. But if members of the audience do not understand them, they are left in the dark. As brief as they are, always spell them out.

Few speakers would risk going in front an audience with little to say and no ability to be understood. However, were Dudley Moore to take to the podium when he was as drunk as he was in the movie Arthur, the result would be a complete disaster. So stay sober when you speak in public!

2. Road Signs

Stop SignEven very long speeches can be broken down into concise nuggets of information, delivered in a manner that is quickly and easily understood. Road signs are designed to communicate important information instantaneously. When you are whizzing by at 60 mph, universally recognized icons are easily understood.

Intonation, cadence and gestures are your road signs to an audience. They improve people’s ability to follow what you are saying. Done right, they reinforce your message. Done wrong, like an overly verbose sign on the highway, they slow things down or even confuse people.

Presentations that use PowerPoint or Prezi convey information that supplements the spoken word. But the slides must be crisp and clear. The fewer words you display the better. Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte demonstrate the best way to display information visually. Highway SignDone right, slides can help inform the audience. Done wrong, too much information on the screen will distract people from hearing your message. What you are saying will be ignored while they read the slide. If you have a wordy slide, stay silent while the audience reads it.

3. The subject matter expert

Subject experts often present too much information. They think that speaking to inform is merely creating lists of dry facts, in bullet form, and reading them aloud. Rather than loading the speech with facts, give the audience a white paper or printed report with the data. The fundamental error many corporations make is to put subject experts front of customers to explain their products.

If you need to present complex information, follow these simple rules.

An extreme example of information being presented in a rapid, incomprehensible manner are the legal disclaimers read out at the end of some radio ads. There are a surprising number of presentations given in the corporate world which sound like this. Remember, the answer to having too much information is to simplify the content, not to speak faster.

4. The storyteller

What subject experts fail to understand is the limited ability of the audience to absorb facts. People can only remember two or three main points in a speech. A few days after a talk, most of the information that is presented will have been forgotten.

What will be remembered are the stories you tell.

The most powerful way of speaking to inform is to use stories. These can be as simple as parables or nursery rhymes. By evoking an emotional response they implant information in a more memorable way than merely reciting facts. If you are speaking to inform, tell stories.

As voice coach Kate Peters says:

…creating stories out of raw information can help you see a problem or situation better in order to understand the solution better. Sometimes the data is overwhelming, but the story behind the spreadsheet can be illuminating.

A version of this article was first published by ragan.com.

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4 Comments so far
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Very interesting article, Ian–thank you!

Have been reading your blog for some time and have picked up a lot of valuable speaking tips. I am writing a book on the psychology of public speaking and I am asking visitors to my blog at http://www.charliewilsonphd.com to critique the chapters (each one a speech about some aspect of speaking) as I write them. I am including your blog on my Links page. Thank you making your expertise and experience available.

Ian, I love the four types of presenters you’ve outlined, although I’m not in love with the speeches given by some of them.

I work primarily with subject matter experts. Many of them seem proudest when they confuse the audience: it proves (to them, at least) how smart they are.

Thanks Christopher. I have commented on working with Subject Matter Experts elsewhere on my blog.

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