Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Oratorical Power Is All in the Mind

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Oratorical Power Is All in the Mind

Article excerpt

Understanding how your brain works is the key to being an engaging speaker

Good communication skills are essential for school leaders. Most will be adept at making themselves understood, particularly one-to-one or in small groups. But things can unravel when they have to make a speech to a hall of 250 parents.

There is a science to the art of public speaking and it is based on how our grey matter works. The brain functions in three ways: unconscious, emotional and rational. Successful oratory taps into all three. Here is a crash course in employing them all to make persuasive, compelling speeches.

Link in a blink

The first step is winning your audience's unconscious. When we look at people for the first time, we unconsciously make instant judgements on whether they are to be trusted or not. This happens, as journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell puts it, in a "blink".

Empathy establishes an unconscious alliance from the outset. Speaking from a shared perspective creates a powerful feeling of unity among an audience. This gives everyone a little high.

Smiles also win approval and are integral to the appeal of leaders such as Tony Blair and Boris Johnson. It's simple but effective: if you smile at people, they will probably smile back. And if you can tell a joke that makes people laugh, they are almost bound to be on your side.

Breathing is also important. We unconsciously tune in to people's breathing patterns. David Cameron's breath is very shallow; he speaks in short, sharp sentences that can make people feel anxious. Barack Obama, in contrast, breathes deeply, rolling out long, luxuriant sentences and radiating calm.

Wear your emotions

Our minds are constantly seeking to satisfy our emotional needs. These can vary, from wanting recognition or acknowledgement to feeling a sense of pride or anger. Great speakers tap in to these needs; they make rousing emotional appeals anchored in our values, they tell inspiring stories (from their own experience or history) and they speak from perspectives they know their audience will care about.

They also put their whole bodies into their performances. Our brains automatically urge us to mirror people who are acting with purpose. If we see urgency, we feel urgent ourselves. This means you have no hope of enthusing people if you speak like you are dead inside. But if you give it your all, you are far more likely to win over the room.

Fuzzy logic in focus

Our mind is nowhere near as logical as we think it is. …

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