Lijia’s tips on how to give a good public speech

I’ve just returned from HK where I gave a speech to the International Trademark Association’s Annual Conference about how to give a good public speech. Below is a much edited version.

I became a public speaker after the publication of my last Socialism Is Great! in 2008. At first, I got invited to attend literature festivals around the world. (I was very lucky to have received a few invitations as I am one of the few Chinese writers who can speak English.) Naturally I talked about my book and my experience as a writer. That wasn’t too difficult – I’ve never have trouble talking about myself privately or in public. Then other organizations started to invite me to talk about China related issues, which I felt confident to do so, having worked as a journalist for years. I discovered I very much enjoyed speaking in public. In fact, I love it. When I stand on the stage and speak in front of audience, I get a kick out of it!

The next thing I knew was that various speech agents got in touch and signed me up as a public speaker. Now I often give key note speeches at company’s annual conferences or some business seminars. I don’t really understand economy. But I use my story to offer a broad social context of China’s reform and opening up or to give China a human face, to explain where China is coming from. I also give inspirational speeches, again using my own story to inspire people to break the boundary and to chase their dreams.

Several factors might have helped me to get there: by 2008 I had become a social commentator, often been interviewed by the world media, notably BBC, CNN and such. Also, I worked for two years as a talk show host, which has helped me to cope the pressure of speaking under spotlight. There’s another factor, which is my little secret: I was the number two child in the family, I never had too much attention. Now I crave for all kinds of attention。

There’s yet another and important reason: I see the meaning of what I do. You know, my self-appointed mission in life is to be the cultural bridge between China and the outside world. China has grown too important to be ignored yet there’s so many misunderstandings and even fear about china and china’s rapid rise. What I try to do is to help people outside China to understand where china is coming from, what are happening and where is China going. Once you understand china better, there’d be less fear.

The first public speech I ever gave was back in 1989 when I organized the demonstration among the workers from the factory in Nanjing. I addressed a large gathering of about ten thousand people at Gulling Square, our equivalent of Tiananmen Square. I talked about why I, a little factory worker, wanted to organize a demonstration because I believed that the individual could make a difference. I had absolutely no experience in public speaking. Yet I won such applause that it thundered in the sky. It was because I spoke with passion and the words came from my heart.

This brings to one point I’d like to make. That is: when you give a speech or a presentation, you, too, should speak with passion and conviction that you have something meaningful to say. No one likes to hear a flat or half-hearted speech.

My next point is to bring your own story to the presentation. Last year, I gave many keynote speeches at a series of training sessions for company executives organized by the London Business School, the organizer said to me: your story is just perfect. Even the details are perfect. If you worked for a toilet seat factory, we might not have invited you. You probably did not work as a rocket factory girl, but everyone has a story and a personality. Everyone is special in some ways. It might be interesting to bring your character to the presentation, if you are willing to run a little risk instead of being safe and generic. Let your personality shine through in your presentation.

Of course, I also follow some very basic rules: do your homework properly. People often say to me: “Oh, you are so natural!” Natural? Well I’ve put in enough work to make it appear to be natural. Anyway I never read from my notes. A piece of paper is a wall between you and the audience. You wouldn’t want that. You want to engage with the audience.

Know your audience. For example, if I give a talk to a group with little China background, I would explain some basic concepts such as the Cultural Revolution and so on.

Now humour. I usually start with a joke. It relaxes your audience and grabs their attention. But no need to try too hard. After all, you are not a stand-up comedian.

Finally, bear in mind that listening is a very different experience from reading. Usually people don’t get 100% of what a speaker is saying. So you should use simple sentence structure, simple language, no jargons. This suits me perfectly. English is not my native tongue. I tend to use simple sentence structure and don’t know too many complicated words.

On that cheerful note, I’ll end my speech. Thank you for your attention, which I enjoyed very much.

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