Friday, May 15, 2009

speakers: 7 reasons I want you to talk less

You’d think public speaking would be all about, well, the speaking. Yet the most powerful speakers know that silence, pauses and the all-too-underrated skill of brevity—can be their most important tools. Speakers who use them strategically get and keep my attention, and those who don't tend to lose me in the torrent of words. When I'm in the audience, here are my 7 reasons I’d like speakers to talk less:

1. I bore easily. And I'm not alone. Attention spans are short, and speakers start losing audience attention precipitously after the first few minutes of a talk or presentation—unless they work to keep it. But even the best speaker benefits from keeping it short and moving to a question and answer session.
2. I want to engage in a conversation with you. For that to happen, you have to stop talking at some point. I’m not here for a lecture, and ironically, I’ll learn more if you let me participate.
3. I have questions. I want to be able to ask them. If you don’t leave time for me to check an assumption or get more information you didn’t cover, I may leave your talk frustrated instead of animated.
4. I don't want your voice to fill up all the space and time allotted. Just as print designers use white space to make the rest of the copy easy on the eyes and broadcasters use long shots and music for a visual pause and transition, you can use silence and pauses to create emphasis and drama--and give my ears a bit of a break.
5. I want to be able to ponder what you just said. Pausing lets your points sink in, and may lead to better understanding, more intelligent questions and a more satisfied audience.
6. I’ll retain more. Give me up to three key points to ponder—then stop. I’ll remember them better, and so will you. Save some for another time if you feel you’ve got a lot to say.
7. I don’t want you to make me late for something else. I have a short list of speakers who won’t see me again in their audiences because they spoke longer than the time allotted or didn’t curtail their comments enough to allow questions—and, in a couple of cases, expected the audience to sit past the stated ending time. That's a presumption you can't afford to make with me.
Speakers also benefit from speaking less, gaining better audience engagement, a more thoughtful appearance and, best of all, the sense that you're neither rushed nor nervous. (Pauses give you more time to breathe and remember where you are, too.) Just as with gestures, props and other tools, you need to plan for these pauses and silences so that they work for you.

UPDATE: This post made it into Andrew Dlugan's Six Minutes blog weekly review of the best public speaking tips and techniques. I'm always pleased to be included in this weekly roundup and recommend you check out the other excellent posts.