Get Better At Public Speaking

There is almost nothing else quite as powerful as a public speaking engagement to help accelerate your career success. Of course with that potential reward there is also some risk. On this page, I share some very powerful tips and techniques to help ensure your public speaking engagement is held up as a powerful and positive example of your exceptional future potential! does one get better at public speaking?

These tips are specifically geared towards supporting you in delivering a speech at a public speaking event that you have been given time to prepare for. If you are interested in using presentation slides based on PowerPoint or Keynote, please click here for some tips on how to make sure your slides add rather than detract from your presentation.

Managing Stage Fright

Next to singing in public, public speaking is one of the most common fears or anxieties we have. It is important for you to understand that almost everyone is at least a bit nervous speaking in front of a group of people, so you can relax with the knowledge that you are normal and that your anxiety is very common indeed.

Let's look at some tips on how we can manage this fear.

Practice But Never
Memorize Your Material

Since you know you are going to be giving a speech, do yourself a favor and prepare for it properly. This means understanding what your key messages are, scripting out the flow of the "conversation" and then practicing it until you are comfortable with the "flow".

Never, ever attempt to memorize your material. First of all, this just adds "exam anxiety" on top of the public speaking anxiety. Attempting to memorize it not only will result in a stiff and generally poor presentation but it will also cause you to create a very high standard of "perfection" that will only be relevant to you. In other words, knowing that there is a perfect way of delivering the speech, you will be on guard for every possible missed word or bungled sentence. Who needs this? Certainly not you and definitely not your audience!

After you have "scripted" out your messages, collapse these in to key points to help you remember where you are in the delivery. For example:

Original Paragraph: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to this evening's gala event celebrating the success of our institution! My name is Gord Aker and I will be your host and Master of Ceremonies for this evening. We have an incredible line up of speakers whom I know you will enjoy and I have to admit it is a real honor to share the stage with such highly regarded individuals."

This would get reduced to the following bullet points or notes:

  • Welcome
  • Introduce self
  • Speakers (Tease)

After you have practiced your speech a dozen times, you may in fact reduce even these bullet notes down to: "Introduction and Welcome".

At the end of this process what you want to say will be documented in note form and "how you want to say it" will be part of your subconscious memory. You will not be using your conscious memory to recite anything and you will have your speaker notes to make sure that you don't miss any key points!

Oh and by the way, only you know what those key points are anyway, so don't worry if you forget one or two along the way! Your audience won't even notice!

Be Who You Are

Next to memorizing something, the next biggest anxiety booster people take on is believing they need to be and/or pretending to be someone they are not. In other words, instead of just being themselves, they decide they need to act like someone else. This in-authenticity not only detracts from your message and your connection with the audience, it also requires you to remember your "character!". Don't do this. People want to hear what you have to say - not to see you act like Jay Leno or someone else!

Use Your Nervous Energy to Your Advantage

Often people attempt to hide their nervous energy - the shaking voice, knocking knees, wringing hands etc. Sometimes they have the speaker's podium gripped so tightly in both hands that it looks like are trying to tear it off its pedestal! I have never found that this "hide the energy" approach works very well.

What I have found works well is instead of trying to keep the energy inside and hidden, share it with the audience! Project your energy out and engage them! This has the impact of releasing it from your body where it is wrecking all sorts of havoc and inspiring the room. Try this mental shift a bit and see if you don't feel more comfortable and confident as a result.

Rarely is it beneficial for you to admit your fear to the audience. Public speaking is a position of leadership and it is not inspiring to have your leader say that they are uncomfortable with the role. Unless you are very "cute" or you are obviously in a position where there is an expectation that you are nervous, don't admit it.

Know Why You Are There

Okay - take a big breath. I hate to be the one to break this to you but...this is not about you. They audience is there to hear your message, to be enlightened, educated or entertained. It is all about them - so don't make it about yourself. While any public speaking activity has the opportunity to raise your profile considerably, if you go into the event with that mentality, not only does it make you more nervous, you will also be challenged in connecting with your audience. It is about them, not you! If you focus on them, a lot of your feelings of self consciousness will disappear.

Finally - Have Some Fun

Have some fun. I doubt your presentation will be so terrible that it will start a war or cause people to harm themselves. At the end of the day, your audience may be disappointed. So what? Your ego may take a hit. So what? None of this is the end of the world! Public speaking is more about connection than it is about perfect execution so, just relax, be yourself and share what you have to say with your audience. And know that each and every time you have an opportunity to speak in public you will inevitably learn something and thus continuously improve your ability. What's not to like?

Presentation Tips

So now that your anxiety is under control, let's look at a few easy things you can do to make your presentation a real success!

Make a Good First Impression

As mentioned earlier, any public speaking engagement puts you in a position of leadership. People are looking to you to provide them with something, guidance, inspiration, knowledge or even a process. So, it is highly beneficial for you to make a good first impression. Here are some key things to do:

First of all, dress properly for the event. This is no time to be self conscious about what you are wearing. Play it safe with your apparel and if you are uncertain, ask someone you trust. Chances are, people will not be looking for you to make a fashion statement or chart a new course in apparel. This is more about demonstrating respect than attempting to create a "wow".

Secondly, when you are on stage stand up tall and straight with your shoulders back and your gaze level. This is not the time to be looking at your shoes! Many people seem to have shoulders that are stooped forward these days. I am not sure why this is the case (too much computer time perhaps?) but when you are giving a speech of any kind you should be standing tall, proud and confident. If you are introduced and need to walk on stage - walk on with confident strides. This is no time for shuffling. Look at the individual who introduced you and if it seems appropriate, shake his or her hand and then take charge of the room.

Think "One on One" Conversation Rather than "Speech"

As you start to speak, pick one person in the audience and look them in the eye. You are only speaking to them at this point and only for a sentence. There will be 50 people in the vicinity of that person who "know" that you are looking straight at them! For your second sentence, consciously move your gaze to the back of the room or theater and pick another individual to look at for the next sentence or two. Then, move to the other side of the room and repeat this process.

This approach really engages the audience. As you move your gaze around the room, sentence by sentence, everyone there will reach the conclusion that you are speaking to them directly! This is very engaging. Secondly, this also ensures that you are looking up and out rather than reading from a script. It is a conversation with each and every individual in the room as individuals! Of course it is okay to look at your speaker notes but - reading them is unnecessary because you have practiced what you want to say so often in advance...right?

Use Your Body

In general, people don't like listening to talking heads. They really prefer listening to a real live human being, so make sure they are! Gesticulate with your hands to make your points, have facial expressions, shrug your shoulders - even pace a bit if you have the whole stage rather than just a podium. Most people allow their nervousness to "bind them up" when speaking and so the whole thing lacks intimacy and immediacy. This is easily overcome by getting your whole physical self into the process. Great public speaking goes way beyond the words - remember, a lot of communication is non-verbal!

Pauses and Repeats

As you get more and more comfortable with public speaking, you will want to introduce intentional pauses into your speeches. This gives the audience time to think about what you are saying and the points you are making. Again, quite often it almost appears that people who are speaking to us just want to get it over with as fast as possible! That is not very engaging for an audience, so practice a pause now and again. Don't disengage from the audience in the pause - keep looking at them, but give them time to reflect a bit on what you are telling them.

It is often worthwhile to repeat something twice when giving a speech and when combined with a pause - this can be a very powerful way of communicating a message. Here is an example:

...and then he turned to me and said, 'I don't know.' 'I don't know" (repeat). At that point, I had to keep myself from asking him directly, well 'What do you know?'

You can see in this example, the emphasis placed on the ignorance of individual being spoken about. The pause, repeat, pause approach can be hugely powerful.

The Public Speaking Process

Here is a step by step process to building a speech that people will want to listen to.

The Introduction

If you have been introduced, thank the person for the kind introduction. If you haven't been introduced, by all means introduce yourself by name and present it as if you were meeting someone for the first time. In other words, keep this short and sweet. When we are introduced by someone else, it is appropriate for them to provide a bit of background, awards, acknowledgments etc., as a way of building anticipation and growing your credibility with the audience. When we do that for ourselves however, we can easily step into the realm of gratuitous self promotion which turns people off. Stick to the credibility stuff by telling them why you are the one speaking and then move on.

Joke Telling

Don't do this. At best this will appear very "staged" and at worst - it will be a distracting disaster. Don't do it! It can be okay to poke fun at yourself "in the moment" if it is natural for you to do so. If you are not someone that is known for their humor however, don't do this. Either you will be light hearted and amusing based on what you are saying, or you won't. Trying to force it using "canned" jokes is very risky indeed.

Open With A Question

Remember, audiences like to be engaged and not spoken to, so it is often very useful to open your speech with a question. If it is a small and intimate group, you can ask a question for which you might expect an answer, such as: "What are you hoping to take away from this evening? or "Is there any specific area that you would like me to focus on this evening?" In small groups, this approach helps them to feel a part of the "conversation" while providing you with some insight regarding how to present or structure your approach. I don't see using this sort of question in audiences larger than say 25 in number.

For larger audiences, often a rhetorical question is appropriate such as: "Did anyone else have difficulty getting here with the weather this evening?" This has the impact of causing the audience to reflect on their own experience at your prompting thus creating a connection. You can't expect an answer from this but you will get a gauge of your audience's energy and engagement from their reaction to the question.

In really large forums, often a question will be even more trivial, such as: "Isn't this a great event?". Again you won't get an answer but usually audiences will respond internally and feel a sense of connection with you.

Enroll The Audience By "Seeing" Them

Another useful technique is to acknowledge your audience by making a statement that is relevant to them. In other words, you are highlighting the idea that you are in conversation with them and not just speaking at them. This might sound something like: "I have never been to San Diego before - what a beautiful city!" or, "It's great to be back in New York and feel the incredible energy of the place!".

Hook The Audience With A "Tease"

This is one of the most powerful techniques you can use when giving a presentation or a speech and it requires a bit of pre-work. People love to anticipate, so our opportunity is to create an opportunity to anticipate what it is we are going to say by "teasing" them and then later in the speech, releasing the tease. There are a number of ways of doing this - a whole bunch of little tease-release events throughout the speech or just one or two larger tease-release events. Here is what I am talking about.

A "tease" is a statement that you make which has to do with something coming up in your speech. For example: "In a couple of minutes I am going to share something with you that I know you will find really surprising...but first..." Don't you just want to know what it is the speaker is going to say that we will find surprising? The "tease" causes us to pay attention until the release point. The release is often presented as: "A little earlier in the presentation, I mentioned wanting to share something with you that I think you will find quite surprising and that is..."

The "tease" is a very powerful way of hooking your audience into listening to you throughout the presentation and even if the release is not something surprising or interesting to them, the anticipation created by the approach is almost always appreciated. This is a great technique and well worth incorporating into your speech - just remember to release the tease or people will feel let down, frustrated and not particularly impressed by your presentation. Don't be surprised in such a situation if people actually come up to you afterwards and ask - "what were you going to tell us...?"

Tell The Audience A Story

Let's face it - most presentations are boring but stories? Stories are awesome. So if you can connect with your audience by relating a story, fictional, relational or personal - you will engage them even further in what it is you have to say.

The elements of a good story are well understood. There needs to be a protagonist (maybe you) and an antagonist (the other guy), a situation or circumstance, an environment, an emotional connection and a resolution. Now I am not suggesting that each and every one of your stories be put through this wringer but usually if you touch on these points - the story will be quite compelling. Also, be aware that the story must be of relevance to your message or theme otherwise - people will not "get it" and wonder "what was all that about?"

Call The Audience's Attention To Something

Another great technique for raising the awareness and attention level in the audience is to tell them that something is important and critical. This might sound like: "Now if you only take one thing away from this presentation tonight, it should be this...", or "I really want you to notice this..." In each case, the audience will find themselves re-engaging because of the importance that you have placed on some element of your speech. Obviously you can over use this technique as well - which will only drain your credibility - not enhance it, so using this sparingly is a good idea.

The Wrap Up

In your final remarks, you are going to want to make sure you have released all your "teases", and summarized your key points not necessarily in point form mind you but to highlight things that relate to the overall theme of your presentation. Finally, you will wrap up with a thank you. This should be quite brief and grovelling is not necessarily. Something along the lines of: "It has been my pleasure to share this evening with you and thank you very much for your hospitality and attention" or words to that effect.

Keep in mind, it is very unusual to leave the stage empty so by all means wait until the MC or event coordinator has joined you on the stage before you walk off. It can be very confusing for an audience not to have the "control of the room" passed off from one presenter to the next because they don't know what to do or what is happening. By waiting until the MC or other individual comes on stage - the audience will still feel like they are in good hands. If you are the MC, then you have the responsibility of "closing" the event by indicating this in very clear terms. In other words, "That's our event for this evening. Thank you very much for attending and I wish you a good night."

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