Oratory Lab: Khalid Aziz Explains How You Can Become a More Confident and Effective Public Speaker

By Aziz, Khalid | Financial Management (UK), September 2007 | Go to article overview

Oratory Lab: Khalid Aziz Explains How You Can Become a More Confident and Effective Public Speaker


Aziz, Khalid, Financial Management (UK)


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Financial managers rise through the ranks largely as a result of their technical expertise, so they can often find themselves ill-equipped when it comes to communicating with the public. Many prefer the behind-the-scenes analysis and planning aspects of the job to a place in the spotlight. My consultancy is contacted regularly by successful and intelligent financial managers in senior positions who are seeking ways to bring their communication skills up to the same level as their accounting abilities.

Financial specialists are not alone: managers at all levels in every sector share a fear of public speaking. Our recent survey of business leaders found that 71 per cent were nervous about addressing a large conference and 80 per cent were similarly concerned at the prospect of a television interview. Almost half (42 per cent) of bosses claimed that speaking in public was the most daunting aspect of their jobs and 34 per cent said that they'd had at least one bad experience of public speaking (see panel, right).

But people in senior roles need to be able to speak with confidence, whether this involves giving presentations and media interviews or speaking in key meetings. Managers have to lead their teams and they often need to be the public face of their company, both internally and to the wider world. It is ironic that you can be promoted for your technical know-how, but are likely to use these skills less as you rise through the ranks and your communication skills more.

Unfortunately, people who worry that they aren't commanding their audience's full attention may well be right. Three-quarters of the bosses we surveyed admitted that they often spent presentations wondering how much longer the speaker would go on for, while 73 per cent worried about the work waiting for them back in the office.

Most of us have witnessed enough lacklustre presentations to be all too aware of the pitfalls of public speaking--boring the audience, failing to handle difficult questions and so on. Unfortunately, this knowledge may cause a speaker to panic, which will simply make matters worse. But everyone has the potential to become a confident and eloquent public speaker. If your organisation offers a formal training programme, you are lucky and should take advantage of it, but there many ways to improve your presentation skills without professional help.

Start by identifying opportunities to practise your public speaking skills in a low-stress environment. Many managers find that they use these skills most often to address employees at informal gatherings or meetings. Use these as a training ground: prepare a few words in advance and practise until you know your opening by heart. If you want to use notes, put them on small cards (no more than five words to a line and five lines to a card) so that you can glance at them while still maintaining regular eye contact with your audience.

Get a couple of colleagues to watch your performance critically and ask for feedback on your delivery speed, voice pitch and body language, as well as on the content of the speech. Bear their comments in mind and next time you give a talk ask whether your friendly assessors noticed the difference.

With this experience under your belt, you can move on to more formal situations. Next time you are speaking at a meeting with clients or senior colleagues, think carefully about the message you want to send. Consider what your audience is interested in hearing. Identify areas of common ground and focus on these, at least initially. For example, if you are reporting to the board on your department's results, decide what the directors will want to hear first, such as figures relating to the bottom line. You can back this up with extra information as needed.

This technique is equally effective when planning the opening of a speech or presentation. If you're unfamiliar with your audience, gather as much information as possible about their interests and their level of knowledge in the area you'll be discussing. …

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