A public speaker is a purveyor of information through the medium of performance. Yes, performance. What is ‘performance’? Well, it refers to the act of presenting of some work (eg a play, concert, recitation, lecture, etc) as well as the completion of a task with the application of knowledge, skills and abilities. Public speaking is both an art and a skill, or rather a combination of skills including but not limited to good vocal quality, a good sense of pitch and a good sense of rhythm. With its extension in the form of debating, public speaking is one of the ‘lively arts’, together with such others as music, theatre and ballet.
Now, where does mindfulness fit into all this? Well, mindfulness plays a vital role in public speaking. Some commentators take the view that it is perhaps the most important ingredient of the art and skill of public speaking. Anyway, it is essential that you remember to be mindfully present at all times during your speech or presentation. You will know your audience better and connect better with your audience when you are more aware of yourself. Awareness is an integral part of mindfulness. However, mindfulness is not simply awareness but awareness of awareness—that is, reflexive awareness or ‘two-dimensional awareness’.
Mindfulness is also all about remembering. Never forget that. Remembering what? Well, mindfulness is remembering what is present, remembering to stay present in the present moment from one moment to the next, and remembering in the present moment what has already happened. In other words, mindfulness is all about keeping the present in mind, remembering to be here, and remembering to stay here—now. Mindfulness is the work of reminding yourself not just to be aware, and to say aware, but that you are aware. First and foremost, remember this—you must practise mindfulness. When it comes to public speaking—as well as acting—presence work, as well as voice work and proper breathing, is important. Say to yourself, ‘I am here … I am present … I see you and I let you see me.’ Remember those words before you start speaking—and also when you're speaking.
Now, before you start speaking, free and align your body, especially your head, neck, back, hips, legs and feet. Release tension in your body, especially your jaw, and in your mind. One way of doing that is to stretch and gently massage your shoulders, chest, neck, jaw and face. Don’t forget to free your breath with some vocal warm-ups, and breathe deeply. Deep diaphragmatic breathing is good for the voice and also helps to relax your whole body as well as your mind.
First, remember to maintain good eye contact with your audience. Look around your audience and gauge their reactions to your speech or presentation. It is essential that you avoid visual information overload and overkill. Research indicates that it is more difficult to process information when it is coming at us in both the written and spoken forms at the same time (eg using PowerPoint). The human brain processes and retains more information if it is digested in either its verbal or written form, but not both at the same time. If you do decide to use PowerPoint, avoid death by PowerPoint. Make sure the slides don’t take over; it is so easy to overload your slides with too much information. Don’t be trendy and faddish just for the sake of it; the weight of evidence is now very much the other way. Secondly, remember to vary the vocal elements of pitch, pace, tone, volume and speed. Thirdly, remember to make good use of pause. Fourthly, remember to stay aware of your posture and your breathing at regular intervals—and make any necessary adjustments. (Note. Correct posture is really about poise which involves correct head-neck-back relationship and good core muscle support.)
Here’s something else. Although we tend to focus most of our attention on the words of our speech or presentation, research suggests that the total impact of a communication is as follows: 7 per cent words, 38 per cent vocal noise, and 55 per cent non-verbal. The latter includes such things as our body language, the way we dress, the time allowed for our communication, the seating arrangements, and the physical environment.
|The author delivering a lecture some 19 years ago.|
Key elements of mindfulness practice, such as attention and observation, as well as intention, are also very important when it comes to public speaking. Those elements can be applied to all aspects of what is known as vocal progression—namely, presence work, breath work, and voice work, with the latter involving capacity, support and placement for expressive communication, phonation, resonance and articulation.
Always keep in mind your intention. For example, your intention may be to impart knowledge and information or perhaps to entertain. Don't forget to remain attentive and observant. When it comes to public speaking, mindfulness requires an alertness of mind, which is the instinctive ability to sense the text and the structure of the work being read. The secret is to stay focused on the action of each moment as it quickly becomes the next moment, and then the moment after that, and so on. The attention of your mind moves with the flow of action, word by word, phrase by phrase, line by line, and so on throughout your speech or presentation. Never get stuck in the moment, unable to move on to the next, even if you make a mistake. Make the necessary correction, if such action be required, and move on. Life moves only in one direction.
And while I am on the subject of mindfulness and observation, if you really want to improve your speech, start by observing others and, most of all, yourself. I love these words from P D Ouspensky (In Search of the Miraculous), who is quoting his teacher George Gurdjieff:
Good public speaking takes practice—lots of it. Seek feedback from your audience and learn from your mistakes. Most importantly, don’t take yourself too seriously. Indeed, you will be a better public speaker if you don’t.