I recently “attended” a virtual presentation organised by the English Speaking Union of which I have been a member for many years. The subject was “Public Speaking” and while I am an experienced Public Speaker as is evidenced elsewhere on this website[i]
, I always feel that you can learn something, and I certainly did. The speaker was Simon Bucknall.
In 2001, Simon made a mess of a leaving drinks speech in his first job. Vowing to improve, he joined a public speaking club. In 2017, he was placed 2nd out of 30,000+ competing speakers in the Final of the World Championship of Public Speaking held in Vancouver, Canada.
In 2008 (an interesting time to launch a business) Simon started his own business, The Art of Connection. With this he has helped tens of thousands of people from all walks of life to achieve greater impact through the spoken word.
He has delivered inspiring, interactive sessions for audiences all over the world. Clients include General Electric, Chivas Regal, DPD, Shell, NatWest, and Imperial Business School. In 2017, he was the opening speaker for TEDx London at The Royal Festival Hall, on the need for public speaking skills to be taught in schools.
Simon is an Adjunct Faculty member at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government and a Visiting Fellow in Professional Skills at Cambridge University. In 2005, he built and led the campaign team which helped secure the election of England’s youngest Member of Parliament, coming from third place to win. He is an ambassador for the children’s communication charity, I CAN and volunteers as a judge for the English-Speaking Union's Public Speaking Competition.
In his presentation he gave the seven-minute speech with which he performed so well in the World Championship. In those seven minutes he used the word “you” 38 times. He says that public speaking is not about the speaker, but about the audience. He emphasises the need for storytelling. You need to tell a story to make a point. You also need to be specific - detail matters. Listeners won’t remember what you say, but what they saw you say. And remember the power of the critical moment, the tipping point in your story.
He rewrites each speech countless times. As he says, great speeches aren’t written, they’re rewritten.
But he does not read them. He relies on memory. He will concentrate on the key message and build familiarity. Rather than practising in front of a mirror he will talk to someone. He regards fluency of public speaking as a skill not a gift. He put thousands of hours into developing this skill. He emphasises the importance of dialogue. We are not particularly concerned about the mental health of some obscure Danish prince but all of us remember “To be or not to be, that is the question.”
Simon talked about the physical aspects of public speaking. Just like with singing or meditation you need to practise deep breathing. You should speak clearly and so timing and pace are important factors. You should look good and maintain eye contact with your audience. Though this presentation was on Zoom, Simon was always looking at the camera rather than at the screen, which is what most of us do. You need to look good, again particularly on Zoom where people who would normally dress smartly for business meetings now turn up in tracksuits and pyjamas. While talking about Zoom Simon has noticed that compared to in person meetings the energy levels drop. We need to boost the energy.
Simon was asked about the role of humour. He clearly recognises there is an element of risk here and advises that we should cut out the downloaded jokes. But spontaneous humour can relax the audience and provide contrast with the dark times we are going through. Amusing stories about people we know can add colour and humour is also a way of getting audience feedback.
Simon began by telling a story about how he performed in interviews at the beginning of his career. When asked the standard question “What are your weaknesses” he tended, as perhaps most of us do, to cover up the truth and say something inane like “Perhaps I work too hard”. He gradually learnt that actually honesty is a much better route to self-fulfillment than seeking perfection. In interviews he says you should try to be yourself, but on a good day. As with public speaking, in interviews it is the interviewer who is under pressure. He or she is looking for the right person to do the job in question. The interviewee’s job is to help them do that.
Simon believes that we are on this earth to relate and the most important relationship is with yourself.