There are many things to say about the ‘art’ of public speaking – and one of the important things is that it doesn’t require a unique talent; that anyone can learn how to do it, and can improve if they put in enough time, attention and practice.
But another thing is that public speaking differs in terms of the occasion where you use it, or perhaps the profession or role that you have in which you do the speaking. That’s what I would like to get into. And specifically – since I’m organizing an EU public affairs essential skills training with my friend and EU public affairs specialist Mette – speaking in public when active in the field of public affairs.
Public speaking when active in public affairs can of course be in many different situations in itself. You can be a presenter of a webinar. You can be invited to a panel debate. Perhaps you need to pitch some ideas to staffers of an MEP. You need to speak at a conference or other public event. Or you have a bilateral meeting with a policymaker. All these settings are examples of public speaking in the field of public affairs. Of course, these notions apply to speaking in public as well in other professions. And there are basic notions of public speaking that I won’t mention here extensively – that structure is important, as is the use of non-verbal means of communication (gestures, body language). Using your voice effectively and with enough variation matters a lot as well. And give enough examples with what you’re telling, and apply an attractive style of language that is suitable for your audience.
But apart from all that, I’d say the following is most relevant in public affairs.
(1) Be direct and open about what you represent. In public affairs, as in politics and in other professions where voicing and representing specific opinions and interests are abundant – and you often have to represent a certain opinion or interest, it’s highly important to execute your representation in a proper way. People need to trust you and understand that you’re legitimate. Part of that is to be straightforward with what you represent. That doesn’t mean putting your whole strategy or all your possible talking points on the table. But it does mean that you shouldn’t beat around the bush too much and be frank about the fact that you represent someone who has a preference or an interest to defend. To do that is perfectly fine – but to represent an interest while pretending that you’re not, that will lead to damaged relations in the long term (or even more quickly than that).
(2) Keep it simple, stupid (KISS). The fact that in public affairs the content at hand is often related to certain sectors, certain dossiers, or certain legislation, often means that the discussions are quite detailed and the knowledge required is specific and intense. As a specialist, you don’t just run the risk of not knowing enough (this is often the main concern people have – ‘I need to know everything’). The main danger is actually that you know way too much, and translate this in your actions and in your language. You then overpower or confuse your conversation partner and don’t get your message across effectively. Specialists in whatever area often have the tendency to use lots of jargon. This is specifically the case in many of the EU legislative dossiers – the content and corresponding language is often highly specific. But that doesn’t mean that you need to use that specific language all the time. The art is to explain things in a generic way using language that outsiders could also understand. Because there are many situations where you will be the person with the most dossier knowledge, so you will need to ‘dumb it down’. If your audience wants more specific information, they can always do a deep dive with a detailed question.
(3) Prepare for your stakeholders. In public affairs, you’re dealing with interests and opinions and other players in an arena. You might have to deal with members of parliament/legislators, people working for the executive (ie European Commission), but you’re also dealing with other stakeholders that represent different (even opposing) interests. Of course, you won’t have information on all the interactions that take place. But before you will be speaking, you can piece a lot of that together. What other stakeholders are lobbying for, what the voting behaviour in parliament is, what are the current priorities in the executive (or current crises) you can all read in public documents or piece together from social media, reading the newspaper and possibly press releases. So, when you’re having that next conversation or you need to give a presentation, it’s very good to know what parts of your message will be well received, what information you should give, and what parts of your message might be received with some skepticism. The other factor to take into account is how you are perceived. Are you perceived as an ‘ally’ or as an ‘enemy’? Are you playing a home game or an away game? Sometimes this will also influence what emphasis you need to place on the contents of your message and to what extent it should be on building relations. Because sometimes the situation will not be ready for your standard convincing story with a list of facts and arguments – you need to be perceived as a reliable and dependable conversation partner first.
There are many things to think about when speaking in public, and to do better is a lifelong journey with small improvements to be made time after time. So it’s probably wise to take it one step at a time, and try to implement the notions that are most relevant for your next meeting or speaking engagement one point at a time. We can all grow in what we do if we prepare properly, put it into practice with attention and care, and take time to inform ourselves (‘sharpen the saw’, as in Covey) on how we can improve next time.
If you’d like to learn more about speaking in public or other key skills that are useful in public affairs, check out our programme to our online training in May/June here and apply by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or drop us an email to be informed when our autumn public affairs training will take place. If you’d like to learn more about speaking in public specifically, you can let us know as well.