Public Speaking: Variety Gives Spice to Your Speaking

Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes, and it is also what keeps your presentations and speeches interesting to your audience. Here are a few suggestions for ways you can add variety to your public speaking engagements.

On the radio network I subscribe to, one station spotlights Elvis Presley, all day every day. In addition to playing all the songs Elvis recorded (along with some that weren’t released), the station’s hosts interview musicians who played with Elvis, along with fans who have traveled thousands of miles to Memphis to visit Graceland, Elvis’ famous home, now a museum. Additionally, the hosts conduct contests, seeing who can recall the most trivia about Elvis’ life and career. Since my teen years, I have been a huge Elvis fan. I have owned many of his albums. So does this mean I listen to this station only, ignoring the other 150 I have access to?

Definitely not. Though I may listen to the Elvis station every day or two, I can’t imagine leaving the dial there all the time. Why? Because, like practically all listeners, I want variety. There are four or five other stations that I alternate between, hardly ever listening to one of them for more than thirty minutes.

Now apply this example to an audience listening to a speaker. When the speaker offers no variety, the audience will turn attention elsewhere. Really, if they had a dial to make another selection with, they’d use it.

Let’s get specific about variety in speaking.

For one thing, as a speaker you’ll need to vary your content. Yes, practically every contemporary speech coach will advise you to weave your speech around stories, because listeners respond energetically to well-told stories, just as they did during childhood. Even so, audiences expect–and want–to hear other types of content, such as:

  • relevant statistics
  • quotations
  • spontaneous, tasteful humor
  • historical references
  • numerical listing of your main points
  • analysis of “best practices” in your industry

Take this a step further. The audience wouldn’t want just quotations or any of the other departures from stories just mentioned. Balance remains essential.

Next, vary your speaking speed. In one phase of your speech, you might justifiably use the rapid-fire approach TV viewers hear when the car salesman races through a commercial. You’d do that if you were describing a frightening incident, such as a crime or forest fire. Although an audience can tolerate thirty seconds of that rate in a commercial, nobody will want the speaker to move at full gallop for thirty minutes. Fortunately, your content calls for alternating the pace. As you move into a serious, somber segment, you’ll abandon the salesman’s frenetic pace. Putting on the vocal brakes alerts your audience to lean forward and make sure they hang onto every word.

Also, vary your volume and pitch. Think of your voice as a piano with eighty-eight keys, also equipped with pedals for softening or increasing the sound. An audience at a piano recital–even parents attending one featuring their children–would get bored quickly if the children played only a few notes on the musical scale. Gads, what if they all played only the first few notes of “Chopsticks”? The same holds true with speaking. Use your wide range of sound and pitch. Here again, content helps dictate changes. Certainly you’d speak in subdued fashion giving a eulogy, but you’d rev up your vocal engine while introducing a candidate at a political rally.

Another opportunity for variety: the length of your speech. Years ago, a keynote speaker at the Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet took a very unusual step. Expected to speak for the traditional 30-45 minutes, he spoke twelve minutes. As you can imagine, his audience loved that departure from the norm. So if your typical report to a committee takes fifteen minutes, cut that in half without omitting anything essential. Nobody will feel shortchanged by your brevity.

Move now to consider nonverbal variety. Novice speakers cling to the podium “for dear life,” while accomplished presenters move away from a fixed position–and stay in motion. As for gestures, use videotape to discover whether you are stuck with a habitual motion that could become annoying. If so, stop adjusting your tie or running your hand through your hair. Start including more natural gestures that are prompted by your feelings.

Visual aids give you limitless opportunities for variety. If you use PowerPoint, avoid slides jammed only with text. Insert photos and copyright-free clip art. Maybe you want to select a prop. For decades, Bob Hope carried a golf club to the stage, and Jack Benny and Henny Youngman relied on their trademark violins. Comedienne Phyllis Diller drew laughs with her extra long cigarette holder. Probably you can come up with a prop that fits your personality and the topic–like the CEO who passed out crying towels at an administrative staff meeting, on the day he was determining departmental budget allocations.

Yes, clothing options abound. Once I saw a speaker move to the stage wearing a suit and tie. Quickly, he took off his formal outfit–baring himself until he got to his Superman logo tee shirt. Even before he said a word, listeners sensed they would not hear a stale presentation.

What are the limits for adding variety to your speeches? Only your imagination and your good taste. Within those boundaries, start spicing up your speeches with spoken and unspoken changes that surprise the group. They’ll surprise you back, with a level of attention and applause you haven’t heard before. . . but will be eager to generate again.

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