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Standing up to speak

Starting out

The human brain is a fantastic thing. It is capable of incredible wonders, great poetry, mathematics and actually understanding how Sudoku works, yet it ceases to function when you stand up to speak in public. Surveys have shown that many people fear public speaking more than they fear death! It need not be like that, and it will help your initiative greatly if there are a good number of people involved who feel confident in delivering talks about what the group is doing.

Public speaking, like riding a bicycle, is a learnable skill. What follows is an attempt at a crash course in public speaking, although there is nothing like practice.

Firstly, know your audience.

You cannot expect to give exactly the same talk to wildly different audiences. Who are you speaking to? What makes them tick? What might engage and enthuse them, and what is guaranteed to turn them off? Then, you need to know your material. This doesn’t mean you need to learn your whole speech by heart (although it might be useful to learn some bits of it), but you need to know what you’re going to tell them, and have some kind of structure to what you are going to say.

You need a beginning (what you’re going to talk about, how long you will take, whether or not there will be time for questions and so on), a middle (the main presentation) and an end (summarising your talk and an inspiring conclusion). There are a few ways you can be sure that you’ll get it right:

  • Write the main points out on to cards you can glance at as you give your talk.
  • If appropriate, use Powerpoint slides to trigger you to talk on different subjects you feel comfortable with (but don’t feel you have to use them, remember the art of fine storytelling
  • Write out your talk, and then summarise it into points that you can refer to as you speak.

Few things are duller than a talk read entirely from sheets of paper, interminable slide shows with endless incomprehensible graphs, or a standard talk given with no reference to the audience.

Make it lively relevant and entertaining. Begin by asking whether everyone can hear you, especially the people at the back. If using a microphone, establish the best place to hold it and keep mindful of holding it there, rather than flapping it about. Tell your own story, or stories of projects you have been involved with. Hearing someone talking honestly about their own experiences is worth a thousand slides, and really brings talks to life.

Don’t pace up and down, and make sure you have regular eye contact with as many of the audience as possible.

Use your hands but don’t flap them about excessively. Keep an eye on the clock. Saying you are going to talk for 20 minutes and to still be there after 40 is very disrespectful of your audience. Most people have an attention span of 6-8 minutes: change the pace and change the medium to sustain interest.

Remember that doom and gloom are not good tools for engaging people.

You will lose your audience quickly. Also don’t overwhelm people with too many graphs and statistics; use them judiciously and move on. What appeals to people, and what stays with them, is the emotion of what you are talking about. Why does Transition excite you? Tell your story; tell your initiative’s story. Use positive language. Will you present Transition as being about disastrous and nightmarish scenarios of peak oil and climate catastrophe, or as about unleashing enterprise, creativity and community to seize the moment of this historic opportunity to rethink how our communities work? What you are trying to do is – with humour, compassion and kindness – to create, as George Marshall of Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) puts it, a new social norm, one in which Transition comes across as the most logical and the most satisfying thing to do in these times.

In the unlikely event that your first talk bombs, get back in the saddle and try again.

Accept any invitation to speak; it is all good practice. In time, your confidence will grow, and when you take to the stage you will find that that space is yours, and that you are in command, that your two feet are planted firmly on the stage and that you feel at home. In time you can actually find that it is quite enjoyable! Finally, always be open to feedback. It may be uncomfortable, but it will help you to improve hugely. It is worth mentioning, though, that while a successful Transition initiative needs a small but diverse group of people able to speak in public, an interest in public speaking is not a prerequisite to engagement in Transition!



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