I finally got around to watching the film Bohemian Rhapsody. I was not disappointed.
Queen is one of my all-time favourite bands and the driving force behind Queen was the inimitable Freddie Mercury. It’s hard to believe that it has been 28 years since his far-too-early death on 24 November 1991. The movie is a fitting tribute to the iconic rockstar and the ups and downs he endured throughout his meteoric career.
I was hooked from the opening with a young Farrokh Bulsara – Mercury’s original name – as an unhappy baggage handler at Heathrow Airport to the final, triumphant appearance at Live Aid in 1985. But one scene in particular caught my attention.
It’s the scene in which Mercury first meets Jim Hutton, the man who would become Mercury’s long-term partner right up until the moment he died. It takes place in the early morning hours after one of Mercury’s self-loathing, hedonistic parties. Here it is:
“I like you.”
“I like you too, Freddie. Come and find me when you decide you like yourself.”
That simple, two-line exchange contains a profound lesson. How can we expect to engage with others in a meaningful way if we don’t like ourselves?
In my work with companies, organizations and individuals, I hear comments like the following all the time:
I’m a bad speaker.
I don’t have anything interesting to say.
My voice doesn’t sound good.
People won’t like me.
The list goes on but you get the idea. Perhaps you’ve even said some of the things above. The problem is that statements such as these have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.
If you want to be an effective speaker, you have to get over yourself; you have to like yourself. None of us will ever be perfect. We will always make mistakes. And while we can definitely become better speakers through practice, some things will never change. And that’s OK.
Once we move past ourselves and focus on the audience and our message, then we can truly make a giant leap forward in our speaking.
I teach public speaking and presentation skills at a few Executive MBA Programmes in Switzerland and Spain. A few years ago, I was teaching a class at IESE in Barcelona.
One of my students was a fellow named Manuel. He was bright, thoughtful and fully engaged. He also spoke fast. Very fast, even for a Spaniard. Sí, Manuel habló muy rápido. And there were few pauses between his sentences. At times, I wondered how he could breathe.
I kept encouraging Manuel to slow down and pause, but to no avail. So I tried a different tactic. I stood up and walked to the back of the class behind the other students.
“Manuel,” I said, “I want to you to do your speech again. Whenever I hold up my hand signaling ‘Stop!’ you must stop talking. And you cannot begin talking until I lower my hand.”
So off we went. Manuel began to talk and every few sentences, I would raise my hand and silently count, “One thousand and one, one thousand and two.” Manuel would stop speaking. I would then lower my hand and he would continue.
It wasn’t the most elegant way to speak, but after a while we developed a rhythm. When we were finished with the exercise, I asked him how he felt during the pauses.
“Terrible!” he exclaimed. “It was so hard not to talk. I could feel my heart beating and everyone was looking at me.”
I then asked his fellow students what they thought. They were unanimous is saying that the pauses had improved the speech dramatically.
“Manuel,” I continued, “I understand that it can feel uncomfortable to pause, but you know what? It doesn’t matter. Because it’s not about you; it’s about the audience. If you don’t pause, it’s difficult for us to follow your thoughts and ideas. And if we are struggling to keep up, it doesn’t make you look good.”
SILENCE IS GOLDEN … BUT NOT EASY
When I work with clients to help them improve their pubic speaking skills, I always tell them that one of the most important things that they can learn is when to say nothing at all.
And yet, many people have a hard time with pausing, even for one or two seconds. The reasons are varied but common ones that I hear include:
Being afraid that the audience will think that they’ve forgotten something.
Feeling their heart pounding in their chest.
Seeing everyone looking at them.
While understandable, especially for novice speakers, when we step back and look at these concerns objectively, we see that they do not stand scrutiny:
Pauses of a few seconds will feel natural to an audience. They won’t think that you’ve forgotten what to say next.
The audience cannot feel or hear your heart. If they can, someone’s too close!
Your audience will also look at you when you speak. That’s what audiences do.
Your audience is able to absorb what you are saying.
You reduce unnecessary fillers words like ‘ah’ and ‘um’.
You look thoughtful, confident and credible.
WHEN TO PAUSE
Mark Twainsaid, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”
I agree but that begs the question, when should you pause when speaking in public? I mean, you can’t replace all the words with pauses. You have to say something.
There are several, powerful ways to use the pause to maximum effect. Below are seven examples of when a pause will be ‘rightly timed’ and effective.
1) The pause before you start
When you take the stage, you get one chance to make a good first impression. So don’t rush things.
Walk confidently to the place where you are going to begin speaking, look at the audience and smile. Take a deep breath and as you do so, imagine that you are drawing the energy of the room in. Slowly exhale and begin speaking.
This routine should take no more than 10 to 15 seconds (including the walk) but it will make you look confident and in control. And, if someone introduces you, you should pause even longer because after you have shaken hands with your introducer, you should not start speaking until he or she has left the stage and is seated.
In his great book,Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln, James Humes devotes the first chapter to pausing before you speak. He concludes by telling readers, “Stand, stare, and command your audience, and they will bend their ears to listen.”
2) The pause to signal that something important is coming
Pauses can let people know that you are about to say something important. For example, let’s suppose that I am giving a talk about team productivity.
I share a number of ideas about how teamwork can be improved in an organization and now I am coming to the most important point. I might say something like this:
“Without question, there is one characteristic that all high-performance teams have that is essential to their success. Even if your team does the other things that I have said, if it doesn’t have this characteristic, you will not achieve your full potential. [pause] That characteristic [pause] is …”
The pause lets people know that they should pay attention to what I am about to say because it is important.
3) The pause to let the message sink in
Just as pauses can be used at the beginning of an important idea, so too can they be used immediately after something important has been said. When you convey a message that you want people to remember, pause after saying it.
“If we hope to turn a profit in 2019, we need to cut costs by 10% and increase sales by 20% in the final six months of the year. [pause]”
4) The pause when moving to a new topic
Often I see speakers who have done a good job organizing their presentation by topic. However, when reaching the end of one topic, they rush headlong into the next. The presentation resembles a train with the cars jammed up against each other.
Far better to pause between the topics to let your audience mentally shift gears as you begin to talk about something new.
“We’ve seen the devastating impacts that plastic garbage is causing in the oceans. But creative people coming up with ways to turn the situation around. [pause] I want to share the stories of three companies that are doing just that. [pause]”
The final pause marks a clear delineation between two distinct parts of the presentation and allows the audience a moment to refocus. You can also combine a pause at this point with taking a sip of water or moving to a new location on stage.
5) The pause for emphasis
A pause can be used to emphasise a key point or statistic. For shocking statistics, one can heighten the dramatic effect by combining repetition with the pauses.
“In the United States alone, $161 billion worth of food goes to waste every year. [pause]”
“$161 billion! [pause]”
These statistics are shocking and it is important to let the audience feel their full weight.
6) The pause to get your audience to reflect
Sometimes you want your audience to reflect on an issue. You can do this by asking a rhetorical question, or by asking them to think about a topic or situation.
This technique is great for engaging the audience because it allows each member to personalize the subject for himself or herself. However, if you do not leave space between the rhetorical question / request to think about something and your next statement, you will frustrate your audience. You need to give them time to think about how they would respond before you give your response.
“I’d like you to think about a time that you had a difficult conversation with a colleague at work. [pause]”
Note that you can let this type of pause run for 5 to 10 seconds and it will feel completely natural for the audience.
7) The pause when answering questions
Allowing people to ask questions is a great way to make your presentation interactive. But when people ask their questions, look at them, listen actively and then, when they are finished, pause before answering.
Too many speakers start answering immediately after the audience member has finished asking the question. There is no space between the question and the answer. Even worse, some speakers will start answering while the audience member is still finishing the question.
It comes across as rude and only serves to highlight that the speaker had stopped listening and formulated the answer while the audience member was still speaking.
It is far better, and common courtesy, to listen to the question with an open mind and then think about it before you answer. The audience will appreciate your thoughtfulness and you will probably give a better answer.
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR PAUSES WHEN SPEAKING IN PUBLIC
We pause all the time when during normal conversations that we have throughout the day, but we almost certainly do it instinctively. Still, if you can pause when speaking to your friends, you can pause on stage.
While nothing can replace getting up on stage and speaking over and over again, here are some ideas for you to try:
1. Watch videos of speakers and focus on the pauses (or lack thereof). In thisvideo of Barack Obama, you see just how powerful pauses can be.
2. If you have speaking notes, write in big letters and a bright colour at the top of every page, PAUSE! Your notes are for you, not the audience. Make them as useful as possible.
3. Before a speech or presentation, ask someone you trust who will attend to give you feedback on your pauses. Asking them before you speak will ensure that they pay attention to the pauses during your talk.
4. Video yourself when speaking and play it back but don’t watch, just listen. Focus on the pauses that you made or should have made.
5. If you are a fast talker who never pauses, try this. Take a novel from your bookshelf and read out loud for a few minutes. Every time you come to a comma, pause for a second. When you come to the end of a sentence, pause for two seconds. When you reach the end of a paragraph, pause for three seconds. Yes, it will feel artificial, and no, you should not normally pause like this. However, it will help make you more aware of pausing.
6. Practice pausing when speaking with others during your day. Listen to what friends and family and colleagues are saying and then wait a second or two before speaking.
THE MUSIC OF YOUR SPEECH
Back in Spain, as the course progressed, Manuel (and several others) made a concerted effort to slow down and pause. By the end of the week, great progress had been made and everyone agreed that pausing at the right moment significantly improved the quality of the speeches. I now use the same exercise in all my trainings whenever someone is speaking too fast.
There is an old saying among musicians: Music is what happens between the notes. Arthur Schnabel, a classical pianist from Austria, describes it in this way: “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes? Ah, that is where the art resides!”
It is the same with public speaking. A great speech happens between the words. Because it is during the pauses that we can reflect on the significance of what you have said and make it relevant for us.
In the years following World War 2, the threat of nuclear war hung over the world. As the United States and its allies faced the Soviet Union and its allies, a Third World War was a distinct possibility.
Given the looming threat, in the 1950s, the American Government produced a civil defence film entitled Duck and Cover. It featured an animated turtle named Bert who would always retreat into his shell whenever there was a danger of an explosion.
You can see the entire 9-minute film here, but below is a shorter, edited version is below. You’ll get the idea.
Most experts agree that ducking and covering can offer some protection, depending on where one is in relation to ground zero of the blast. Nonetheless, I find the upbeat mood of the film chilling, given everything we know about the power of nuclear weapons. (Also, why would a monkey (lemur?) lie in wait to ambush a turtle with a stick of dynamite?)
While the duck-and-cover technique might offer you some protection in a nuclear war, it is counterproductive when you are on stage. And yet, people do it all the time.
How often do speakers just read slide after slide full of text? You might not have experienced this monstrosity, but I’m willing to bet that you’ve sat through at least one presentation when each slide felt like another wave pounding against your sanity.
When you fill your slides full of text or data, you force your audience to make a choice. Either they will listen to you and skip the slide or worse, they will read the slide and not focus on you. They cannot do both at the same time. And if all you do is read your slides, you will almost certainly bore your audience to tears.
Slides are a support for you. Keep them as clean as possible; use a simple animation to bring different points in one at a time so that your audience stays with you; cut out whatever you don’t need. In 2013, I had the privilege of meeting and chatting with the late, great Hans Rosling. I asked him for his biggest piece of advice for people who use slides. This is what he said:
Once you have created your slides, put them up on the screen, go to the back of the room and make sure you can read them.
If you can’t do that beforehand, display the slides on your computer screen and then take five or six paces back and make sure you can read them.
Once you can read the slides from a distance, cut out whatever you can.
And every now and then, have the screen go to black so that the audience refocuses on you.
Don’t duck and cover behind your slides!
Behind a lectern
Without questions, there are some occasions when it is appropriate to speak from behind a lectern. Examples include after-dinner speeches from a head table; speaking at a religious service such as a funeral; graduation speeches; or when you need to use a microphone and the only one available is fixed to the lectern.
But for the majority of speeches and presentations, speakers will usually have the option to wear a lapel or headset microphone and move about on stage. In such cases, I always recommend doing so. Otherwise, you are stuck behind the lectern, which becomes a barrier between you and your audience.
Yes, it takes confidence to leave the shelter of a lectern and yes, it means more work on your part to know what you are going to say. But it allows you to connect in a more meaningful way with your audience by using the stage to get closer to them. And, you can always leave notes on the lectern and check them if necessary. (For more on how to use notes, see this post and this post.)
Don’t duck and cover behind a lectern!
Too often, I see speakers who are intelligent, motivated and who have something to say. And yet, once on stage, they become a diminished version of themselves. They speak softly, almost hesitantly, like they don’t want to offend anyone. And the tone of their voice often rises at the end of each sentence, effectively turning each declarative statement into a question.
I recognize that public speaking can be a frightening experience for many people, but you have to remember that it is not about you; it is about the audience. You have put in the effort to prepare a speech or presentation. Now is the time to deliver a message that will make an impact. So you have to speak with conviction.
You have to sound like you believe in what you are saying. If you don’t, the chances that your audience will believe you are diminished. So don’t focus on yourself and don’t worry if someone in the audience might not agree with everything you say. If you are never criticized, you probably are not making much of an impact.
Public speakers can learn a lesson from a farmers.
Behind our home is a large farmer’s field. Over the years, I have seen that field grow wheat, corn, barley, sunflowers – which look amazing when they are in bloom – and other crops. This season, it appears as though the field will be left to lie fallow.
It’s important for farmers to let their fields lie fallow every now and then. Doing so gives the soil a chance to regenerate. In the short video below, I explain why this process is one that can benefit public speakers as well.
For more information about the Spectacular Speaking event that I mentioned in the video, please click on the icon below for a one-page PDF. (And remember the lesson about the farmer’s field.)
My wife, Julie and I recently went for a vacation in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik. Wonderful people, beautiful scenery, fascinating history. If you ever get the chance to visit, I highly recommend it.
One day, we took a cable car to the top of Mount Srđ which overlooks the city and offers a spectacular view of the Adriatic coastline. It puts Dubrovnik in a whole new perspective. It was a good reminder that public speakers need to have then same perspective when starting to prepare for a new speech or presentation. I explain in the short video below.
Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004) American Actor and 4oth President of the United States
“I learned [during my time as a radio broadcaster] the fundamental rule of public speaking. Whether on the radio, on television or to a live crowd, talk to your audience, not over their heads or through them. Just use normal everyday words. I have never lost that vision of the fellows in the barbershop sitting around and listening to the radio.“