OPINION11 October 2013

Attention please


Looking to make an impact on the conference stage or in the boardroom? Then take a leaf out of the Toastmasters’ playbook, says independent research consultant (and Toastmasters member) Peter Shreeve.


We tend to remember speakers who talk with passion, and without the aid of notes and slides. Can the same be said for most research debriefs or presentations? Researchers may have the passion but the notes and the slides are there in abundance.

In some cases, a slew of slides are necessary to support your presentation. But more often than not the findings could be distilled to a few key points. How we deliver that message is more important, as I continue to learn through my attendance at my local Toastmasters group.

Toastmasters as an organisation is all about developing public speaking and leadership skills. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far:

1. Great presentations need a great opening

Opening with a question is an important technique as it immediately engages the audience. Researchers might like to think how they open their debrief sessions. Do you explain the objectives to a group of people, who should already know why they are at the debrief? Or do you challenge your audience to guess a key fact? For example, “How many people were dissatisfied with their experience of calling you? This is what we will reveal in this debrief but let’s get your thoughts first”.

2. Structure

Keep your speeches focused on a few key facts. There is a strong body of evidence to suggest we can only remember a few key facts so it is best to try to distill the research debrief down to a few key themes.

3. The art of pausing

There is nothing worse than hearing a presentation filled with ums, errs and ahhs. Toastmasters teach you to think before you speak and to learn to pause… with effect. Speaking is not a race. The more you think about the construction of the presentation, the more likely it is that your message will get across without resorting to… err, um…

4. Rehearsal

Reducing errs and ums will be easier if you rehearse. The short nature of Toastmasters-planned speeches ( 5–7 minutes) make this easier to do. Debriefs or conference presentations may be longer, but rehearsing as much as possible will reap rewards. That way, you’ll be able to keep the key points in, and relegate the nice to have.

5. No notes

At Toastmasters, we are encouraged to speak without notes. It is a worthwhile challenge because it focuses the mind on the structure and the delivery. Even if this is something you feel uncomfortable doing at a debrief or presentation, testing yourself will make it less of a challenge over time.

6. Vocal and word variety

We know that how you say something is as important as what you say. We can draw people in through the language we use and how a message is delivered. Some styles suit some topics better than others. Our own tone is unique to us but it does not mean we cannot vary it.

7. Body language and eye contact

A great voice is one thing, but not if you stand there with your arms crossed in a defensive manner. Learn how to use the stage and work harder with the audience. Seeing the whites of your audience’s eyes is compulsory.

8. End on a good note

Toastmasters members focus on closing down their speeches. Whilst many debriefs or meetings might be longer than the typical Toastmaster speech, there is still a time limit. Isn’t it better to have a discussion about research findings rather than to preach in the time you are given? Focusing on what impression you want to leave behind is crucial if you want to get your message across. Attention spans are not infinitesimal.

  • Toastmasters is online at toastmasters.org.
  • The next MRS Creativity Lab focuses on ‘The power of story, communication and persuasion’. Click here for details.


9 years ago

Great tips! I'll add one more which is try to be a human being while on stage. Avoid looking like a stiff suit. Inject a bit of your personality into your presentation, even if it means saying silly things, sharing dumb jokes, or being a little goofy. We're all human so you might as well show it!

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9 years ago

Excellent tips in public speaking that anyone can apply. I find this skill can be so important in advancing a career and becoming a leader in any context. The more I practice, the more comfortable and confident I become.

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9 years ago

Excellent tips! One particular one I heard and use to emphasise a key pause is to turn around 360 Degrees. Scary the first time. Also helps you gather yourself if you are getting too fast. Same principle as drinking (which is also quite good for you)!

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9 years ago

Good tips - thanks Peter. Another "leftfield" one we have practiced at Mustard - stand to the right of the screen (from the audience's perspective) if you are using projected visuals. In Western cultures this is where eyes gravitate to when reading / reviewing content. Within the sub-conscious, the audience will find this ‘easier’ and more natural.

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