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David Pibworth | The Blog


The Art Of Public Speaking: The Element Of Surprise

Keeping the attention of your audience ...



Last week, we covered the basics of microphones and this week I turn to keeping the attention of the audience. I always think there should be an element of surprise in any presentation ...

A little laughter at the start of your public speaking gig will always help to break the ice.

A little laughter at the start of your public speaking gig will always help to break the ice.

copyright: stockbroker / 123rf stock photo

Saying the unexpected is certainly one way of being remembered and listened to, and this in the case of a serious presentation is even more important.

It goes without saying (although I'm about to say it) that when you are introduced, you should stand up and walk to the mic with the utmost confidence. When you get there don't rush. Arrange your notes, look at the audience and go into your opening with no preamble. Don't 'um' or 'er', waffle or fiddle with the mic. I will come to notes in a future briefing.

One of my opening lines is this: ''As I stood in front of the mirror this morning, admiring my naked body, I thought ... I think I'm going to be asked to leave IKEA shortly''. It always gets a laugh.

Now I'm not saying you should say the very same gag, it's just a line to put them at their ease and allow them to laugh immediately. It's worth noting that even with this line it has to be constructed correctly. If I said "As I stood in front of the mirror this morning at IKEA, admiring my naked body, I thought ... I'm going to be asked to leave shortly" it doesn't work. The element of surprise has been lost in that joke by telling them where you are at the start. So even at that point the element of surprise has to be considered.

"I believe that you do need to put humour into every speech."

I don't mean you need to do a knock about gag-filled routine, but to open with something amusing is an excellent way to get the audience on side, even if your presentation is essentially perceived as dull. Possibly even more important if it is seen as dull. If you are giving the workforce the gross figures of their company for the year, you do need to spice it up somewhat.

Audiences, they say, can only concentrate for around 15 minutes and even then, they will only take in about 25% of what you are saying.

I'm not sure how those figures are reached, but there is an element of truth in it if you just trot out facts, which is why many speakers give out notes afterwards to remind you of what they've spoken about.

If you are using visual presentations as well, do make sure that after each slide you refer to, the screen goes back to a standard logo as people will look at figures onscreen instead of listening to you.

So refer to the screen, make the points you need to by pointing them out and then get it back to the logo. Every speaker who uses visual aids will be giving out notes on the screenshots afterwards, so let them know that, so they don't get too tied up with it.

"My advice is to always start with something light hearted."

It may be an amusing anecdote about the company, or even a joke that you can connect with the company you are speaking to. Then move on to the nub of the talk but get something light-hearted in the middle, and end on something funny too.

I'm lucky as I have a wealth of anecdotes, and I do collect them in order to write comedy and to help with writing speeches. I listen to what people say all the time.

If the MD of the company is known to like golf, then use it in your opening gambit. Never offend anyone. There is a very thin line between pulling a leg and being critical, but usually, it's the way you tell 'em.

If it's a joke relating to a hobby of the MD, you're usually ok, as it is just a joke. If it's a specific story, just consider if they come out of it in a good light. If it's about your MD, for instance, and he or she comes out on top of you in the story then that's a good gag.

"Self deprecation, when used
sparingly is excellent."

The element of surprise can also be brought in on a true fact that the audience just won't know. If they go away having learnt an interesting fact, then you have again worked the element of surprise. I don't mean something like "you won't know this, but our Basingstoke branch had more sales than the whole of the North East put together"; It does have to be startlingly interesting.

So with this area, my primary intention is to get you to 'think out of the box' as they say these days. Even on more serious presentations you should look for the comedy or at least the lighter aspects of the subject.

Prepare everything well. Rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. Give your speech to the mirror, or your partner, get feedback from others. Don't be afraid to glance or refer to notes - but never, never, just read them.

Never swear. Swearing just loses you respect on the whole and shows a lack of intelligent thought. We are talking corporate events here and not comedy gigs, of course. If you are trying to put over points - which good comedians aren't - then just avoid it.

And finally for this week, don't speak for longer than 45 minutes and try to leave them wanting more. As an example, my talks on the history of British situation comedy last 45 minutes and then have a Q&A session afterwards. If you speak for longer than that, be assured that your audience will be fidgeting and looking at their watches. And you don't want that.

Don't forget though, it's the element of surprise that will win the day, so do be original.

Until next time ...


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More about David Pibworth ...

David is the owner of David Pibworth Productions (DPP) which provide corporate entertainment and also actors for corporate training and development.

Having worked in the Light Entertainment field for many years and produced shows for Al Murray & Joe Pasquale amongst others, David is in a position to advise on well-known comedy and musical acts. DPP also represent Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's scripts which include Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe and Son.

He is the director of MK Theatre of Comedy who are very well known locally for their stage adaptations of classic comedy scripts such as Fawlty Towers, The Vicar of Dibley, Allo Allo and many others.

He is a long-standing member of Equity and the Directors Guild of Great Britain and has acted in, and directed, many productions over the years, mainly in Light Entertainment, but with occasional forays into Shakespeare etc. Every Christmas he is contracted as an Ugly Sister in Cinderella, currently with 'That's Entertainment' who also use him as a director.

He teaches eccentric magic for The Pauline Quirke Academy and MKTOC also run a youth drama school in Olney from the DPP offices.

David maintains his busy lifestyle is a surefire way to avoid being on any committees. He is married to Julie, and they have one daughter, Esther and live in Clifton Reynes, surrounded by dogs, cats and horses. They live so close to the church that David has instructed his daughter - when he dies and not before - to fire him over the wall from a circus cannon.