How to Thrive When Speaking Outside

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Speaking outdoors is one of the most difficult challenges faced by a public speaker.

Do you know how to overcome the obstacles in this difficult scenario?

An anonymous Six Minutes reader asks:

Every speech I’ve heard given outdoors has been pretty much a disaster. Have I just been unlucky, or is this an impossible venue? Is there any way to succeed?

In this article, we’ll examine the unique challenges of speaking outdoors, and give several tips for effectively getting your message across.

The Challenges of Speaking Outdoors

While it’s great to be outside in the fresh air, it’s usually a terrible venue for speaking. Yet, as long as people continue to congregate outside, there will be speeches delivered outside. Just a few examples include:

  • Addressing co-workers at a summer event.
  • Delivering a toast at an outdoor wedding or beach barbecue.
  • Giving a pep talk to a sports team.
  • Speaking to supporters at an outdoor political rally.
  • Commemorating an event or speaking at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The benefits of speaking outdoors are… ah, yes, of course…

  1. The lighting is usually very good.

That’s the only one I can think of. Seriously.

On the other hand, the drawbacks of speaking outdoors include:

  1. Visual distractions abound, including people walking by, animals, scenery, and even the sky! All of these are competing for the visual attention of your audience. Consider that when you speak indoors, your audience has a relatively narrow choice of things to look at (you, your slides, their mobile device, or the walls)
  2. Sound quality is poor as well. Not only do you have to compete with outdoor sounds of all variety (e.g. barking dogs; motored vehicles; sirens; airplanes; even a whistling wind), but your voice may not carry as well either because you are usually standing much farther away from your audience than you would be indoors.
  3. As a whole, outdoor events tend to be less structured than those indoors. Getting and retaining their attention can be a difficult or futile activity.

8 Tips for Successfully Speaking Outdoors

Despite all the challenges, there are many things that you can do to improve your effectiveness the next time you speak outdoors.

  1. Get attention. If the speech is not part of a planned agenda, it can be difficult even getting the group to look in your direction, much less listen to a speech. How do you get attention? A booming voice, helpful assistants, or a noisy instrument helps.
  2. Gather people as close as you can. Outdoor events tend to be fairly relaxed (that’s why you are outdoors!), and people are spread out much more than they would be at a comparable event indoors. By gathering people closer, you improve sight lines, make it easier for everyone to hear you, and increase audience connection. It is well worth your effort to ask people to move in closer. (Not everyone will, but some will, and that’s an improvement.)
  3. Move up higher. If there’s a podium to speak from, great. But there usually isn’t. To help everyone see you (and your gestures) better, figure out some way to get higher. Sometimes the landscape will provide for you (e.g. a raised mound; a big rock). Other times, you have to get more creative (e.g. a chair; a milk crate; a picnic table; a tree stump). But please, be careful of your footing.
  4. Speak loudly. If you have a timid voice, you are going to have a very difficult time in this environment. Speaking loud is often necessary for you to to be heard at all, and will help you to keep your audience’s attention when distracting sounds invade.
  5. Arrange for audio help, if possible. Megaphones and microphones can be tricky to use, but if they are available, I encourage you to use them. If your audience has to strain too hard to hear you, they may give up and watch the clouds instead.
  6. Use broad gestures. There are so many moving distractions outside that you’ll often need to be particularly expressive to compete with them.
  7. Position yourself so the sun is not in your audience’s eyes. Looking into the sun is too much to ask for most audiences. Position yourself so the sun is off to the side or, if necessary, in your eyes. Hope for clouds (but not rain).
  8. Keep your remarks brief. You have a captive audience in a lecture theater, but outdoors, most people want to get back to relaxing, talking, or joining the burger line-up. If you respect this, your audience will thank you.

Good luck!

Your Turn: What’s Your Opinion?

Have you had success speaking outdoors? Or been in the audience for a particularly good speech? What was the key to success?

Please share in the comments.

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Comments icon4 Comments

  1. John Lesko says:

    You’ve given quite a few excellent tips for speaking to an audience in the outdoors. I’d add one other tips which many military drill instructors and/or officers learn while in uniform. Stand tall, speak to the man or woman who’s farthest away (checking with that individual that they can hear you), and SOUND OFF. This is not the time to be timid. And as the former Commander in Chief George W Bush demostrated at Ground Zero in 2001. Use a megaphone if someone hands you one.

  2. Thanks for the Suggestions on speaking outside, Andrew. I think I’ll ask everyone to “follow me into the hall!”

    I especially like your tip about positioning yourself so the sun is not in the audience’s eyes. Everything else is against you, and not doing this could be the last nail in the coffin for that speech!

  3. David Eaton says:

    Work on engaging the group through questions or referring to someone of interest. Pick people around the perimiter that stand out.

  4. Dear Mr, Dlugan,
    Your advice is good and still current. I have had years of experience speaking out doors in the ‘Domain’ speakers corner, in Sydney AUSTRALIA. It is appalling the number of people who mumble or say arr at meetings indoor or out, but hay! In Australia as I suspect most people in the world, would rather walk on hot tar, than speak in public. I also write up the history of speaker’s corner for a web site under a section called “The passing parade”. I note that you are Canadian. Are there any speaker corners in Canada? Why back in 1997 I attended the Bughouse Debates in Chicago and acted as one of the judges, but alas I only saw Canada for the top of Sears Tower.
    Yours sincerely Steve Maxwell

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