Speaking Skills in Business

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Studies show that Americans' number-one fear is public speaking. Actors, television personalities, and public speakers all feel it. So do salespeople, community leaders, and managers who are called on to make seemingly routine presentations.

Experienced speakers, though, know how to combat stage fright. Through careful planning, proper training, and conscious relaxation exercises, these speakers have learned how to channel fear into control and confidence. All people have the actual skills needed for good presentations; using these skills in front of an audience is the area in which training is needed. Good communication and successful speaking skills can be learned.

In defining a presentation, this article begins with one end of the spectrum, something that is loosely called a speech. Most speeches have very little impact because they do not ask the speaker to do anything, whereas the very definition of the word present is "to bring, to give a gift to." This implies that a giver (a presenter) is tuned in to what the recipient (the audience) wants. What response do we get when we give someone a gift of something he or she really wants? What response do we get when we give someone a gift that he or she really doesn't like? The difference between these two is the difference between sharing a meaningful message and delivering a speech. Audiences dislike being talked to; they eagerly await speakers who drive home a point or idea that they can readily use in their personal or professional lives.

When imparting information, two things are happening simultaneously:

  1. The presenter is making a commitment to the audience. The presenter is working to prove a point that will win the support of the audience or that will generate action.
  2. The audience is making a judgment on the presenter, asking such questions as, "Do I really trust this person?" "Does this information make any sense?" "Are the facts presented accurate?"

A person who has accepted an invitation to speak should answer three questions before beginning to think about what to say and how to say it:

  1. Who is the audience?
  2. What does the audience want to know?
  3. What is the best way to provide the audience with the information they want?

Most presentations are given for one of five reasons: to entertain, inform, inspire, convince, or persuade. Once the purpose is determined, a talk should be organized around three main parts:

  1. Introduction : This "hooks" the audience, entices people to listen, and previews what is to come. Effective introductory devices include questions, dramatic or humorous statements, jokes, anecdotes, and personal experiences.
  2. Body : This is the subjectthe meat of the speech. It should relate the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the subject. To keep the talk simple and easy to understand, the speaker should stick to threeno more than fourmain points, relying on facts, figures, illustrations, specific examples, and comparisons to support these main points.
  3. Conclusion : This final section should highlight key points that the audience should remember. It should also make people feel they have gained something by listening. The audience might be challenged to act or react to the message within a specific time frame.

The content of the message should be structured in an orderly and logical manner. This makes it easier for people to follow, digest, and retain the information. If the audience has difficulty following the speaker's train of thought, the message will not get or keep their attention.

The skeletal structure of any presentation should be:

  1. Introduction
    1. Opening
    2. Objective
    3. Preview
  2. Body
    1. Key point 1
      1. Supporting material
      2. Transition statement
    2. Key point 2
      1. Supporting material
      2. Transition statement
    3. Key point 3
      1. Supporting material
      2. Transition statement
  3. Closing
    1. Summary
    2. To do

Formulating an achievable and clearly stated objective is crucial. It provides the whole focus for preparation and acts as a guide in determining what to include in the body of the message.

Stating the objective at the beginning of the presentation is equally important. Doing so lets the audience know what to expect. It prepares them for what they are about to hear. Therefore, it should always be stated in conversational terms. It might begin this way: "Today we will explore." or "I will help you understand."

With the foundation (objective) in place, one can proceed to outline the body of the presentation. Key points are those that unlock the door to the subject and let the audience in on the most important content areas of the message.

It is said that every great message contains at least one key point but not more than three. The rule of three forces the speaker to think through the material and distill the most significant points. Having three or fewer points keeps it simple for listeners. Usually information is remembered in groups of threes, fours, or sevens. Telephone numbers, for example, are spoken first with two sets of three numbers and then with a set of four: (123)456-7890. Elementary school teachers never present material in groups of more than seven items. The way people store and recall information represents the brain's effort to organize and combine data, making it easier to remember.

This same principle applies to the body of a presentation. Simplifying it provides the audience with a message that they will be better able to assimilate and retain.

Supporting material for each key point can be obtained by using:

  • Examples
  • Stories
  • Quotations
  • Findings
  • Comparisons

Since supporting material accounts for most of the content of a presentation, it generally takes the most time to identify, collect, and develop. Again, though, the rule of three should be applied. Significant points will get lost in the maze of rambling information if too much supporting material is presented. On the other hand, a presentation will not be convincing if too little supporting material to substantiate key points is included.

A transition statement acts as a minisummary or minipreview within the body of the presentation. It announces the end of one point and introduces the next. Transitions help listeners stay with the speaker, making the message easier to follow and remember. Without transitions, a speaker could be halfway into the next point while some of the listeners are still trying to figure out what this has to do with the previous point. A sample transition statement might be: "Now that we have studied," or "Let's take a look at"

People are most readily persuaded by what they heard frequently and recently; therefore, a summary should include a capsule of the key points in brief sentence form. This review drives the message home to the listener.

Most trainers apply the formula T × 3 (tell them three times) when delivering a message:

Preview : Tell them what you are going to tell them.

Body : Tell them.

Summary : Tell them what you told them.

The last point to impress on an audience is how they can use the information presented to bring about meaningful change in their lives. The "To Do" of a message can be accomplished by using statements such as: "I challenge you to" or "I encourage you to"

Memorizing a presentation is a bad idea because stumbling or forgetting one word might cause the whole speech to fall apart. Memorized words also tend to sound cold and lifeless instead of warm and genuine. Reading a speech is not a good option either, because doing so prevents having eye contact with the audience. Instead, a speaker should write the main points on note cards and rehearse the speech at least five times, striving for spontaneity, variety, and naturalness in delivery.

To assure a successful presentation, follow these suggestions:

  1. Practice mental imagery. Imagine yourself triumphantly succeeding. Tell yourself, over and over again, that you have something important to share and that you will do a great job sharing it.
  2. Rehearse privately in front of a mirror and on tape. Critique the pace and tempo of your presentation, as well as your enunciation, articulation, and pronunciation of words. Ask a trusted friend to critique your delivery.
  3. Type your talk in large, bold type and number all pages/cards of your presentation. If you drop them, visible numbers will help you put them back together again in the correct order.
  4. Conduct extra research. Conducting detailed research on your topic helps you gain a tremendous feeling of mastery and confidence.
  5. Dress comfortably, but in good taste, and tuck away a lucky symbol on yourself.
  6. Bring along some handouts. Cartoons, objects, or memorabilia that can be passed around the room are very effective interest grabbers. They are especially useful when you must pause to collect your thoughts or calm your nerves.
  7. Talk to someone. Before your talk begins, talk to a friend in your audience. Or talk to several. The more people you have a chance to meet before the talk begins. the more easily you will be able to treat your audience as a group of friends.
  8. Introduce yourself. Talk a bit about your background. Let your audience know something about your interests. Even frightened speakers have the ability to introduce themselves with style.
  9. Speak deeply. Let your comments flow from deep within your body. Your voice will sound more forceful as a result.
  10. Position yourself firmly at the lectern or table. Rest your hands firmly but comfortably at the edge of the lectern or table. As your hands gently grasp the lectern, you will boost your sense of command and confidence.
  11. Remember that physical action often softens fear. The more you are able to move your body or your major muscle groups, the more likely you will induce a sense of calm.
  12. Modulate your voice. Enunciate carefully, pause when appropriate, and accent important points with a change in volume.
  13. State your case. Good presentations are forceful presentations. Do not hesitate to express your viewpoint firmly or offer provocative ideas to the audience. The more you are able to express strongly held views, the more you will feel in control of the presentation.
  14. Enjoy yourself. You need not be a polished celebrity to deliver a quality talk. Enjoy the experience. To relax yourself and your audience, do not forget to smile!

see also Communications in Business ; Listening Skills in Business ; Reading Skills in Business ; Writing Skills in Business


Gelb, Michael J. (1988). Present Yourself! Rolling Hills Estates, CA.: Jalmar Press.

Ensman, Richard G., Jr. (1993, Winter). "Stage Fright Bites the Dust." Communiqué, 17-22.

Filson, Brent (1994). Executive Speeches. New York: Wiley.

Hargrave, Jan L. (1995). Let Me See Your Body Talk. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Lewis, Jan (1996, July/August). "Become a Better Communicator." Women In Business, 21-24.

Jan Hargrave