Speaking Out

In today's government, conquering a fear of public speaking is critical to becoming an effective leader. every day, thousands of high-level federal officials appear at meetings, congressional hearings, public forums and briefings to speak on behalf of their agencies. Those who are practiced in the art of presentations dazzle audiences with compassionate statements, persuasive arguments and sophisticated visual aids. They know where to stand on stage, when to pause for effect and what tone of voice to use.

Some of these speakers are polished politicians who are accustomed to-and even enjoy-the glare of the public spotlight. But increasingly, analysts, researchers, engineers and others who toil in the middle and upper ranks of the career civil service are being catapulted from obscurity into the public arena to discuss their work. Some of these newcomers get by on natural ability. But others live in fear of being on stage or want to take the lead but don't know how. The result: lousy speeches.

Consider the comments of a Labor Department analyst about a recent workshop: "This guy came to our office to speak about workers' compensation," she says. "He spoke in general terms for two to three hours with a low, monotone, dreamy voice. I was fighting with my eyeballs. Some people were outright sleeping and one, shamelessly, almost snoring. [The speaker] was loaded with expertise and I respected him. But he was incapable of making the subject interesting."

By the end of the workshop, only a few members of the audience remained.

Federal officials recognize that their managers and technical experts need to improve their speaking skills. Kerry Joels, manager of the supervisory training program at the Department of Health and Human Services, says a good presentation at a strategic time can make or break a career. "If you make a good impression the first time you give a briefing before the Secretary," he says, "everyone will think you are wonderful. If you goof, you aren't going anywhere. We have been tremendously downsized in the government and the people who are left are expected to give more speeches and branch out." Many agencies have incorporated training in public speaking in their leadership development efforts, and offer courses on improving presentation skills for technical specialists, analysts and project leaders. Joels, for instance, prepared a module on public speaking for HHS' leadership program for supervisors. The class starts out with Joels playing a videotape of someone giving a speech-and committing about 30 basic public speaking blunders. Students then take a crack at pointing out the bloopers.

The star of the show: Joels himself. "During my speech," he says, "the slide projector blew out, I had an overhead that was too small to read, I told a long joke that wasn't funny and fudged when people asked me questions I couldn't answer. I used jargon, hid behind acronyms and hurried through the most important part of the speech." Joels believes the errors are obvious, but not all students who view the tape think the speech is that badly botched-a sign of just how much they have to learn. After showing the video, Joels explains to students what it takes to give effective presentations, and then he assigns them homework: Write a speech on any subject they choose. "Later on, we videotape them giving speeches," he says. "The whole class then sees the tapes and criticizes the speeches. Afterwards, people can take their videos home or destroy them."

Training people to give good speeches is tough. For a speech to be effective, it must be targeted to the audience, well organized and delivered with the appropriate tone, gestures and poise. This can only happen if the speaker is at ease with the subject and in control of the medium. The good news is that even those who dread speaking engagements can usually overcome their fears and enhance their skills. What does it take? Experts say there are several steps on the road to learning effective communication techniques.

Identify Your Audience

Ever sit through a speech and wonder exactly why the speaker is making a particular presentation? You're probably not the only one who's befuddled. Often, speakers themselves don't know why they are giving a speech. Presenters must be crystal clear on the final result they want to achieve, says Calvin Swartz, president of Progressive Success Corp., a consulting firm that offers a class called "Effective Briefing Techniques."

The first step in preparing a speech is answering two questions: Why you are giving a speech, and who are you giving it to? "The real key of public speaking is understanding what your objective is," says Swartz, a retired Army officer. "So often, I'm sitting at a meeting while a briefer is giving a presentation, asking myself: 'Why are you up there? I don't think you understand what your purpose is.' "

Swartz says employees need to understand what type of briefing they are supposed to be giving: Are they providing information, eliciting a decision or stimulating discussion? "If there is a briefing designed to elicit a decision from the audience and the briefer talks for 15 minutes, giving three alternatives without recommending one, that's an example of a briefer who doesn't understand his purpose. It's incumbent on the briefer, the expert, to make a solid recommendation and explain why."

Targeting a speech to the audience is a must. But you can go a step further by tailoring your message to specific people in the audience whose support you are seeking, says Frank Staroba of Staroba and Co., a human resources consulting firm. "If you are giving a progress report to the undersecretary," he explains, "find out how much the undersecretary knows about your program so you know how much information to give. You may find out that the real decision-maker is not the undersecretary but one of his aides-and make your pitch more toward him or her. All these nonverbal cues are important to consider when giving a speech. If you ignore them, the speech may fail."

Anticipating your audience's reaction to bad news also can help you craft your speech more carefully. Tony Shelton, president of Shelton & Caudle, a Texas public relations firm, was helping a personnel manager rewrite a speech informing his staff of management's decision to make everyone give up their offices and move into cubicles. The manager's draft started like this: "Thank you for coming this morning. I know you don't want to be here, but bear with me for a few seconds and we can all leave early."

This approach, says Shelton, was far too negative and too businesslike-and would have created more distance between him and his staff. "I asked him, 'Are you keeping your office? He said, 'I'm going to a cube too.' I said, 'Tell them that!' You have to relate to audiences on two levels, as an authority on a subject and on a personal level. If they don't like you, regardless of whether you are the world's biggest authority, you won't move them to do anything. To get a personal connection, talk about your own situation."

The revised version of the manager's speech started like this: "I'm moving to a cube next week. I'm not crazy about it, but I think I can do it and it's necessary for the organization. Let me tell you why."

Grab Their Attention

After you've defined the purpose of the presentation and identified your audience, you need to collect material to write your speech. Experts recommend that every speech have three parts-an opening, a body and a closing. Don't overwhelm your audience with too much information. Experts suggest you stick to making three main points in the speech.

The opening must grab the audience's attention-otherwise you stand to lose them for good. You can develop effective openings in many ways. Making a startling statement, for instance, gets people to sit up and take notice right away. Asking the audience a rhetorical question that makes them think is another approach. Starting out with a personal experience helps you connect with the audience.

Swartz thinks that an opening grabber is especially effective when you can tie it into the concerns of the person whose approval you are seeking. A participant in one of his workshops was trying to find a clever opening paragraph for testimony he had to submit to the HHS Secretary. "I asked him, 'What's on the Secretary's mind these days?' He said she was concerned about the agency's image in the eyes of Congress. I said, 'That's a source for an opening grabber!' Start it with, 'I believe one of your biggest concerns at the moment is the image of this agency. And in this briefing I'll show you two ways of how you can enhance that.' "

Starting a speech with a story also can be very powerful-especially for government officials who feel passionate about their work. The beauty of storytelling is that it brings out a speaker's authenticity, says Annette Simmons, author of The Story Factor (Perseus Press, 2000). "The most important story you'll ever tell is who you are and why you are here. You can't try to convince others to do something unless they feel connected to you. People don't want more information, they want faith. Faith in you."

Tom Owens, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, was skeptical about using storytelling as a technique. "When you think of storytelling, you think of fairy tales," says Owens, who attended one of Simmons' workshops. "But I was wrong. It's about creating an interesting story about what you are doing and why you are doing it. I used to say things like, 'I run a program called so and so, and this is my background.' But now I start my speeches with the punch line and then make an emotional appeal. I say, 'Let me tell you a story about a river. In 1900, the Illinois river was the most productive fishery in the United States. But over the course of the next 50 years, it was destroyed. I spent several years doing scientific work on the river. The reason? I wanted to help preserve it.' "

"Think about why you do what you do," Owens says. "Don't be satisfied with saying, 'We are doing this because the legislation says we have to.' Think about why the legislation was passed. Go back to the beginning of the story. First, give the big picture, and capture people's attention. Then tell them what you are doing about it."

Special Delivery

When you are speaking, people are listening to your words. But they are also noticing the way you look, talk and move. If there is something about the way you speak, for instance, that seems wrong-talking too fast, or droning on-your message can get lost. About 90 percent of human communication is conveyed through nonverbal means. To deliver a successful speech, you need to make sure your words, your tone of voice and your body language are all sending the same message.

"If you don't come into the presentation with the right uniform or using the right gestures," says Swartz, "or if you don't walk to the stage properly or give the right eye contact and use the right visual support for presentations, you may be doomed from the start. There has to be something visual that attracts the audience before the speaker even opens his or her mouth. If you don't look the part or sound the part, the audience won't hear the words."

Nervous speakers are easy to spot. They pace back and forth, stand as stiff as a board or lean awkwardly on the podium. They dig their nails into their palms, talk too fast or trip over their words. Often, these fidgety behaviors diminish when they begin to feel more comfortable speaking.

In the meantime, though, less experienced speakers can take small steps to correct these habits, says Diane DiResta, author of Knockout Presentations: How to Deliver Your Message with Power, Punch and Pizzazz (Chandler House Press, 1998). "Find your power center," she writes. "Anchor your feet and stand up straight . . . . If you pace back and forth, you signal nervousness in your feet."

It's OK to move, she says, if you have some place to go. Often, speakers take three steps to the right to make a point, then go back to their spot, creating a sense of action. Kerry Weems, an HHS budget analyst, hops off the stage to mingle with the audience when he gives a speech right after lunch. "That's the time everybody would rather take a nap," he says. "What I tend to do in situations like that is get rid of the podium and grab a mobile microphone so I can walk around." Successful presenters don't hesitate to talk with their hands. "Other speakers lock their arms behind them until the audience wonders if the speaker has hands," DiResta adds. "Don't contain your energy, you'll only look stiff and more nervous. Fidgeting is a scream for help. Your hands are saying, 'I want to move.' Give in to the natural energy that your hands want to express."

Carl Sabbath, a computer specialist and database administrator at the Pentagon, is learning to use his hands expressively through speeches given at Toastmasters, a a public speaking group that helps people improve their presentation skills. Sabbath is also trying to master vocal variety, so he doesn't speak in a monotone. "I make notes in my speech to identify when to change my intonation, where to gesture," he says. "I then practice the speech over and over until I have it memorized.

Sabbath can rely on his local Toastmasters club members-who formally evaluate his speeches-to give him feedback on his progress. But federal employees who don't belong to such organizations or haven't taken public speaking classes can still practice nonverbal cues on their own at home, says Victoria Chorbajan, a public speaking coach and media trainer. "Practice the presentation with a small tape recorder," she says. "We can all listen to hear if we are mumbling or speaking too quickly."

"Also, look in the mirror while practicing a presentation to make sure you are doing the right hand gestures, and check out your facial expression to see if it's in sync with the message you are conveying," Chorbajan says. If your voice seems stiff, Chorbajan advises, practice the speech by interjecting someone's name as if it were a conversation, so it seems more casual. Use the name again on the second rehearsal. "The third time you practice the speech," she says, "do it without the person's name. Also, familiarize yourself with the speech, but don't memorize it verbatim. This way, if you forget a word you can just substitute it with another one and your speech won't sound like a canned speech."

Swartz says speakers can use any of five delivery techniques: reading the speech verbatim, glancing over a detailed outline, referring to a simple outline, using index cards with key words, or speaking off the cuff. "I tell presenters to choose the one that makes them feel most comfortable according to their level of experience, and to use additional techniques, like a finger on the script, to assist them in overcoming the fear of forgetting their lines or losing their place as they look up to maintain eye contact with the audience," he says. The problem with reading a speech verbatim is that it's difficult to make it come alive. "Overcome that by employing intonation in the voice-raising the pitch and volume on active verbs, superlatives and other phrases of importance," says Swartz. Presenters, he adds, need to know their scripts well enough that they can look at the audience 80 percent of the time and at the script 20 percent of the time.

Swartz says that the most successful presentations or speeches are those that come "from the heart, without notes. That ability only comes with experience and a lot of practice."

Visual Aids

When used well, visual aids can enhance any presentation. A good rule of thumb is to assume that people will remember 10 percent of what they read, 20 percent of what they hear and 70 percent of what they see and hear. Most presentations are usually complemented by either one or several of the following: flip charts, overhead projections, 35 mm slides, videos, handouts, props, computer presentations (using products such as Microsoft's Powerpoint) and other forms of multimedia. Choosing the right visual aids is a challenge. DiResta suggests factoring in the size of the group, the room setup, your budget, the organizational culture, the purpose of your presentation and your comfort level before choosing. Once you choose a visual aid, you need to use it effectively. If, for instance, you are using slides, number the slides so that you can put them in order easily if they fall out of the tray. If you're using videos, cue up your videotape beforehand so you don't waste time waiting for it to start.

The problem with visual aids, however, is their misuse. According to Swartz, many visual aids look too busy. "High tech seems to give that opportunity and people seize it," he says. "I see the color and the bells and whistles themselves becoming a distraction in many presentations. If the briefer is going to stand there and read the bullets, that's the same thing as reading to the audience. We teach that it's absolutely forbidden for a speaker to read what's on the screen."

Tonya Hunt, a technical training specialist at the U.S. Marshals Service, conducts her training sessions in a long room, with computer terminals lined up on both sides. The screen is located at one end of the room, in the center. "When the screen is behind you," she says, "make sure you are talking to the people in the class. It's common for trainers to turn around and talk to the board or screen. If you stand with your back to the class you'll lose your audience."

Public speaking is no longer the domain of the people at the top of the organizational chart. Federal managers and technical experts will almost all find they'll get the chance to grab a microphone and lead the way at some point in their careers. "Management is realizing how important public speaking skills are for people who are at the beginning of their professional careers as well as those who've been in their profession for a while," says Shelton. "It's such a terrific tool for communications. Without it, you may have an engineer working on this wonderful project, or a scientist doing great research, but nobody will ever hear about them."


Marcela Kogan is a Washington-area freelance writer.
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