How to Give a Public Talk
A few years ago, a social survey in the UK asked people: “What is your biggest fear?”
The majority answered “Public Speaking.”
Their second biggest fear was “Death.”
In other words, the British public regard public speaking as a fate worse than death.
Here are some suggestions on public speaking.
Remember to step into the authority of the role (see previous blog on preparing a public talk)
Three Core Points:
Tell the audience at the beginning what you are going to talk about
Use short clear sentence construction
Close the talk with some deep points
Right before the talk, stay silent for several minutes or more beforehand, stay focussed, calm and clear. Enter the venue or hall when people have settled down so the hall is rather silent.
Ensure there is a clear, unmistakeable theme running through the talk. Otherwise the talk appears disjointed, ambiguous and flaky. For example, if you talk on mindfulness, love or death, you regularly employ the concepts throughout to ensure a strong, clear thread to your talk.
Any story needs to confirm the theme of the talk. Absence of stories can make a talk seem dry unless there is a passionate depth to the theme. Too many stories can make a talk appear lightweight.
Make sure that you use your title in different ways through the talk; otherwise the talk may seem to lack co-ordination or seem unrelated to the title.
It is sometimes tempting to give a simple talk for beginners in your subject. Please try to avoid this, as there are always dedicated and experienced followers of the theme in the hall. There are also people with little experience yet have a depth of wisdom.
Always remember to speak to the person furthest from you in the hall. If unsure that your can voice can be heard, ask them to raise their hand if they cannot hear.
Give a clear title to your talk
If you speak too slowly, you may induce sleepiness upon the listeners.
If you speak too quickly, you will block the opportunity for the practitioners to understand what you have to say.
If you speak too loud, you will make it difficult for people to listen to you!
If you speak too quietly, people will have to strain to hear.
The ability for the audience to listen in a relaxed way with an upright posture maximises receptivity. The capacity to listen demands much single pointed energy. The upright posture matters with the hands rather still or only occasional movement to make a strong point. The Buddha refused to give teachings to people in the horizontal position unless they were sick.
Try to speak so that your words and feelings flow together. If your feelings and tone of voice come across as intense and absolute, you will sound intolerant, no matter how clearly you express your words. People in the audience will inwardly go on the defensive.
If you suddenly feel very emotional, breathe deeply and, if appropriate share these feelings.
If you are nervous, pick out two people – one to your left and one to your right, and talk to them. Notice two people who appear sincerely interested.
Be mindful with ‘we’ you and ‘l’ language. ‘
We’ means everybody, including yourself.
You’ language excludes yourself. It is a challenging form of language. E.g. ‘You have the opportunity to change. Are you willing to take the steps?’
‘I’ language refers to personal experiences or personal views. ‘!’ language can be used to refer to all but it has to be made clear. E.g. ‘I am a human being passing through birth ageing, pain and death.’
Speak in short sentences rather than long sentences that sound like a series of clauses, hard to fathom.
If you quote the Buddha or another authority, make sure the quote is accurate, and not something you have heard or read elsewhere. Check a text if in doubt and be ready to name the book and passage.
Remember to pause for a two or three seconds, every now and then, to allow listeners to absorb your message.
Prepare a talk well with easy to read notes to refer to. It is worthwhile giving many hours to the preparation of an important teaching.
On deeper issues, there are generally fewer stories. Too many stories or too long stories weaken the theme of the talk. Remember to:
Try to give as deep a teaching as possible, especially in the last five minutes of the talk.
Try to make as much eye contact with as many people as possible during the talk.
Remember teachings are to lead everybody further in their understanding than it is as present.
It is useful to finish a talk with a couple of minutes of silence.
Never repeat the same talk in the same place. Never give the give the same talk more than two or three times. After all, you are pointing to the Original Mind, not simply repeating the past.
If you have a question and answer session at the end, make sure the Q and A connects to the talk, as other topics distract from the theme.
Some listeners prefer the silence to a follow up of questions and answers. It is useful to keep any Q and A down to a few minutes. Any announcements in the hall should be made before a talk rather than afterwards to protect the silent atmosphere for reflection.
After your talk, be mindful of the judge within! On a retreat, the talk is often a major focal point for the day as a vehicle for deep insights for the practitioners.
The Buddha never gave lightweight teachings. Nor do we.
Remember you are the teacher. Your words can touch the listener so deeply that it has a profound effect on him or her for the rest of their life.
You have exactly the same job as the great masters of communication through the centuries. Never undermine the teachings by giving a chatty talk.
Truth has power to it. Truth transforms consciousness.
If your teachings touch a deep place in your listeners, then all credit to your wisdom and communication skills. If you know you are not touching a deep spot among listeners, then explore afresh your style and content. Teaching is a practice as well.
Many people love to hear teachings that address ultimate truth – the power of love, liberation and the infinite.
Dharma teachings point to “knowing and seeing” – hence the importance of the wisdom of the teacher and the receptivity of the listener.
May all beings speak with wisdom