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SLA 2009: Speak As If Your Career Depends On It

The final session I attended on the Monday was Sharol Parish’s session on effective public speaking. This session was full of practical tips on posture, language, tone of voice and articulation. Sharol started off by talking about people’s emotional responses to speeches and presentations: for example, she referred to  a study which showed that the biggest spike in an audiences excitement and engagement levels came when the speaker said “and in conclusion…”!

She also trotted out the old statistic that only x% of communication is verbal, but admitted that she didn’t know where the figure came from or how it was measured (it’s one I’m a little suspicious of myself – it sounds plausible, but I’ve heard the figure reported as anywhere between 30% and 75% non-verbal communication! I actually can’t remember which figure Sharol used). Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that non-verbal communication is important, so most of her advice concerned this element of communication.

Some of it was advice I’d heard before from friends who do yoga, like imagining a thread from the top of your head pulling you upright (that’s actually a really helpful technique – spending my teenage years being a good foot taller than most of my friends left me with quite a bad hunch, so this is something I’ve used to try and correct my poor posture, mostly successfully). Some were new to me, and incredibly useful – like her tips on what to do with your hands while your standing or sitting. That’s something I always struggle with, and usually revert to standing with my arms folded if I’m not careful – and even I know that’s terrible body language!  Sharol suggested finding “parking positions” for your hands, in a way that creates space and opens up your body language, e.g. having one hand in a hip-level pocket, so that your elbow is slightly raised; or both hands clasped behind your back, but only if there is a little space between your arms and your body when you do that.

Sharol also discussed the importance of articulation (apparently people will read you as being more intelligent and/or persuasive than a person delivering the same message if you pronounce all the consonants correctly), and of using pauses effectively. She suggested pausing when introducing visual aids in a speech (e.g. Powerpoint) rather than just talking straight over them, in order to allow people time to absorb the purpose of the visual. She also recommended using your hands to indicate a pause when in conversation, to show that you are not actually finished yet and prevent them interrupting.

Overall, this may have been one of the most personally useful sessions I attended: I’ve been practising some of the techniques described in front of the mirror ever since! One thing did make me laugh a little though – Sharol spotted that myself and a few others in the audience were from the UK, and prefaced her section on articulation by saying that we didn’t need to pay attention, as all British people articulate perfectly already. I could only assume she’d never been to Portsmouth, home of the glottal stop!

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