With a New Year ahead of us, it's time to buckle down on resolutions, and that means prioritizing. You may have your sights set on a committing to a new exercise regimen or carving out more family time. Honing your speaking skills might not top your list.
But consider this: In virtually every aspect of life, effective communication is the prerequisite to getting anything done. At work, the higher up the ranks you climb—or aspire to climb—the greater the likelihood you'll need to speak to ever bigger groups of people. And just because that isn't something you need to do every day doesn't mean it matters less. In fact, for most ambitious professionals, it's a skill that's all the more worth developing in order to be ready when those occasions do arise.
Here are four tips to help you improve your speaking skills in the year ahead.
The days of formal addresses are mostly over. While slide presentations and the like still have their place, being able to speak well in impromptu situations is getting more and more critical. Even at board meetings, the trend now is to have less presentation time and more discussion time, and this approach is trickling down to many lower-level meetings too.
That's probably welcome news to most folks. Many of us prefer to have free-flowing conversations rather than sit through (or deliver) formal presentations. But there's an art to off-the-cuff communication, too, and it's one worth mastering. Some of the key techniques—like powerful storytelling and the way you use your voice—are as useful in impromptu settings as they are in more formal ones. So practice them. You don’t need a script to be a great communicator.
Numbers can be valuable, but they don't matter much if you can't draw conclusions from them. Those who work in technical fields, where research and development underlie everything, know how true that is. Never use data as window dressing.
I was recently hired by a defense contractor to help engineers communicate with the government about how their tanks performed under various conditions. I asked one of the executives, "What does all this data mean?" He replied, "My job is not to draw conclusions; my job is to just provide the numbers." Wrong. An automated report can provide that.
You need to explain the implications of your data in the most concrete terms possible. Why do the figures you've just presented matter to your audience? What do they imply? If you simply expect your listeners to intuit that, you're not only shirking your responsibility as a speaker, you're also weakening your message.
Many of us have a queasy feeling getting up to talk in front of a group. That's natural. To help conquer it, find something to smile about. If you're in utter agony, your audience will feel it. As you prepare your remarks, find some way to enjoy yourself, whether by injecting some humor into your presentation, asking your audience members an interesting question or two, or even just recalling another time you had to speak publicly and had a good time—or at least not an awful one.
Above all, remember to smile! But make sure it's genuine—studies have shown that people can tell the difference between forced smiles and sincere ones. If you’re having real fun, your listeners are more likely to follow suit.
Many of us prepare for speaking engagements the way we studied for exams during our school days. But public speaking is less formulaic. It's absolutely true that you need to know the key points to make and details to cite (see point #2 above), but it's equally important to stay flexible and not get frustrated when things change on a dime.
Maybe you find out you only have 10 minutes to speak when you were told you’d have 20. Or maybe many of the people you thought you'd be speaking to just had to cancel, but a few are still on board. No matter what happens, you need to maintain the mind-set that lets you adjust to the circumstances and still get your message across. One of the ways you can embrace flexibility is by structuring your talk in way that easily adapts to any time frame (something I've written about here).
No matter what, don't underestimate how much public speaking skills can help propel your career forward in the year ahead. Becoming a better speaker doesn't happen overnight. It takes practice. But if you set your mind to improving now, you'll be ready when the moment comes for you to step up and knock it out of the park.