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May 08, 2012

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BY ANNA PATRICIA G. VALERIO Special Features Writer

Wow the Crowd

An exceptional public speaker who could hype perhaps even the most ordinary object, the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs turned once-boring product launches into engaging one-man shows with an innate understanding of how communication, when done properly, could seep into popular culture.

Effective communication has long been a requirement of both business school curricula and boardrooms, but many entrepreneurs and executives still have trouble delivering pitches or reports with panache. While it may make sense to bombard one's audience with data such as statistics or sales reports, the impact of these figures is easily lost when they don't have a compelling context.

"Public speaking is not about figures or numbers," said Carlo de Pano, a full-time faculty member from the Department of Speech Communication and Theatre Arts at the University of the Philippines, in an interview with BusinessWorld. "These figures strengthen your arguments, but these are just facts. Ideas are more important than facts."

The concept that communication should be about ideas and not mere facts is nothing new, but it is something that many business types seem to struggle with as they continue to simply read what is written on their presentation slides. Many seem to overlook that a good speech, at its very core, should be accessible, and not alienate the audience.

"Public speaking is not speaker-centered; that's a misconception," Mr. de Pano said. A great speech, he added, is similar to a conversation, which is always two-way.

A smooth conversation also entails knowing what makes the other participant tick, so an understanding of the target audience is essential to preparing for a presentation. Business jargon, for instance, may be acceptable in corporate circles, but to use technical terms to convey the same message to an otherwise clueless crowd may elicit more stifled yawns than nodding heads.

Mr. de Pano cited his own communication styles as an example. "When I teach in the classroom, I use the term, ‘communication apprehension' to refer to stage fright and anxiety," he said. "When I do training outside, I just use ‘stage fright.' It really depends on the audience."

Humor can also build some rapport with the audience but must be wielded wisely. For instance, Mr. de Pano warned against cracking offensive jokes or taking cheap shots at issues or people just to get a point across.

He also advised against memorizing whole speeches; reciting verbatim is a good way to kill any potential spontaneity and also makes more room for mistakes. If a speaker forgets a certain word or phrase, for example, he may end up stumbling through the entire speech.

While not every entrepreneur may possess Steve Jobs's knack for presentations, he or she must at least learn to somehow make the speech their own, even if a speechwriter wrote it for them. "You have to be comfortable, because the audience will sense if you're not," said Mr. de Pano.

A bit of movement, such as hand gestures or a walk along the stage, can make for a more relaxed than robotic performance. Stage fright, after all, is really just energy — a physiological response to a stressful situation that can be tapped and harnessed to one's advantage.

This advantage can in turn have a greater impact on one's business and consumers. In Apple's case, Mr. Jobs's ideas attracted not just repeat customers but lifelong fans of the brand. "Scholars believe that to persuade is the ultimate goal of any speaker," said Mr. de Pano. "Public speeches are supposed to transform individuals."

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