Public speaking can often be depicted as a very robotic skill: learn a voice exercise, understand how the diaphragm works, employ this particular rhetorical technique. The truth, however, is that communication is of course one of the most human activities we can engage in – and therefore there’s a lot to be said for emotional intelligence.
Learning how to master the tricks of diction and breath, is important. So, too, is a familiarity with the basics of speechwriting – the rule of three, for example, and the power of repetition or alliteration. These, though, are questions of mechanics … and at some point you need to think about relationships instead.
When we speak in public, we are attempting to make connections with others. Audiences respond to speakers who share a little about themselves, who care about the people to whom they are speaking – who seem, in short, human.
Part of creating an atmosphere in which speaker and audience can connect is about understanding the people listening to you – and even subtly shifting your presentation style and even content based on their responses. For this, a bit of emotional intelligence goes a long way.
Before you speak, and often before you even write your speech or plan your remarks, do your research: who are you speaking to, and why? What are their backgrounds, what do they care about? Emotional intelligence is often a fancy term simply for being sensitive: knowing a little about your audience will help you.
It’s important to say that developing some imaginative sympathy for your audience isn’t about being able to manipulate them better, iIt’s about genuinely altering your approach so that you can reach out more effectively – and make your speech really worth their time.
It’s not always appropriate to make alterations to a speech on the fly, but emotional intelligence can also come into play during delivery as much as during preparation. This isn’t about rewriting whole sections of your speech right there onstage – in fact, that’s a big no-no! But it is about observing the effect you’re having and rolling with it.
If your audience seems to drift, it’s a good idea to inject a bit more energy; if they laugh at a particular joke, use that positive energy to strengthen your bond with them. If they seem confused, slow down. If they seem restless, emphasise your signposts and get to the good stuff.
In short, read your audience carefully – and understand what to do with what you see.