The science of speaking

Taryn Davies
Published: December 20, 2018

Public speaking is an essential life skill – whether you’re presenting a business event, running for election or simply making a wedding speech.

Whether you wish to overcome stage fright like US President Abraham Lincoln famously did or polish already advanced speaking skills, it pays to understand the science behind the art. This way, you can learn to achieve a stage presence worthy of the greats.

Though these science-backed techniques can sharpen your skills, there are other speech-making solutions. If you’re planning an important event and can afford to take no risks, it’s also possible to hire an expert from providers like Speakers Corner. Indeed, when booking a pro you’ll probably notice the ‘appliance of science’ in their speaking technique.

Visualisation and self-confidence

Visualisation is a powerful psychological tool. Not only does visualising success make you more likely to achieve goals, but visualisation can also be used to place you in a psychological environment that’s disconnected from your current setting.

This means you can use unrelated memories to create a positive mindset – then carry this into the task at hand. You can also practice a speech using visualisation to ensure you’re well-prepared when the time comes.

To use visualisation effectively, find a quiet place to close your eyes and shut off from the world. This could be in your home weeks before an event or in a quiet side room minutes before you take the stage.

Focus your visualisation around strong positive emotions – then carry these into the event. This tried-and-tested technique has been used in sports science for many years and can also be used to your advantage when planning speeches.

Your body language shapes performance and perception

The so-called ‘power pose’ has been a popular way to achieve a quick confidence boost since Harvard professor Amy Cuddy’s famous 2012 research.

The results suggest adopting powerful body language for just a few minutes can impact the way you present yourself later that day. Adopting closed body language can also diminish our self-confidence – which is why it’s so important to prime your body and mind before the important event.

New evidence has bolstered the theory of power posing. What’s more, using body language associated with power influences how others perceive you.

Audiences commit more to memory when a speechmaker uses hand gestures and they perceive speakers as better-informed when they are adopting a dominant pose. Great speakers avoid self-touch, since this signals nervousness. They aren’t afraid to take up stage space and may carry a single prop – like a bag or pen – as a grounding force.

Social hierarchies are visible in the way we carry ourselves, but many cues for authority or submissiveness are almost entirely subconscious.

Learning about non-verbal language is useful for speech-making, but it helps when confidence comes from within. That’s why visualisation and psychological tools are so important in transforming your public speaking success.

Science-backed speech-writing tips

In order to make a great speech, it helps to have something great to say. Less obviously, how you structure your message can have a huge impact on how well it is received.

Nancy Duarte has spent years researching speeches from rhetorical masters like Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King Jr. Her findings shook the worlds of business and politics since she was able to outline a simple structure all great speeches follow.

This ‘sparkline’ starts by exploring ‘what is’ – the current situation, which may be a problem or challenge. Next, great speeches capture attention by explaining ‘what could be’. Whether your goal for a better future is a business pitch, political manifesto or the idea of marital bliss, this is the winning formula.

Next, repeat these steps, expanding on the points previously raised. Never caveat, apologise or beg, since these all weaken your perceived authority. A modern trend places a clear, memorable vision or promise at the end of the speech.

Whether you’re planning a speech for work, social events or a televised appearance, successful talks are memorable, authoritative and often interactive. Understanding the science behind this subtle craft can help you to develop a skill for life - or just let you understand how the masters of the art go about their business.