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HRD's pocket guide to... public speaking

This month's pocket guide talks the talk on public speaking

Why do I need to know about it?

Public speaking is much more than history’s great orators delivering speeches that soundtrack epoch-defining events.

HR directors speak publicly every day at work, and their success depends very much on the ability to persuade and influence others and convey an air of confidence.

Rolling out a policy can depend as much on persuading colleagues that the senior leadership are united behind it as it does on the minutiae of the policy itself.

This is something that Gary Cookson, HR director at Trafford College, is acutely aware of.

“When speaking in the workplace your every word will be listened to intently, every tone of voice change and every bit of body language analysed and interpreted – so you really do need to work on all of these in proportion,” he says.

The other side of public speaking for HR directors is as guest or keynote speakers on the HR conference circuit. This is another skill that Cookson values highly.

“It’s an opportunity to raise your own profile within the sector and profession, as well as raising the profile of your employer,” he continues. “It also gives the HR director an opportunity to hone public speaking skills and learn from others.”

What do I need to know?

“The most important thing to understand is to be prepared. If you think you’re going to wing it you’re in for a nasty surprise,” warns College of Public Speaking director Michael Ronayne.

“And secondly make sure you stick to a simple and clear message. The first thing you’ve got to do is not confuse yourself. If you can do that you’ve got a chance of not confusing other people.”

Another thing to bear in mind is that public speaking within and outside of the workplace differs in more ways than simply the size of the audience.

“If you have a camera trained only on someone’s head you should be able to tell just by the footage whether they’re talking to a conference or a small group,” Ronayne explains.

“The bigger the group, the more extreme everything has to be: that means bigger gestures, longer pauses, greater emphasis, and greater vocal variety. If you speak to a small group of people in a small room the way you do at a conference you’ll come across as slightly peculiar.”

Where can HR add value?

A good HR director’s sphere of influence should extend well beyond their current employer. And, according to CIPD people and strategy director Laura Harrison, one who can “tell a good story” about a brand is very valuable.

“If an HR director can go out and speak eloquently about the work being done in their organisation, such as L&D programmes and implementing innovative employment policies, it can do a lot of good for the employer brand,” she says.

This aids recruitment of top talent, and will bring gains outside of pure employment issues.

“If senior HR professionals can go out and tell the story of their work they can sell the values of their employer across the media,” she continues. “This is great for two reasons: firstly because it helps your employer and secondly because it helps the HR profession. If you can create what we call ‘professional capital’ it garners trust and helps to build the influence that is so important.”

Anything else?

Ronayne’s final tip for anyone speaking publicly is to “think of yourself as a visual metaphor”.

“It may sound simple, but that perception is so important,” he says. “If you stand solidly still then people know where you stand; if you’re shifting around then you look shifty. That would be one of my three key tips for advice. The others are to look at people when you’re speaking, as it builds trust, and to acknowledge people on the extremes of the room.”