Rhetoric, as discussed in the previous post, is a fascinating and complex art form that can help improve public speaking. The ‘Five Canons of Rhetoric’ provide a useful and practical starting-point for the preparation of any speech or presentation.
The ‘canons’ or guiding principles can be defined as follows:
There will not be time here to go into all of these points, in every detail, so we will focus for now on points pertaining to Arrangement, Style and Delivery. Arrangement
Research shows that audiences are most attentive to the first five minutes of any talk (and most tend to become disengaged after five minutes has passed). It follows, then, that in individual presentations, you should try to make your most vital points within the first five minutes – and ideally, your talk should not last beyond five minutes! Quality is better than quantity, and your audience will thank you for it.
When preparing the content of a speech or presentation, try to write the purpose of your presentation – or your ‘section’ or ‘segment’, if working on a group presentation – in one sentence. Then consider what you want your audience to take away from your presentation – if they had to take one piece of information away from you, what would it be? Write, in a sentence, what you wish an audience to remember from your speech. These two sentences – the purpose of your talk and the takeaway message – must be kept in mind continuously while writing and rehearsing your presentation.
There are several ways for organising your argument to make it coherent and memorable. Once you have gathered all your points, you need to organise and present them in a way that is meaningful for the audience. Try starting with the most general point and working your way to the most specific, or present the easiest point first and then progress to the most complex. Depending on context, it might make the most sense to adopt a chronological order for your points.
Do not be afraid of using an attention-grabbing question as your opening statement. You can address the audience directly in the second person: You. It grasps their attention and demands their involvement.
Visual aids, when used discreetly, can be very effective in illustrating your points and adding vibrancy to your talk. They should be kept simple: try using charts, graphs, images or drawings, but resist the urge to make long PowerPoint presentations with multiple slides featuring several bullet-pointed sentences. While one-word bullet points can be useful to stress and summarise your points, too much activity on the screen will distract your audience from what you are saying, creating an uncomfortable disjunction between what they are trying to read, and what they are trying to listen to.
Eye contact with the audience is effective, but it can be nerve-wracking for the speaker. If this is the case for you, cheat: look at the back wall, slightly over the top of the audiences’ heads. It will appear as if you are making eye co ntact, but will result in less self-consciousness for you. If you can, try moving your eyes from one side of the room to the other, occasionally stopping to look in someone’s eyes.
If you are reading your presentation from notes, try to look up from your notes often – it gives the impression you are interested and engaged by what you are saying.
Above all, and especially in a foreign language, remember to speak slowly – slower than you think. Give your mouth time to get itself around all of the words, and be confident in choosing where to place stresses. Speed and pace can be very deceptive: what may sound painfully slow to your ears can sound like an incoherent gallop to an audience . If in doubt, go slower.
If you are asked a question by a member of the audience or an examiner, and you can’t answer it, you are not required to improvise. Try these two useful phrases:
"I'm not up-to-date on that subject but I will research it and get back to you."
"That's not one of my areas of expertise. Is there anyone here who can respond to that question?”