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What is the state of public speaking in 2021?
Covid has ushered in what might be called Public Speaking 4.0. That’s a world where some of the most important public speaking platforms will likely be virtual.
If that’s the case, then the best speakers must learn how to master small screen media like Zoom, BlueJeans, WebEx and Microsoft Teams.
To see how we got here, let’s do a quick review.
Ancient Greeks to Ronald Reagan via Walter Cronkite
The Ancient Greeks gave us Public speaking 1.0: public speaking as grand oratory. Indeed, for centuries audiences weren’t conditioned by television and were happy to listen to long speeches. Before the Gettysburg Address, Sen. Edward Everett of Massachusetts delivered a well-received two-hour oration. That long-forgotten speech was much more the norm than President Lincoln’s 246-word masterpiece.
Television gave us Public Speaking 2.0. Taking cues from news anchors like Walter Cronkite, politicians like JFK and Ronald Reagan understood that the key to great speaking was connection, not grandeur. And for much of the last 50 years, speakers have been coached to imitate news anchors by making strong eye contact, and having a personal conversation with the audience.
The Internet Era
The rise of social media, talk radio and the internet gave us Public Speaking 3.0. This could be called the “short attention span era.” That’s because social media, talk radio, and the internet have conditioned listeners to value interactivity, brevity, and informality.
Of course, we’re still in this era to a large extent. And speakers are being coached to keep it short and take lots of questions. In the era of YouTube and Instagram, no one wants to listen to long presentations. And thanks to the internet, where everyone gets a voice all the time, the emphasis is on “authenticity”. Be yourself, even if that’s quirky. Different is good. Weird is ok. Just be clear, compelling and brief. And take lots of questions.
The Virtual Platform Era
Of course, the internet era is still with us. But Covid seems to be pushing us quickly into what I would call Public Speaking 4.0. Thanks to the quarantine, all of us have to master virtual platforms. Of course, these platforms are not new. But now we have to do so much more on Zoom, WebEx and Microsoft Teams.
These platforms have made us all suddenly aware of how we come across on the very small screen. Where once, we wanted to speak like Walter Cronkite. Now we actually all must become Walter Cronkite. Suddenly our kitchen tables, home offices and spare bedrooms have become mini television studios. And every presentation is a news program writ small. We’re all news anchors now.
Great Presenters Now Must “Produce” from a Studio
So how do we succeed at Public Speaking 4.0?
First, we need to learn how to look good on Zoom. You want to have nice light on your face. Too often, we see speakers backlit with their faces in shadow. This problem is easily solved by facing a window or simply purchasing a “ring light” from Amazon. Here is the one that I use.
Backgrounds are suddenly important and part of your brand. Do you want your brand to be an unmade bed or a tidy bookshelf? Picking a background is part of “producing” your show. And Amazon will be happy to sell you a little green screen to help make the “virtual” backgrounds look better to your audience.
More importantly, we must all learn a new way of making eye contact. For years, the coaching has been to look your audience in the eye. Connect with individuals.
But that doesn’t work on Zoom. If you look at the image of your listener, then you won’t be making good eye contact. It will look like you’re looking down.
To make great eye contact in the Zoom era, you need to look directly into the camera lens. Indeed, one reason that the public felt such a connection to “Uncle Walter” is that he seemed to be talking to each of us individually. Like all news anchors, he did that by talking directly into the camera.
Of course, this takes some practice. It’s counter to what our parents told us growing up. We all want to look at the images on the screen. One trick is to put a Post-It note with a little smiley face beside the camera lens as a reminder.
Virtual Presenting Heightens the Need for Interactivity
Virtual presenting further accelerates the need to be tight and interactive. Nothing is worse than watching slides with a voice over. That’s just an invitation to mass multi-tasking.
All the virtual platforms have a “chat” function that allows instant Q&A. Monologue is out. Dialogue is in. Audiences want to participate. The best virtual communicators save most of their time for Q&A.
Informal Speaking Style
Along with interactivity and brevity comes an increasingly informal speaking style. Could you imagine Winston Churchill on a webinar? We associate him with eloquence and grand oratory.
But eloquence today is out. Thousands of YouTube videos and niche podcasts have made us tolerant of quirky individual styles. I listened to a podcast on fly-fishing hosted from a fly shop in Montana. The host was oddly delightful and passionate. He took questions for an hour and it was fascinating.
The best speakers post-Covid will rely on a personal, authentic style that resembles passionate dinner conversation. Most important, they will be themselves.
Joey Asher has worked with thousands of business people helping them learn how to communicate in a way that connects with clients. His new book 15 Minutes Including Q&A: a Plan to Save the World from Lousy Presentations” is available now. He is also the author three previous books including “How to Win a Pitch: The Five Fundamentals That Will Distinguish You from the Competition”, “Selling and Communication Skills for Lawyers” and “Even A Geek Can Speak.”