Everything you need to know about how to communicate under pressure and off the cuff


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A few years back, on what must have been a very slow news day I was invited onto the breakfast show on Sky News to give an interview on all things public speaking.

After waiting for a few minutes behind the scenes, I was invited to take my seat in the studio next to the presenter Niall Paterson; who proceeded to introduce the segment before playing a 30-second clip of politicians embarrassing themselves on stage. Then came his opening question...

'Now, as someone (gesturing to himself) that makes a living from not being terribly bad at public speaking, your contention, is that basically everyone can be taught to give a decent speech is that right?'

Inside, I was erupting with panic.

'Yes, absolutely... (proceeding to blag my way through the answer).

I probably got away with it, but in hindsight, I regret my answer because it lacked the nuance that the question deserved.

What happened? Well, my fight-or-flight response got the better of me. So before I deliver on the title's promise, I want to share two critically important pieces of advice that I give to people on my Thought Leadership Accelerator.

I call them the two B's

Breathe whilst you're listening to the question.

Most people make the mistake of holding their breath. Not only are they prone to starting their answer before they've truly considered the question, but their pitch also goes higher which makes them sound far less authoritative (and out of breath!).

Break after the question has been asked.

This pause will:

a) give you some thinking time,

b) give your answer more credibility,

c) create a sense of anticipation for the audience.

The perfect break length? Between 2 and 5 seconds. (Way longer than you might think!)

Now on to...

Whether you're on a panel, get interrupted mid-presentation by your boss, or have landed an interview with the press, here are three ways to ensure that your off-the-cuff answers pack a punch.

1. For opinions, think PREP

Position - What do you think?

Reason - Why do you think that way?

Example - What evidence do you have to support this?

Proposition - What should happen next?

What social stigma does society

need to get over?

Position

I think that people who choose sobriety on a social occasion should not be made to feel guilty about their decision.

Reason

Making people feel that they are 'letting the team down' through their choice of drink is a toxic form of social conditioning.

Example

The other week, when my colleagues found out I was drinking non-alcoholic beer, it became the focal point of the conversation. I found it very uncomfortable.

Proposition

I'll be far more likely to show up for work socials when I'm not judged for my choice of drink.

2. When asked to choose, think For, Against, Stand

The beauty of this one is that it allows you to think out loud. What's more, showing your workings helps the listeners understand the reasoning behind your final answer.

E.g. I think we need to bring in 8 new salespeople. Do you agree?

For

Well, on average, our salespeople generate 6X their cost. Employing 8 could make a significant impact on our bottom line.

Against

That said, it takes time for us to see these levels of return and in the short term, that's £500k that we haven't budgeted for.

Stand

My suggestion would be to bring in 4 now, and 4 in 6 months' time. That way it's not going to cause us any cash flow issues.

3. For questions involving time, think Past, Present, Future

A simple three-part pattern that is centred around a single event. Brilliant for elevator pitches, questions around change and even when you need to introduce yourself.

Past - Where have we been?

Present - Where are we today?

Future - Where are we going?

E.g. Why don't you introduce yourself to the group?

Past

This might surprise you, but I've spent most of my life avoiding public speaking like the plague.

Present

These days, I find myself helping leaders land, write and deliver high-stakes presentations - both internally at work and externally at industry conferences. My biggest challenge has been working out how to have an impact at scale. So this year, I've written a book and launched a thought leadership community.

Future

There's a lot of hard work ahead, but I'm really excited about the potential of these two initiatives.

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Each of these structures will help you keep your answers concise - something everyone will thank you for and with a bit of practice, they'll become second nature.

Which of these structures would you have used if you were in my position on that day?

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3 Public speaking tips a month to help you become a better leader