Here are the new best practices for public speaking

January 18, 2022, 9:26 PM UTC

Public speaking has changed dramatically in the last few years with the shift to online events during the COVID-19 pandemic. As many conferences continue to be virtual, people are adjusting to addressing audiences from their living rooms — and this shift has presented some unique challenges and benefits.

The pandemic brought a “great reset” to the public speaking space, Saana Azzam, a professional public speaker and founder of coaching program MENA Speakers, tells Fortune. “Those who have had long careers speaking onstage were not necessarily good at speaking virtually. And rookies, who were very tech-savvy, all of a sudden did great in a virtual format. Even people with a fear of public speaking do well.” 

But while it’s easier than ever to reach a large audience, being a compelling, informative speaker requires some prep work.

Public speaking is a “learnable skill,” says Azzam, that has been demystified as virtual engagements became the norm over the past two years. But for those tapping the virtual mic for the first time, Azzam offers a few basic rules so you can feel confident you’ll give a compelling speech and keep folks engaged.

Basic public speaking rules always apply

Regardless of experience level, strong public speakers share a few common attributes, Azzam says. First, they have a deep well of knowledge on their chosen topic and feel confident diving into it at length. Second, they have an approachable, compelling stage presence, even if that stage is virtual. And third, they have traction. Many successful speakers are already dispensing thought leadership through posts on their own social media pages, she says. Relying on too many borrowed thoughts or cliches makes a speaker blend into the pack. 

Of course, there’s no substitute for a polished, prepared speech, Azzam says. You need a roadmap for the message you’re trying to convey to make sure you’re getting it across to listeners. “As a leader, if you’re not sure of the destination, that makes the audience uncomfortable.”

It’s harder to connect with an audience on Zoom

Still, audience connection is much harder to cultivate online, she says. When you’re on stage, it’s much easier to read the room than when you’re on Zoom, where many audience members likely have their cameras off.

“Professional speakers have a much easier time modifying their approach [in-person] based on the vibe of the room,” Azzam says. “They can quickly change their pace or move in a different direction. That intimacy and connection is much more challenging when you’re not in-person. You just have to operate under the assumption that the audience is happy because you don’t have that direct feedback if you’re not seeing their faces. You mostly have to improvise.”

Zoom audiences only have access to your facial expression, your voice, and your upper body. As a result, speakers need to be more energetic, as well as thoughtful about their facial expressions and tone. This makes Zoom speeches, on the whole, more difficult and taxing than stage speaking.

Virtual speaking engagements also don’t include a lot of the clear transitions you get with an in-person speech. There’s no applause when you approach the lectern, for example. This can make starting the conversation especially hard. Speakers will have to “really lean on structure,” Azzam says. “Start and finish the same way: emphasizing your key message. Go into the Q&A and then conclude with remarks by recapping what’s been said.”

“It requires quite a lot of rehearsal and coaching yourself,” she says. “It also requires thinking before so you know how you’re showing up. When I’m onstage, I have my full body to communicate with. On Zoom, I have fewer tools, so conveying enthusiasm takes more.”

Azzam recommends new speakers hone their abilities by recording themselves practicing their speech, then watch the footage and take notes on areas in need of improvement. 

Authenticity stills matters

The line separating a strong public speaker from a weak one isn’t always clear-cut. The main determinant is authenticity and skilled communication — both of which Azzam says are vital to business leadership, whether or not you ever take the podium.

“As a manager, there’s a huge upside to being able to comfortably stand in front of your staff, motivate them, communicate ideas to key stakeholders and win them over with your speaking skills,” Azzam says. “Humans are storytellers; we gravitate toward people who speak honestly and vulnerably.”

Professional speakers are no longer “purveyors of ritualistic prepared remarks,” she says. Instead, the best ones emit an “effective, honest, and communicative dialogue.”

Regardless of whether the speech is in-person or online, maintaining eye contact is crucial. Eye contact with audience members demonstrates investment, Azzam says; the goal of any speech is to make the audience feel as though they’re part of the presentation. As a reminder, she puts a post-it reading “Look here!” with a smiley face next to her computer camera. 

“Pacing and pausing to punctuate important points endures as a significant tenet,” she says, both in person and on Zoom. Virtual speeches aren’t new, Azzam says, but since the pandemic, clients now are seeking them about as much as they once sought in-person presentations. 

Despite the industry changes, the basic tenets of a good speech remain unchanged, she adds.

Professional speakers, regardless of the platform or mode of presentation, must balance their authority with their own personality, sense of humor, and pacing. Today’s most powerful speakers are authentic and approachable, sharing knowledge with a laid-back, conversational approach that makes the audience feel like their friends.

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