The Importance of Effective Speaking

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff.
Last month we wrote about The Importance of Writing Well. This month, we gently approach the topic of Effective Speaking. This is not to be confused with dialogue between persons–that is yet another topic. Instead, this topic involves speaking in front of groups. Actually, that really makes this multiple topics, because different audience sizes require very different skills. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Effective Speaking has received a lot of recent attention. In part, this is because our current US President is perceived  to be an excellent orator. In addition to politics, many situations exist where the ability to speak in a clear and compelling way is a great asset.  Those situations include projects, programs, or any other Change Agent venues.

Great Writer = Great Speaker?

You’d think that great writers would find it easy to also be great speakers. After all, clearly explaining complex topics in ways that everyone understands, is a gift–that should easily transfer to speaking. But ‘taint necessarily so. I recall the excitement, when it first came out, around the book, In Search of Excellence. Tom Peters (and Robert Waterman, Jr.) wrote such a compelling book that everyone wanted him to speak to their company. As I recall, at that time, his speaking skills did not match his research and writing skills. Some people were disappointed.

But, Tom Peters understood: He worked on his Effective Speaking skills. Soon, he was such a great speaker that he had no need to write another book. His speaking, advisory services, and overall message were all so popular. But the question remains: Great Writer = Great Speaker? A web search turns up many interesting discussions, and the results are mixed. Some say “yes!” Some say, “not necessarily so.” 

Impact of Group Sizes

In Facilitator training workshops, most say that everyone can be an effective Facilitator. Your only limit is the size of the group you can facilitate. Some are good at facilitating a group of one. Then the group size scales upwards: 5-7; up to 12-15; up to 25 (a limit for most); up to 50; and beyond. The same is true of Effective Speaking. It is a completely different experience to speak to 50 people than to speak to 5. And imagine speaking to 500; or 5000. Imagine trying to get eye contact with 500 people!

First Large Audience: The first time I spoke to an audience of 400+ was a Computer User Group conference in the early 1980s. Before my presentation, and while others were speaking, I went into the auditorium, and sat at the very back. I was seated more than 180 feet from the lectern. From that distance the speakers looked very small. Subtle arm gestures were barely visible, if at all. Some speakers appeared to hide behind the overpowering lectern. It was clear from audience reactions that those speakers had diminished effectiveness. Based on those observations, when I presented, I abandoned the lectern, used the entire stage, and focused eye-contact in all parts of the room. Including that back row (at least I appeared to do so). As a result of this preparation, my presentation was extremely successful.

Note that the same demeanor would be overwhelming when speaking to a group of five. But from this simple example, we can see some of the different skills that come into play as group size scales.

Speaking Is More Than Presenting

Some think that Effective Speaking is just standing up and talking with a clear voice. For most of us, it also involves preparation, listening, observing, managing timing, voice control (modulation, volume). All while juggling the microphone, slide clicker and laser pointer. And, appearing to be relaxed and enjoying yourself. Each of these skills requires practice and experience. And then we learn the don’ts. Don’t look just at the front row; don’t block the slide with your body. Next, don’t speak too quietly, too fast, or too slow. Lastly, don’t get off your schedule; at the same time, don’t ignore the questions.

Speaking is special from another standpoint: Your content is important–that is why the audience is there; but your style has more impact than the words you choose. We’ve seen speakers who frown as they think their way through their presentation. They would be better off just voicing over a slide show. Of course, we have all heard the diatribes against slideshows. The most effective speakers (among those who use them) use slides to expand and enhance the message, not to drive it.

Different Time-Space Than Writing

Another way that speaking differs from writing is that speaking is live. This is a completely different time-space for new speakers. It is completely different and disconcerting for writers-turned speakers. We can all write a first draft of an article, set it aside for a day or two, then come back to it and improve it. Speaking involves just a single opportunity to get the message–and all the delivery dynamics–right, the first time. Of course, your writing skill comes into play here, too: Outlining, capturing your key points. Here is a place where those who are talented writers have an advantage in preparing a stellar speech.

Does being an effective writer help your (or my) speaking? Absolutely yes, in my point of view. Having a concept is one thing. Conveying it to others in such a way that they grasp it is a gift. And this is true whether you do so in speech or in writing. Both are key communication skills for project and program managers. I suggest that you work on both! Of course, then we still must cover meaningful dialogue, and the most precious skill of all, listening.

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In doing a bit of research for this article, we found the following links; as usual, they led to more links, all interesting, and it took days to get back to completing this article!

We’re Listening! What are Your Comments?