How to be a great public speaker

Public Speaking

Public speaking is an art form and is also exceedingly nerve-wracking for many people. Before a speaking engagement it is not uncommon for people to experience disturbances in the stomach, nervous tremors, agitation and anxiety. Some are natural public speakers and do it as easily as talking with a friend. Others rank it with death on their list of most-dreaded experiences. Whether you are an experienced speaker or a novice, it is useful to know the basics. Here is a practical guide based on my own personal experience:

  • Decide what kind of talk it will be.

The two major types of talks are formal and informal, and there are shades in between.

Formal often indicates a prepared speech. You and/or a speechwriter compose a speech for a specific event. Everyone signs off on it. You practice it a number of times, ideally at the venue where is to be delivered. When it comes time to deliver it, you walk onstage and do it.

Informal can mean there is nothing prepared other than what you may be thinking as you step in front of a group; someone asks you to say something off the cuff, it is a small group, or a formal speech doesn’t seem fitting for the event. You can talk to a whole stadium in an informal manner and it can come of in exceptional fashion – it all depends on what you’re trying to do and what you’re comfortable with. No matter how unplanned, you would ideally have some idea what you want to say before you say it.

There are shades in between. One method is to have “bullet points” or “bullets.” This is a rough outline of what you’re going to cover and you just sort of roll though that. Another approach is the question and answer period which is more of a conversation. Some speakers have a prepared speech but do not necessarily stick to it, opting to say what comes to them at that moment with that audience.

You should decide ahead of time what kind of talk you’ll be doing.

  • Composing a speech.

Speechwriting is a craft and an art and you or may or may not be handy with it. You may need to work with a writer in order to put together your talk. Even if you are only one of a string of people speaking at a large wedding, and even if your speechwriter is your brother or sister, you’d follow the same essential pattern.

I won’t go into speechwriting in any great detail in this article as it is its own subject. But I will say that a speech should have a beginning, a middle, and an end; it should communicate properly to the audience you are talking to; it should not be too long; and you should be comfortable giving it. There is a certain cadence or rhythm to a speech; a good speech will have points where it rises and falls and where you put emphasis in order to make your point. A speech should be eloquent yet concise.

Speechwriting does not fare well under a cookie-cutter approach. People speak differently. A person writing a speech for another must be familiar with how the intended speaker talks, both in day-to-day conversation and to a group. Writing for someone who attended Yale and speaks in a rather literary fashion would probably be different than writing for someone who grew up on the streets of Brooklyn or Detroit or Manchester. Sometimes you write a speech for one speaker, but the speaker changes so you must edit or re-do it for the new speaker.

There must be a discourse between the writer and the speaker in order to assemble an excellent speech.

  • Practice.

Practice delivering your talk. Practice in front of a mirror. Practice in front of your spouse, family or friends. Ideally you’d have the opportunity to drill and practice at the venue where you’ll be speaking. If you are using a teleprompter, paper, or a microphone, you should become very familiar with all these items. You should know how the microphone works, where the on-off switch is, and how the room sounds when it is on and when it is off. Whenever you’re using a teleprompter, you must always also have the hard copy of the speech in front of you in case anything goes wrong with the teleprompter or the operator messes up. You don’t want to be caught with a blank expression should the teleprompter shut off or display the wrong words. The person operating the teleprompter must be familiar with how fast or slow you talk and scroll the speech fittingly.

If you’re doing a more informal speech, you should still drill and practice it. You want to keep drilling and practicing your talk so you iron out the kinks. Some words or phrases look good on paper but are tongue twisters when spoken. There are often changes made when a speaker is drilling. Any speechwriter knows to be prepared for anything, including writing a whole new speech; however, if the writer had the requisite talks with the speaker, did the homework and knows the craft, changes should be minimal.

  • Stage fright.

A lot of people have stage fright. According to Jerry Seinfeld, more people fear public speaking than fear death! Whether this statistic is accurate or not, we do know that many people are terrified of public speaking and get physical reactions. I don’t know much about the “imagine the audience naked” approach – haven’t tried it and I’d think it would be kind of distracting. What I have found is that drilling and practice tend to work out the stage fright. Even experienced speakers get stage fright, so don’t think it’s unusual.

If you’re intensely worried about saying all the words exactly right, it can distract from the meaning of the words, so focus on what you wish to tell the audience. One thing you can do is focus on one person in the audience – someone you know – and talk to them for a while then switch to someone else.

There are little mechanical things you can do. For example, if your hand involuntarily shakes, you can steady it somewhat by pressing your arm against your side in a relaxed fashion. If you’re not using one hand, you can put it elegantly in a pocket. If you can’t look at the audience, you can still look down at your notes and deliver your talk; you can be looking down while still projecting your voice and getting through to people.

As you do more public speaking, you may feel your stage fright subsiding.

  • Enunciation & Projection.

When speaking to a group, it is important to enunciate your words properly. If you have an accent, you probably aren’t going to change that and it may be an intriguing part of your personality. What I’m talking about is diction – how clearly you say the words so that people will understand. When you are speaking to a group, it is OK to talk slowly, as long as it is not excessively slow. Overlong pauses between sentences can make people impatient. Go at a pace that you are comfortable with; you’ll make fewer mistakes. Pronounce the words clearly so that people understand. This simple action goes a long way in delivering an effective talk and getting your words across.

When you talk, you want to project. This does not mean talking loud. You want to speak with enough volume that people hear you, but when you speak clearly and with the intention to be understood, you are projecting.

You can direct your words to different points in the room; just make sure you also get the very back. Understand that a group is composed of individuals and you are talking to individuals. Even if the group is Truckers of Texas, it is a room of individuals.

  • Um…like…you know.

The three most rampantly abused words are “um,” “like,” and “you know.” Another one is “actually.” As in, “I, um, like actually dropped the whole basket of raspberries and was, like, um, pretty embarrassed, you know?” We all abuse these and say them without thinking. I certainly have.

When you drill and practice public speaking, work on editing these out of your vocabulary. Where you feel compelled to say them, say nothing instead. I know this is easier said than done. Just being aware of these words puts you ahead of a vast number of others who don’t realize how often they repeat them.

The word “like” is the biggest offender. People use the word “like” instead of the word “say.” Instead of “she said…” they’ll say “she was like…” before they tell you what she said. Now we also “Like” things online so it’s gotten really out of hand. Agreed?

  • Business

When you practice your talk, you also practice your “business.” Your business is what you’re doing with your hands and your body, how you stand and how you move. You should be aware of this; when you practice in front of a mirror you can observe things like bad posture. You may use your hands to gesticulate, especially if you’re Italian; that is fine as long as it’s not a distraction.

If you have a podium, place your hands where they are comfortable. Make sure the microphone is positioned properly. If you’re carrying a mike, what is your other hand doing? If you’re looking down at notes, excessive head bobbing is distracting. Because of this, you may wish to keep your head down and lift it up from time to time. It should feel natural as you lift your head up and make eye contact, and it can serve to emphasize points you wish to make. The point is that your movements should be deliberate and natural rather than uncertain or forced.

  • Understand your audience.

Audiences are as different as people are different. It is true that you’re talking to individuals, but you’re talking to groups as well. The group can be your office, entrepreneurs, football fanatics, comic book enthusiasts, etc. It can also be a group that is there for a special occasion or specific event, such as a wedding, a graduation, etc. – how you address this group is very important. Understand why they’re there. The more you understand them, the more they’ll remain engaged, laugh at your humor, and take what you have to say to heart.

When you are speaking to an audience (or anyone for that matter), you are not there to pump yourself up and show how awesome you are. In other words, if you assert your own self-importance, you alienate people. This is not to be confused with a role you take in a performance, nor would you belittle yourself. But when speaking, your words and attitude reflect the importance of the audience; by granting them importance you build instant rapport.

  • Mistakes

If you make mistakes, just ride right on over them. You may have to repeat a word or phrase if you said it wrong. A good speaker can detect things like nervousness in an audience, and a sincere smile can often put people at ease. Occasionally you may need to apologize if you messed up someone’s name or said the opposite of what you meant (such as “was bad” instead of “was not bad”), but this should be rare and would be nearly instantaneous such as saying “pardon…” and correct the statement.

Never emphasize your mistake unless possibly where you’re going straight for laughs. When you know you can make people laugh you have more room to improvise.

As you do more and more public speaking, you’ll feel more and more at ease. It’s a good idea to have a glass of water on hand. Your voice can get tired (especially if you’re a smoker) and your mouth can get dry. Best time to drink water is during applause. If you have trouble speaking past a certain point, shorten your talk.

  • Be yourself.

Nothing beats being sincere, being honest, being real, and being yourself. The best speakers are very natural. You can have all the mechanical parts right, yet still not truly reach your audience. So above all, be yourself and communicate!

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