This article is not about forums in which you can get public speaking practice but how to practise your public speaking. There are many myths about public speaking and one of them is that the best way to become good at it is to get out there and do it as often as possible. Trial and error is far from the best method for learning how to speak well in public and I strongly advise you not to rely on it. Research how to do it and practise by yourself until you’re ready to bring your public speaking into the light. If you want some help with the process, a session or two of coaching will give you everything you need.
Practice is an essential part of public speaking, the difference between failure and success.
If you’re a confident public speaker, do not be tempted to skimp on the practice! It can be easy to think that, because speaking is something we do all the time, we don’t need to practise it. Somehow, it seems obvious that we’d need to rehearse before performing in public in any other way – singing, dancing, playing an instrument, doing magic or reciting other people’s words in a play. And yet, when we’re faced with making a speech, we can fall into the trap of thinking we can improvise it. Do not make this mistake! If you practise and hone your speech, you’ll improve your performance, depending on the occasion and how experienced you are, by 75-100%.
How to Practise a Speech or Presentation
The only effective way to practise your speech or presentation is out loud. Going through it in your mind is useful but it doesn’t really count as practice. It’s absolutely crucial that you speak aloud every word you’re planning to say, in the way you’re planning to say it on the day. If it’s a long talk, you may need to practise it in sections – but make sure you’ve had at least two or three full runs-through before you deliver it for real.
If you’ve been asked to speak for a specific length of time, set a stopwatch for your practice runs and aim to come in just under the allocated time.
Use of Notes in Public Speaking
As I’ve said elsewhere, I recommend all public speakers use notes. However confident you are, it’s just not worth the risk of missing out a chunk or getting in a muddle – let alone the public speaker’s nightmare of one’s mind going blank. If your talk has a logical order to it and a clear narrative arc, once you’ve practised a lot you’ll probably find you don’t need your notes. That’s great… but I would still recommend you take your notes with you on the day and look at them between sections, just to make completely sure you’re on track.
If you’re going to be standing in front of the audience without a podium or table to put your notes on, I suggest you write your bullet points on some index cards, with each section of what you want to say on a new card. Cards are much less obtrusive than papers and it’s much easier to see at a glance where you’re up to. In case you drop them, at least number your cards but, better still, punch a hole in the corner and tie them loosely together.
Practise until you really know what you’re saying and your notes need be no more than a sketch-map of your route from beginning to end. Look at your notes to see what’s next, then say it to the audience (or, in rehearsal, the imaginary audience): don’t look at your notes while you’re actually speaking.
When Practice Becomes Rehearsal
The line between practice and rehearsal is blurry and, in any case, academic. What’s important is to cover the full spectrum. Practice is more informal – you can practise your talk in the car or in the bath. Rehearsal is a dry run of how it’s going to be on the day.
Particularly if the event you’re preparing for is a big deal, if at all possible, arrange to rehearse in the place where you’re going to be delivering it. Familiarise yourself with the space and how the equipment works. If you’re going to be using a microphone, rehearse with that.
Rehearse until your talk is second nature – but always remember you’ve got to present it as if you’re saying it for the first time.
The holy grail of public speaking is rehearsed spontaneity.
The Techniques of Effective Public Speaking
Half the point of practice and rehearsal is to make sure you really know what you’re saying. The other half is to practise the techniques of effective public speaking. When you first start, the amount of stuff to think about can be somewhat overwhelming, so give yourself plenty of time and just keep working at it. Sooner or later, it will all fall into place and you’ll be able to employ these techniques without thinking.
Use of Voice in Public Speaking
People won’t listen if they can’t hear you.
Make sure you’re projecting your voice loudly enough that everyone will be able to hear you. This is quite hard to gauge in rehearsal but, as you address the four walls of your practice room, visualise a crowd and practise making your voice carry. Think about talking to the people at the back and you should find your voice naturally rises to the occasion.
If you really haven’t got the sort of voice to reach the back, use a microphone. Don’t go straining your vocal chords.
On the day – and even in rehearsal – you may find it helpful to do a few warm-up exercises. This Howcast offers some tips on how to project your voice.
The speed at which you speak in public needs to be two-thirds to half as fast as you speak normally. The more people there are in the room, the longer it takes for sound to travel across the space. If you speak too quickly, people will struggle to keep up.
Nervous speakers tend to speak too fast because they want to get through it as quickly as possible. Unless you’re deliberately being silly, you virtually can’t speak too slowly in public, so take a deep breath and practise speaking at half the speed.
Vary your speed, pitch and tone
Although in general you need to be speaking much more slowly than you normally would, it’s important to give some variety to the speed of your delivery. Anything that is obvious or that you’ve already told them, you can say more quickly. The new stuff needs to be fed to the audience more slowly, partly because of the sound-travel issue and you want to be sure everybody has heard, and partly because, naturally, people need more time to process something they’ve never heard before.
Equally with pitch and tone, if you allow yourself to be natural and enthusiastic, your voice will automatically become more intense in some places and more relaxed in others. All this gives your speech texture and makes it more interesting to listen to.
Pause between points
Impart your information in bite-size chunks and pause between them. People need time to digest what they’re learning, so don’t rush them on too quickly. A pause of five seconds may feel like an eternity to you but to the audience, if they even notice you’ve stopped, it’s a welcome breather.
Use of Eye Contact in Public Speaking
When you’re talking to one person, you look at him or her and this is what keeps him/her engaged with what you’re saying. Eye contact makes the communication personal and therefore memorable.
If your audience is of a size where it’s feasible, you need to be making eye contact with each one of its members. Move your eyes around the group randomly and aim to give each person a message. Of course, don’t stare at one person for longer than feels comfortable for both of you – but don’t whisk away too soon either or you’ll just appear shifty.
If your audience is too big for you to be able to see individuals beyond the front row, you won’t really be able to make eye contact. However, you should still behave as though you can. Make sure you address the whole audience and not just those sitting close enough that you can see their reactions.
At first, you may feel a bit apprehensive about making eye contact. If this is the case, start by looking at the audience members you feel safest with. But do remember that eye contact makes your speech or presentation a much more personal and worthwhile experience for the audience, so looking at people you feel less safe with can be a good way to draw them in.
It is, of course, difficult to practise making eye contact when you’re rehearsing in an empty room. However, keep it constantly in mind and roleplay looking at people as you speak.
Use of Movement and Gestures in Public Speaking
When you’re concentrating on what you want to say, it’s easy to forget about what your body is doing. Shuffling, fiddling, pacing… all these things can be very distracting for the audience.
Be natural. Don’t feel inhibited and stand like a soldier on guard duty but, equally, don’t drift around your space because you’re too nervous to stay still. Stand firm unless you want to move to another part of the room, in which case, move. Feel free to gesture, in a meaningful way, as you would normally.
Practise moving naturally as you practise your talk and get yourself into good habits.
Preparation and Practice Lead to Effective Delivery
After thorough preparation and rehearsal, you’ll be excellently poised to do a great job of delivering your speech or presentation.
Read about Preparation
Read about Delivery