Want to be a more effective public speaker? A powerful message is only part of the equation. It also matters how you actually speak--if it's too fast or too slow, whether you overuse filler words such as "um" and "you know," whether you make eye contact with your audience (or camera), and how confident you sound.
To help you improve all those metrics, a startup named Yoodli created an A.I.-powered app that will analyze your speech and give you suggestions for how to improve. It also offers games designed to hone your speaking skill. And you can use it for free, either by uploading a presentation you've already made or practicing live on the site.
To demonstrate the power of its app, Yoodli unleashed its algorithm on a five-minute commencement speech by Elon Musk. He's a genius who has already changed the world in many ways and may even succeed in his plan to colonize Mars. But Musk is not a polished public speaker. He stumbles, he mumbles, and he repeats his words, sometimes four or five times. Fortunately for him, Musk is such a fascinating and compelling figure that people listen to every word anyway.
Musk may not want to improve his public speaking skills, but most of us do. We can learn a lot from Yoodli's analysis of Musk's speech. Here's just some of what it found.
Yoodli says confidence is the most important of the qualities it measures in a speech. It gave Musk a score of 2 out of 5 in confidence for the delivery of his speech, although obviously Musk has a highly confident personality.
If you'd like to be more confident as a speaker, it might help to know that most confident-appearing people weren't born that way--they learn confidence over time and you can too. The easiest way to learn confidence as a speaker is to practice. Practice public speaking whenever you get a chance, and if you have an important presentation coming up, practice it in front of the mirror, on your friends, on your pets, or all three. I'm debuting a new keynote in front of a large audience at the Elevate Festival in Toronto next month, and you'd better believe I'll have practiced it many times before I take the stage.
2. Filler words
According to Yoodli's algorithm, Musk said "um" 20 times in his five-minute speech, "uh" 18 times, and "like" twice. These filler words took up 5 percent of his speech. We all use filler words in normal everyday speech, and most of us (very much including me) have to work hard to eliminate them from our public speaking. It's worth the effort, though, because few things mark you as an inexperienced speaker the way filler words do. (Musk seems to be an exception to this rule, as he is to so many others.)
Musk also used a total of 34 hedging words. Hedging words undercut the power of what you say by hedging--you sound like you're not so sure of what you're saying. Compare a simple declarative sentence such as "I believe the economy will rebound next year" with "I sort of think that probably the economy will actually rebound next year." You can see the effect that the hedging words have.
If you believe something, say it straight out. If you aren't sure, say that--but without hedging words. For example: "Economic indicators are sending mixed signals these days, which makes the future hard to predict, but I believe the economy is likely to rebound next year."
Musk apparently spoke at an average of 172 words per minute, which is a little bit faster than average. "Consider slowing down," the app advised.
I don't know about you, but slowing down my speech to an appropriate pace is the most difficult part of public speaking for me. Most of us live our lives in a hurry. We think fast, and we flit from idea to idea. But if we want an audience to fully hear and comprehend what we have to say, it's important to speak at a measured pace, usually a bit more slowly than we do in everyday speech. Yoodli advises varying your pace throughout your speech, and also pausing from time to time, as Musk did, perhaps after that great point you made or the anecdote you told.
Slowing down and pausing where appropriate are great ways to make sure your audience stays engaged, hears your most important thoughts, and has plenty of time to absorb them. Do that well, and your audience will listen to what you have to say and maybe take it to heart. That's all any speaker can hope for.
There's a growing audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or tip. (Interested in joining? Here's more information and an invitation to an extended free trial.) Many are entrepreneurs or business leaders, and they tell me that public speaking is one of the most challenging parts of the job. If you feel that way too, don't worry. A little bit of practice, and attention to these three areas, can make your presentations much more effective and compelling and help your audience stay engaged--even if you aren't Elon Musk.