“I hate public speaking.” I hear this phrase more than any other when talking about soft skills training. Even talking about talking in front of people is enough to make some begin to sweat and stutter. Times have not changed since comic Jerry Seinfeld joked in the ’80’s that most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy. But this essay is not about public speaking skills. At least, not in the conventional sense. ‘Cause sometimes it’s just not about you.
Yes, good public speaking skills are made up of energy and vocal ability, maybe a great slide show and a number of other skill variables. True. Setting all of that aside, truly great public speaking only happens when the speaker knows their audience. When they absolutely, positively know to whom they are speaking. You can deliver the same message any number of ways, depending on your audience.
For example, let’s say you’re giving a speech regarding the collateral benefits of kindness. If you’re talking to workplace groups, you might offer statistics and facts about the chemical effects in the brain when we do something nice for someone else. You might talk about how kindness is a skill to be cultivated in those looking for leadership positions. You might open a philosophical dialogue with the audience about the nature of altruism.
Now imagine talking about kindness with an auditorium full of elementary school children. Your core message remains the same, but the playing field has changed dramatically. In order to engage this particular audience, you have to provide immediately relatable material. Maybe you talk about Santa Claus. Statistics won’t necessarily work with this crowd, but you can ask them questions and expect to get a LOT of response. When you tell them who was kind to you and how, they will rush to tell you who was kind to them.
We must tailor and tweak our message based on our audience. Knowing exactly who you’re speaking to is one of the hallmarks of a great public speaker. When you know your audience, you are relatable and you create a rapport. You're speaking the same language and you are memorable in the best possible way.
To be clear, we don’t speak to be forgotten.
LB Adams is the Founder of Practical Dramatics headquartered in Charleston, SC. Her company works with humans to cultivate soft skills and grow more impactful conversations with other humans.