Fire Prevention Bureau: THE ART OF PUBLIC SPEAKING

BY RICHARD JOHNSON

What does a fire prevention officer fear the most? Public speaking!

As a retired chief who often did double-duty as a public speaker, I know about the “butterflies” that can accompany that role. However, acquiring good public speaking skills can instill the confidence you need to stand in front of an audience.

Effective public speaking requires detailed planning and organization. Having a plan of action will give you the groundwork to express ideas, impart knowledge, and relate pertinent information to the public. As with preplanning for a target hazard, preplanning for delivering a speech is essential.

Every speech should have a road map. In planning any kind of a road trip, good sense says that the first step is to determine your destination and then plot your route backward to the starting point. This is also how you prepare a speech. Choose your destination—the objective or purpose of your speech—then plot your route—i.e., the points you want to make along the way that will help accomplish the objective. Fortunately, fire protection statistics provide a wealth of knowledge and information from which you can draw, such as past and current fire incidents. Professional and safety associations can help, too. Gather accurate and up-to-date information for your talk, and then confidently share that information with your audience.

ORGANIZATION AND PREPARATION

As a fire safety promoter, you’re in the business of selling, and you must always speak from your audience’s point of view. Your speech must make sense to your audience, and you must think in terms of motivating audience members to take action.

The first step in creating a speech is to focus on your subject. What exactly do you want to talk about? Select a topic of interest to you and your audience, and limit yourself to a single aspect of it. Be sure your topic is timely and relevant, one on which you can speak with some degree of authority, and one you can present with enthusiasm and conviction.

Next, create a basic outline, including an opening statement, a body, and a conclusion. There are many variations on this basic structure. Experienced speakers rarely think consciously about these parts, but all three are present in every good speech. After you have mentally organized your presentation, write down your outline to make sure you have included each of the three parts in your talk. This will help you fix each subpoint clearly in your mind.

The speech’s opening should immediately catch the audience’s attention and arouse interest in your topic. Of course, your opening must also lead into the subject of the speech. If you merely shock the audience, they will remember the opening clearly but forget the point of the speech.

Examples of a good opening include the following:

  • A startling question or a challenging statement.
  • An appropriate quotation, illustration, or story.
  • A display of some appropriate object or picture.

The body of your speech contains the factual support for your message. The amount of information you can include in the body of your speech is determined by the time available to you. Generally, you want to include the following:

  • A statement of facts.
  • Proof supporting your presentation.
  • A refutation of any contrary views.

The conclusion is the climax, the destination to which you hope to bring your audience. This is where your speech should produce results. Your conclusion should always tie in with your opening and should leave no doubt about what you want the audience to do with the information you are presenting. Finish forcefully and confidently. A weak, inconclusive, or apologetic closing can kill even the best speech.

As you speak, follow these four essential principles:

  • Be confident. Since you’re expressing something your audience already feels and believes, this isn’t the place to raise questions or express doubts.
  • Be forceful. Show enthusiasm and vitality. Use body language to demonstrate your conviction. Paint vivid word pictures to induce the audience to agree with you.
  • Be positive. Bold statements telling the audience what they should do will stir them to action; criticizing them or making excuses for what they have failed to do won’t in-spire them.
  • Be definite. Give clear and specific illustrations and conclusions. Present enough information to make sure your audience is with you all the way.

Moreover, think in terms of inspiring your audience to take action and to persuade them to accept and act on your information. This is a five-step sequence:

1. Gain their attention.

2. Demonstrate a need.

3. Offer a solution to this need.

4. Describe what might happen if no action is taken.

5. Tell what positive action will result.

TECHNICAL SKILLS

Good public speaking is an art that requires training and practice to develop. The skills needed include effective use of a microphone (if provided), careful enunciation, sufficient eye contact, an appropriate rate of speaking, and proper posture and body movement. Some of these skills are self-explanatory, although they may require much practice before they become second nature.

Using a microphone, for example, may require special attention. The microphone amplifies what the speaker says; therefore, a good speaking voice still requires a full range of volume, encompassing everything from a shout to a whisper. Effective use of a microphone enables a person to employ various pitches and sounds without becoming inaudible or damaging the sound system and the listener’s eardrums. In addition, when using a sound system, sometimes the amplification will produce a hiss and a pop sound when you use words starting with “s” and “p.” Adjust your voice accordingly.

Eye contact is a challenge for many speakers. Good communication requires looking at those to whom you are speaking as you speak—it personalizes the speech and engages your audience. Look down at your notes first, then raise your head and speak with assurance. (If you forget something in your notes, your audience will not know it.)

The speaking rate is another common problem. Most of us tend to speak too rapidly when we are in front of an audience. Psychologists tell us that we are more influenced by how a speaker talks than by what a speaker says. A good speaking voice should be balanced among intensity of volume, pitch, and rate. A responsive speaking voice is clear and expressive enough so that your audience recognizes your message. The best approach is to speak conversationally.

Concentrate on the following:

  • Volume. Some people are unaware that they always speak loudly or they may just have an assertive nature. They should make a special effort to speak more softly. At the other extreme are those who speak so softly that they can barely be heard. They need to concentrate on projecting their voices. In any case, vary the volume of your voice to add emphasis or dramatic impact to your speech.
  • Pitch. Good speakers vary the pitch of their voices to convey emotion and conviction. Avoid too high a pitch; it suggests immaturity and excitability. Again, the best approach is to make a conscious effort to be conversational in your speaking.
  • Rate. Vary your speaking rate to reflect mood changes and emphasize points of the speech.
  • Quality. The most important recommendation for voice quality is to relax your throat while you speak and attempt to be at ease with your audience.
  • Body language. Pay attention to posture and movement—the body language of a speech. A relaxed but good posture communicates a sense of confidence and dignity. The way you move to and from the lectern and use body gestures can enhance your speech, if done properly. As a general rule, a gesture can be considered good if it helps the audience understand your message and bad if it draws attention to you and away from your message. Do not pick up your notes and wave them in the air. Facial expressions and gestures need particular attention. Audience members will usually believe what they see in your face and body movements. Subsequently, you need to pay attention to this aspect of your appearance. A general rule of thumb is moderation of body movement.

GETTING FEEDBACK

Seek feedback on your efforts during practice. If family members or friends are available and willing, practice with them and ask for honest feedback. It is hard to hear yourself accurately. Because your mind knows how you are trying to speak, you may not be able to actually hear how the words come out. If another person is not available for such feedback, try taping yourself on audio or video. Listening to your practice sessions will reveal your strengths and weaknesses. What happens at the actual presentation is often different from what happens when at practice: Sometimes it is better and sometimes it is worse, but feedback from others is the only way to evaluate your efforts fully.

PERSONAL SKILLS

Personal skills include the ability to convey warmth, to gain and keep attention, and to motivate. They flow as much from the speaker’s awareness of his proper role and his relationship with the audience as from technique. Recognize that the task is to communicate with others, not just read text. Being comfortable with speaking helps you to convey your genuine concern for the audience and your conviction that your message is important.

Gain the audience’s attention by remaining silent until it is time for them to listen. Retain your listeners’ attention with good eye contact, proper use of pauses, and a lively voice that employs the full range of your vocal abilities. Finally, your obvious commitment to your message—fire safety—should keep your audience’s attention.

Above all, be yourself. Trying to act like someone you are not will make you nervous (see sidebar “Tips for Handling Nervousness”). You have extensive fire service knowledge to share; use it to your advantage.

Public speaking for the fire prevention officer or public fire educator need not be a dreaded assignment. It involves mastering some basic communication skills and lots of practice. Your audience will know if you are not fully prepared. The message of fire safety is important, and the medium you use—yourself—is equally as important. Train to be a good speaker as you would train in any other fire safety skill.

RICHARD JOHNSON retired recently as chief of the Hackensack (NJ) Fire Department, which he joined in 1964 as a firefighter. From 1991 to 2001 he served as deputy emergency management and city coordinator. He is a state certified fire official and fire instructor II. Johnson is a past member of Toastmaster International, a public speaking organization.


TIPS FOR HANDLING NERVOUSNESS

1. Don’t apologize. Never admit your inexperience as a public speaker. Your audience won’t know, so why tell them?

2. Know your audience. Recognize your audience and its expectations. Obviously, you would speak to a group of teenagers with a different tone and message than you would senior citizens.

3. Preplan your venue. Familiarize yourself with the environment before your speech—the number of seats, lectern placement, and similar elements. In this way, you won’t be a stranger to a new place.

4. Enjoy yourself. Relax. If you do this, you will actually feel less tense. A good relaxation exercise is to take several deep breaths and exhale slowly.

5. Be enthusiastic. It’s contagious. Your audience will pick up on this instead of your hidden nervousness.

6. Focus on your message. Give full attention to your speech and your audience. Let the message dominate.

7. Trust your audience. All audiences want you to succeed in your talk—they didn’t come to see you fail.

8. Be confident. Realize that you have a specialty that your audience does not. See yourself as confident, and you will exude self-assurance.

9. Demonstrate your expertise. Use it to your advantage. Know your facts and figures, and demonstrate your expertise (the ingredients in your speech).

10. Practice, practice, practice. The more you give speeches, the more proficient you will become. Drills and repetition are as essential as drilling and training in firematics.

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