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"'Small Town' – Is It Where You Live or the Way You Sound?"
by Richard Callahan

You don’t have to live in a small town to have a speech or a presentation sound “small town” – you just have to be disorganized, unprepared and unrehearsed.

Let me give you a recent example from the small town where I live.

Sitting in the audience at an annual event, I was dismayed by the performance of the man who had, I was told, led this event for many, many years. He fumbled and bumbled in front of us as if it was a surprise to him that he was supposed to speak. He didn’t have any notes to keep him on track, he forgot to bring vitally important papers, and he had to back up, over and over again, to insert information he had forgotten.

“Well, it’s just a small town event,” people said, “and nobody expects a professional job.” Yes, it is just a small town event – but if an audience is expected to show up and pay attention, then they should expect a speaker to be well-organized, well-prepared and well-rehearsed. Anything less is unacceptable, regardless of the size of a town or who’s in the audience.

Here, then, are a few suggestions to sound less “small town,” regardless of where you live or to whom you are talking.

1. Organization – If an audience can understand where your speech is going, they’ll be glad to follow it. That’s the function of organization– to enable the audience to understand and follow your ideas. You, then, must decide on the easiest way for the audience to do that. First, if your speech is 20 minutes or less, don’t overload it with main points. Stick to a maximum of four main points, and arrange them in a logical, coherent fashion – either chronologically (if you’re talking about the development of a project, for example), or spatially  (if you’re describing the design of a new community center), causally (if you’re talking about the causes or effects of budget cuts, let’s say) or topically (if your topic doesn’t fit the other three, like the best ways to save money).

2. Preparation – An audience will never actually see your preparation, but it is a primary determinant of your success with them. Preparation involves a number of components, two of which are analyzing the audience and familiarizing yourself with the room where you’ll be speaking. When analyzing the audience, you have to know what demographic factors may influence the audience’s ability to understand and/or accept your message. Could their ages, gender, educational levels or occupations play a role? How much do they already know about you? How much do they know about your topic?

Familiarity with the room in which you’re speaking is an often-overlooked part of preparation. Arrive at the room 45 minutes before the start of the event, and stand where you’ll be standing when you deliver the speech. Look at where the audience will be sitting – are all the chairs facing toward you, or will the shapes of the tables force some people to have their backs to you? Can you make an adjustment so no one is facing the wrong way while you’re speaking? Are there flagpoles, displays or potted plants between you and the audience? Can everyone see and hear you clearly? If not, can you ask for help to make it easier for the audience to receive your message?

3. Rehearsal – Author Ray Bradbury rote, “If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice.” Of course, he was right – you have to practice so much that it appears as if you haven’t practiced at all, that you’re a “natural.” That’s because audiences want speakers to sound relaxed and conversational, as if they’re talking to neighbors over the backyard fence.

When you rehearse any presentation, always practice out loud, using an outline of key words and phrases. (Never memorize a speech or read it word-for-word off a manuscript, unless you enjoy courting disaster.) Physically forming the combination of words that you’re going to use is critical to a smooth delivery, even though the words will vary a bit every time you practice. Also, stand up when you rehearse, and use the volume you think you’ll need to reach the back of the room where you’ll be giving the speech.

We can all love coming from a small town or living in a small town, but no one should have to sound “small town.” Effective public speaking on any level, from a staff meeting to a convention keynote, requires careful organization, preparation and rehearsal.

© Richard Callahan

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