Tuesday, May 7, 2019


‘In the beginning was the word …’ (Jn 1:1).

Words are so important. Words are things. Words create reality. Powerful stuff! A good public speaker needs to be a good wordsmith. Without that, no one can be an effective public speaker. In order to be a good wordsmith, you must love words, love books and love reading—and be a good and well-informed reader as well.

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.

Public speaking has always been a big part of my life. I first studied elocution with Lucille Bruntnell (late Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London, being the original dramatic interpreter of A A Milne's classic characters). Later, while still at high school, I studied voice production for speech with Sydney’s original voice and radio coach Bryson Taylorwho tutored many famous Australian broadcasters. More recently, I have been studying speech and drama at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney. I have spent years and years lecturing to thousands of university students, reading lessons in churches, delivering monologues (poems and speeches from plays), and participating in several high-level public debates. In recent times, I have been facilitating training sessions on public speaking. What's more, I still have to work on my own voice; in March 2002 I had a microlaryngoscopy and polypectomy to repair a torn, haemorrhagic left vocal fold and remove a polyp that had grown on the fold. After the operation, I had to see a speech pathologist for some time to learn to use my voice again. It wasn’t fun! And my voice is no longer as strong as it once was and I can become hoarse fairly easily.

Public speaking does not appear to come naturally to most people. Most people seem to have an aversion to public speaking. Indeed, it has been said that our three greatest fears are death, being asked for money, and speaking in public. I’ve already mentioned that public speaking is both an art and a skill. Now, as respects it being a skill, public speaking is for the most part an acquired skill. In addition to having a well-organised and tightly structured speech, and being one’s own personality, an effective public speaker has developed a number of speaking skills which collectively produce a high standard of speech. Those skills include, of course, the ability to speak well. In order to improve the quality of your speech you need to learn to breathe using your diaphragm. Diaphragmatic breathing gives the voice depth and conveys a sense of assurance and authority, which is extremely important for a public speaker. 

The ability to speak well also requires, among other things, good articulation (the proper use of the moveable organs of speech which form our consonants and vowels), enunciation (the art of speaking clearly so that each word is clearly heard), resonance (vibrations that create tone through and within your mouth, throat, and nasal passages) and phonation (the process by which the vocal folds produce certain sounds through quasi-periodic vibration and resonance). You must also have a certain presence. The word ‘presence’ refers to a certain charisma and charm that a speaker, actor or performer possesses that draws in an audience and commands their full attention. You must also say what the audience wants to hear. You must also be natural—and yourself—for it is only by being yourself that you will ever be original. Learn from others but don’t copy them. They are not you.

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 herenow. 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 actingpresence 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. 

During your speech or presentation, avoid going on auto-pilot. It is so easy for us to become hypnotised by the flow of words. So, how does one avoid going on auto-pilot? Well, there are several ways.

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:

Self-observation brings man to the realization of the necessity for self-change. And in observing himself a man notices that self-observation itself brings about certain changes in his inner processes, he begins to understand that self-observation is an instrument of self-change, a means of awakening. By observing himself he throws, as it were, a ray of light onto his inner processes which have hitherto worked in complete darkness. And under the influence of this light the processes themselves begin to change.

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.