If you’ve been asked to make a speech or presentation and you’re looking for some guidance, the public speaking tips in this post will give you an idea of what’s involved and point you in the right direction. You can find more detail elsewhere in the Public Speaking Skills section of this website and in my ebook.
Don’t be put off by people telling you how difficult and scary the whole thing is. As long as you’re really well prepared, practically and psychologically, you will be absolutely fine. You may not believe it yet but public speaking can be satisfying and even exhilarating!
The best solution is some personalised coaching but, to get you started, here is a quick introduction.
Public Speaking Tips
1. Watch, listen and learn
Whenever you’re in the audience for a speech or presentation, it’s an opportunity to learn from the speaker in front of you. If he/she is not making a positive impression, you can learn from his/her mistakes. If he/she is doing a good job, what aspects of his/her performance you can emulate? While, of course, you want to develop your own style, it’s useful to have a role-model or two to give you points of reference.
2. Be on top of your brief
Make sure you know as much as possible about the subject you’re going to be talking about. Also, find out as much as you can about the audience and what they are expecting from you, about the place where you’re going to be speaking and about what any other speakers at the event are going to be saying.
3. Prepare early
The best time to start composing your talk is as soon as you find out you’re going to be giving it. If it’s months away, there’s no harm in preparing it months in advance: you don’t have to go on working on it all that time, but you won’t have to worry about it because you’ll be ready. In case preparing your talk turns out to be more difficult than you expect, make sure you’ve got time to do it properly. If you’re dreading speaking in public, preparing yourself early will help to calm your nerves.
If you leave preparing your talk till the day before you’re due to deliver it, you are unlikely to do yourself justice.
4. Don’t write a script
There are two problems with writing a script: a) it will sound like something written, not a talk, and b) if you’ve got a script, it’s virtually impossible not to read it. Even if you learn your lines off by heart, it’s still going to sound as if you’re reciting from an internal script. In order for a speech or presentation to sound natural, the only way is to create it by speaking it aloud. Have brief bullet points as notes.
4. Practise until you’re happy with your performance
One reason for preparing early is to give yourself time to polish and practise as much as you need to. As you go through it the first few (or more) times, you’ll be honing your phrasing, eliminating waffle and tightening up your talk. Once you’ve got it the way you want it, practise saying it out loud until you’re so familiar with it that you’re able to make every point fluently, without having to think about the wording.
Rehearse your presentation with all the props and visual aids you’re planning to use on the day, imagining the audience in front of you.
5. Use notes
After you’ve rehearsed your talk a lot, you may find you’re not needing to look at your notes. Don’t let this lull you: in the heat of the moment, with the audience looking expectantly at you, it can be all too easy to lose your way. Use your notes to keep you on track and make sure you don’t miss anything out.
Public speaking should not be about feats of memory. Your notes are there as a map. Rehearsal means the words are at the front of your mind. Between these two elements, you will never be stuck for what to say.
6. Get yourself in the right frame of mind to deliver a successful talk
Before you start speaking, take some deep breaths and tune into the subject of your talk. If you’re thinking as you speak, you’re far less likely to make any mistakes than if you’re reciting from memory while your mind is in a tailspin.
Remember that, as the speaker, you are setting the tone for the room. If you’re apologetic and enervated, it will be hard for people to take in what you’re saying. If you exude energy and enthusiasm, this will energise and engage your audience.
7. Feed the audience easily digestible chunks
When you’re addressing even a smallish group, you need to speak more slowly than you normally would to one or two people. At the end of each nugget, bring your voice down (if your sentences end on an upward inflection, it sounds as if you’re seeking affirmation, you haven’t finished the point or you’ve said this a hundred times before) and pause before going on to the next one.
8. Keep your voice interesting
During the course of your speech or presentation, you need to vary the pitch, tone and pace of your delivery. You’re not reciting, you’re talking. The way you speak should have all the colour, light and shade of your everyday conversation.
9. Look at the people you’re talking to
People won’t feel you’re really talking to them unless you look at them. If you look down or away from the people you’re trying to communicate with, the impact of your message will be diluted or even lost. Make proper eye contact with each and every member of your audience – or, if it’s a huge crowd, as many as is feasible. Don’t just scan across their eyes but really connect with the people in front of you.
10. Be aware of your body
Unconscious swaying, pacing, fidgeting and fiddling can be very distracting for the audience. They also telegraph nerves.
Keep the lower half of your body still and your weight evenly distributed on both hips. Feel free to gesture normally with your arms – be natural.
11. Concentrate on communicating your message
The more you worry about how well you’re doing, the less well you will be doing. Let go of concerns about yourself and focus on the audience and what you’re here to tell them.
12. Be yourself
Although it’s useful to learn from watching and listening to other public speakers, it’s essential when you get up to speak that you do so as yourself. Speak in your own rhythms, in your own words. If the audience wanted a brochure or manual, they would have asked for one. What they want from your speech or presentation is to hear the subject discussed and explained in human, natural terms: they want to hear and see you.
What these 12 public speaking tips boil down to is basically these two points:
- However expert in and familiar with the subject you are, this is completely separate from being able to talk about it articulately. In order to express yourself clearly and fluently, you have got to practise. Say it out loud as many times as it takes until you can do it without having to grope for the right words.
- Public speaking is not about going into ‘public speaking’ mode and talking at people. It’s about giving the audience a distilled and polished version of how you would express these ideas to your friends; it’s about talking to and connecting with the people in front of you.
Prepare and practise thoroughly, then enjoy the experience of delivering your talk!