A Good Speech Is Like a Good Conversation

Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE, Executive Speech Coach & Hall of Fame Keynote Speaker
Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE, Executive Speech Coach & Hall of Fame Keynote Speaker

In my opinion, there is nothing more exciting than stimulating conversations with interesting people. This is one reason why I loved working in the Financial District of San Francisco as a men’s hairstylist.  My clients gave me an education while I cut their hair. Now, as a professional keynote speaker, researching my clients’ companies and as an executive speech coach, asking my clients about their lives and philosophies to help them develop their presentations, I learn from great conversations every day.

A speech is not a conversation. However, a good speech contains elements of conversation: first hand stories, dramatized with vivid details; and opinions or conclusions, drawn from real life experience.  A speech delivered well, is presented in a conversational style, which differs from everyday conversation in its specificity and economy.

Two of my Las Vegas colleagues and friends, professional speaker and humor specialist, John Kinde, DTM and “Dr. Conversation,” Loren Ekroth, PhD share this helpful article on the relationship between good conversation and great presentations:

Loren Ekroth
Loren Ekroth, PhD – “Dr. Conversation”

Conversational Speaking
by John Kinde & Loren Ekroth

Good speech making is good conversation.  A speaker who thinks that a great speech is delivered in speaker-performance-mode is making a big mistake.  Effective delivery, even to a large audience, is intimate.  Your delivery should be good conversation.

However, in most public speaking, less give-and-take verbal interaction occurs. In a workshop, the leader-facilitator may actually do less speaking than participants.  But in the more standard modes, such as presenting a 20-minute speech at a Rotary club, or even a Toastmasters club, the speaker talks more.

When you become a better speaker, you become more skilled in conversation.  When you become a better conversationalist, you become a stronger speaker.  One skill reinforces the other.  And the power of conversational delivery is that it makes you more believable and more likeable.

Think of these two modes or formats as complementary. Each one enhances the other. Everyday conversation requires that you think on your feet, or from your seat, and be spontaneous and usually un-rehearsed.  Some of the best speeches you’ve every heard were unplanned and “in-the-moment,” perhaps because the speaker tossed the notes aside and spoke from the heart in the open moment.

John Kinde
John Kinde, DTM

Experience in public speaking builds confidence that you can thoughtfully adapt to different audiences and control your messages.  For a rambling converser who too-often speaks without forethought, these skills are immensely valuable.

As we look at skills that speaking and conversation have in common, let’s examine effective eye contact.  It seems obvious that when you’re engaged in conversation, you’re involved in a one-on-one process of communication.  A key focus is on eye contact with your conversation partner.  When you’re engaged in conversation, your eyes don’t wander when someone new enters the room.  Dedicated eye contact makes your connection intimate.

Effective eye contact in a public speaking situation is similar to that used in a one-on-one conversation.  A connected speech is delivered while making conversational-eye-contact with one person at a time. This technique of locking in true eye contact with one individual, connects you with the entire audience.  When you have a true connection with one person in the audience, others in the audience feel included.  They feel you are also talking to them.  This is because the person you’re making eye contact with is a member of THEIR group.  The audience creates a sense of community, and when you connect with one, you connect with all.

The key to good conversational-eye-contact is to focus on one person while you complete a thought.  In conversation, it’s fairly easy to complete a thought while making eye contact with one person.  Good eye contact while giving a speech is more challenging.  The trick is to complete a thought before you move your eye contact to another member of the audience.  When speaking to a group, avoid the trap of thinking that you’re speaking to many people at once, and resist the temptation to spray the audience with eye contact.

One of the reasons you maintain eye contact with one person at a time, during a speech, is because the speech IS a conversation.  A speech is a not a monologue.  It’s always a two-way conversation.  The listener may not be speaking, but that person is still communicating.  He or she is sending non-verbal signals, making the process conversational.  The active listener, or audience member, is sending energy, facial expressions, smiles, nods of agreement, or questioning looks to the speaker.  If you are not nailing the eye contact, you’re missing out on the feedback provided by the conversation process.

We have arrived, finally, at that nonsense of yesteryear when speech instructors told students to “look over the heads” of the audience or, worse, to imagine that “I Can See You Naked,” the actual title of a book on public speaking by Ron Hoff (1992).  As public speaking specialist Lee Glickstein, an authority on presence in public speaking has long demonstrated, the best public speaking is heart-to-heart as well as mind-to mind.  It requires not only seeing your audience, but being seen by them.

An audience experiencing conversational-eye-contact feels a connection with the speaker that they do not feel when a speech is delivered on auto-pilot.  Avoid the robotic, memorized speech which is delivered in front of an audience with the same style as if it were delivered to an empty room. Effective conversational-eye-contact should give you a feeling of having a conversation rather than the feeling of “giving a speech.”

An obvious difference between a one-on-one conversation and a speech is the issue of projection.  With a large group you clearly have the added challenge of projection.  You may be focusing on speaking to one person at a time, but the entire audience must hear you.  Your conversational-eye-contact will help you to use a conversational style or tone of voice.  You are responsible to add the energy needed to project that style to the entire audience.  That skill is learned over time. With practice, you will be able to project while maintaining the conversational tone.

Another difference is the one linguists term “register.”  Generally, public speakers employ the “consultative” register, which is slightly more formal than a converser’s “casual” register. A converser who seems rehearsed can be off-putting to others who expect spontaneity and – yes – even expect some pauses filled with hmms and ahhs.  But public speakers are expected to plan and rehearse their remarks. Toastmaster members, pastors, legislators, professors, military trainers – all are public speakers, and all plan in advance. (Exceptions include those who respond at town hall and church meetings during which people must speak without preparation.)

Words in an inappropriate social register can cause offense. In linguistics, a register is a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. For example, an “intimate register” is usually used between close friends or family members and may include a private vocabulary, special nicknames, and standing jokes known only to those persons.

Registers are on a spectrum from intimate to frozen, which is extremely fixed in word choice and tone, such as in oaths, pledges, and biblical quotations.  You can think of register as a “formality scale.”

“Casual” is the most common register used among friends and co-workers. It includes slang, frequent interruptions, and animated speech.

For business and professional relationships, the consultative register is generally appropriate, such as between teacher-student, salesperson-customer, and usually, public speaker and audience.  (For example, the acknowledgements that often precede speeches in Toastmasters clubs are spoken in the “consultative register.”)

Becoming a better speaker means becoming a better conversationalist.  When you are skilled in conversation, it strengthens your public speaking mastery.  Use a conversational style and tone to make your communication intimate and powerful.

Over a century ago, in 1904, legendary speech Professor James A. Winans established the independent department of Oratory and Debate at Cornell University.  During that more formal time in our history, he had the prescience to make his famous statement, that “Public speaking is extended conversation,” because he understood that to be most effective, public speaking has to be personal and heart-to-heart.

Public speaking and conversation are partners and collaborators, two somewhat different but always complementary modes of human communication.

Dr. Loren Ekroth is also known as “Dr. Conversation.” He is a speaker, trainer, and coach.  His clients include Sheraton Hotels, Hawaiian Electric Company, United Way, Naval Training Center Pacific, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Army, and CUE Financial. Dr. Ekroth is a columnist and writer on communication and interpersonal relations. For more information visit: http://www.ConversationMatters.com

John Kinde, DTM, is a professional speaker, humor expert, and presentation coach based in Las Vegas, Nevada.  He has authored numerous articles on humor and communication. For more information visit: http://www.HumorPower.com.

Thank you Loren and John!

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Executive Speech Coach and Hall of Fame Keynote Speaker Patricia Fripp works with individuals and companies who realize that powerful, persuasive presentation skills give them a competitive edge.