Public Speaking Problems #2

Last time I started talking about problems with speeches and public speaking in general and now I’m going to tackle some of the main issues and simple solutions that will help you with your speech. As I said last time I recently attended a public speaking event as a member of the audience and had difficulty following the speaker for a variety of reasons. While the speaker was a professional and was certainly educated about the topic they were still difficult to follow. Why was it difficult to follow this excellent speaker? What could have improved the situation? I will isolate the issue to one word: numbers.

While “numbers” is a word it really has to do with digits and counting. Perhaps the word “expectations” would be better. When you read a blog post titled “The Ten Best XYZ” you expect to read the ten best items of a given topic. You don’t expect to read eight items, or fifteen items, or two items because you’re expecting to read ten. Something happens when you promise something in writing or in speaking. It attunes the listeners’ (or readers’) ears to pay attention to a certain number of things. When that expectation is broken your audience is confused. This is not a good thing.

Setting up expectations, however, is a good thing. Saying that you are going to answer a question with three distinct arguments sets your reader up to listen. You can also announce each argument with the number. This sets up a natural rhythm to your speech and lets them know when you’re coming to a close. You can also refer more quickly to each number without reiterating the individual rationale behind each specific argument. Breaking that expectation, however, leaves your listener confused. You might move on to your conclusion without addressing one of your numbered items. This leaves your listener feeling like they missed something (even if they didn’t). So, numbers are good… just make sure to use them.