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Public speaking is a craft which can only be mastered through practice and planning. In this series of blog posts we will be looking at advice on public speaking and rhetoric from academics and famous figures throughout history.

This article looks at things to consider when speaking to large audiences.

How to start

Start with an empowerment promise: tell people what they will know at the end of the talk that they don’t know now: it’s the reason for them being here. It is not advisable to open with a joke as the audience is still adjusting to your speech patterns at the beginning of your talk and so any jokes are unlikely to land.

Tell them what you want to tell them, tell them again and tell them a third time

At any given moment around 20% of your audience will not be paying attention. If you want to ensure a high proportion of the crowd understands your argument, it is important to repeat it.

Verbal Punctuation

Again this is because audience members are prone to losing focus. To combat this, you can provide clear moments where they can jump back in should they have momentarily stopped paying attention. For example, you can explain the structure of the talk at the very beginning and then keep referring back to the stage of the talk that you’re currently in. This structure will ensure that people can quickly get back on board if they have missed anything.

Put a Fence around your Idea

Clearly explain how your idea, though it may be similar to others, is unique in itself.

Ask Questions

When you are giving a talk and you ask a question to the audience, waiting five seconds for a response will seem like an eternity. However, asking questions engages the audience, and crucially, in a different way to passive listening. This will help them understand better and remember longer.

Use Blackboards & Props if Possible

An area which people often feel self-conscious about is what to do with their hands whilst giving a talk and a blackboard is a great way of keeping your hands busy. More than that, for a talk where the audience is note taking, a blackboard is a good way to regulate your speed: if you’re writing the key points on the blackboard then you know your audience also has time to write them without falling behind. Using props to highlight your key points gives the audience member a visual memory to take away.

What to Avoid when using Slides

Most importantly, you should not have too many words on your slides: being succinct with your language simplifies the slides and helps the audience to maintain their focus on you. As humans we have only one language processor and we can use it either to read or to engage an interlocutor. If there are too many words on the slide, it forces people to read, which prohibits them from listening.

Do not read your slides aloud, people in the audience know how to read and reading will just annoy them. Do not use goofy clip art or fonts, instead use simple and easy to comprehend images that serve as the key handles for your ideas. Do not use a background pattern, they are distorting and make the text hard to read

This post looks at key things to consider when speaking in front of large crowds, as covered by MIT professor Patrick Winston. The full lecture this post is based on can be seen here.

Written by William Brooke, Director of Witherow Brooke

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