Public Speaking as a Sport
May 3, 2017 by Bill Rosenthal

My pet theory is that public speaking is an athletic performance. It relies on skills that are just as physical as those used in sports.

Posture. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and distribute your weight equally between them. Don’t pace. Don’t shift your weight from foot to foot. Most people find it difficult to avoid shifting around or making little nervous gestures. But any extraneous movement will distract the audience from your message. This posture is the least distracting appearance you can offer on a stage. And because the audience detects so few distractions, you can force them to focus on your facial expression and your hand gestures, both of which reinforce your message.

Gestures. Gesture frequently to emphasize and “illustrate” points. Gestures make you the center of the action and continually refocus the audience’s attention on you. Gestures should be expansive. Make gestures with your whole arm, above the waist, and away from your body. Gesture with one arm at a time. Two-arm gestures tend to get your hands working together, and that can be distracting to the audience. Match the gestures to what you are saying. If you want to say the trend on a graph is upward, sweep upward with your arm. If you want to say costs have to be cut, cut the air with your arm.

Voice Projection. Project your voice to the people in the back of the room and speak forcefully, even if you are using a microphone. Speaking forcefully will give your voice passion. A microphone amplifies that passion. Don’t worry about being too loud. You cannot be too loud without a microphone, and if you do have one, you can always turn the volume down, but don’t turn it down more than you need to keep from breaking the windows with your voice. Most presenters speak at the mid-point of the volume they are capable of, i.e., on a scale of 1 to 10, they speak at 5. But at volume 7 or 8, audiences recognize the speaker as being authoritative. So speak at 7 or 8 and get that extra benefit. 

Eye-Brain Control. Limit your gaze. As you speak, look into the eyes of an audience member. Continue to look into that person’s eyes until you have completed a thought or a sentence, pause, then move your gaze to another person’s eyes. In addition to strengthening the audience’s connection with you, this technique has the advantage of giving you the opportunity to see how the audience is reacting to you. It also allows you to get support from smiles and nods of encouragement, which you cannot see when you scan the audience or watch your visuals. 

These skills are all about being in control of your position, force, and speed when you are on the platform. Like any sport — from handball to figure skating — they are about energy and execution. In the same way that football players review videos of their performance and practice, Communispond’s Executive Presentation Skills® and EPS Anywhere™ programs teach these skills with video feedback. Even ProSpeak®, our app for iPhone and Android, works by coaching you on the physical qualities of voice volume, energy, and posture. 

The next time you are called on to make a presentation, practice the physical skills of public speaking, and play to win.