15 Tips to Better Public Speaking

Posted by: Joseph Ferrara on March 28th, 2008

Whether you are asked to speak before a large group or to a husband and wife at a listing presentation, it is important that you communicate effectively.

Here are some tips to improve your public speaking, as well as helping you eliminate those distracting “ums” “ahs” and “like you knows”. You know?

1. Speak on topics you know well.

If you know the subject matter, you will tend to be less anxious about speaking. There is also a comfort in knowing you know more than most of your audience. Always come prepared with reliable facts, especially those which get people’s attention.

Part of a good speech is to inform. But be careful with facts. You don’t want to overdo it. You want to take a fact and work off it—the implications and effects—what that fact means to your audience. If you don’t know the subject matter well, you will need to do serious homework —- so make sure you have enough time to learn it.

2. Practice, practice, and more practice.

Most of us are not naturals in front of a crowd. The more you speak, the easier it gets. Try a few dry runs at home with your significant other or family members—but not your mom (she will always say you’re just great). Be careful you don’t overdo it. An overly rehearsed speech does not usually play well and if you hit a blank spot, you’ll be dropping ums and ahs like greased watermelons.

3. Get to the room early, before people arrive.

This will get you acclimated to the surroundings and help you relax. Greet people as they arrive to build some rapport and make you more at ease.

4. Do not apologize or say it’s your first speech.

The audience will be looking for your gaffs & you will feel it. Act like you’ve done it a hundred times and you can convince yourself you have.

5. Keep it short, easy to understand and conversational.

There are exceptions, of course, but generally avoid longiloquence and using words like longiloquence. People don’t usually attend conferences with dictionaries in hand. Talking down to your audience or parading in your mental underwear is generally to be avoided. Never speak Latin, unless you’re at the Vatican.

6. Smile a lot.

Your audience will smile back and that will help put you at ease.

7. Know your audience and get them involved.

Are you speaking to novices or similar experts in your field? If you don’t know, ask. Engage your audience with a question and ask for a show of hands. Taking questions is also a good way to engage the audience and keep interest. Look at them, not your notes.

8. Use humor to lighten the mood, especially if you make a mistake.

It is the human condition to screw up so don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. Use an interesting prop if you can. If you use slides or other visuals, make sure you have some funny stuff in there. Part of a good speech is to entertain. Humor is tricky, though. It has to be appropriate and not everyone is good at it. Some folks are too darn serious to be funny. You know who you are.

9. Start with an anecdote, quote or a story.

It’s best if it’s your story and it’s interesting. It is also nice if you can end the talk referring back to your opening remarks.

10. Show your confidence with body language.

Keep your head up and stand up straight (gee, I sound like Sister Mildred from 8th grade). Look people in the eye. Move around. It should be natural—not a like a tiger pacing in a cage. This takes practice and may not come easily. If so, just moving beside the podium may be enough.

11. Write an outline or keyword bullet points.

If you write too much you will be tempted (and will) read from your notes.

12. When asked a difficult question—say “that’s a good question”.

It will give you time to think of a good answer. If you don’t have a good answer, admit it—add that you’ll try to find the answer and will contact the person if they leave a number. This will show you are genuinely concerned with your audience. Plus, you’ll have made a connection with someone.

13. If you have a handout, distribute it after you speak.

If you do it beforehand, people will read it, there will be the distracting rustling of paper and many folks won’t hear or listen to you. Do give a handout asking for feedback. It helps to know if you sucked.

14. Be passionate.

If you love the topic you are speaking about, you have no worries—people will see it, even if you are less than perfect a public speaker. Passion covers a lot of imperfections but it can’t be taught. You either are or you’re not and it’s hard to disguise it.

15. Be fearless.

Some experts say acknowledge the fear. That may work for you, but I take a contrary approach—do not acknowledge the fear. Believe you can overcome any obstacle and be effective. After my first few (worrisome) trials, I decided to embrace this mindset. And it worked. Try it. (PS: It works for sky diving too).

Eliminating the ums, ahs, likes and you knows.

The vocalized pause is the most common public speaking problem. Almost everyone does it. It stems from our discomfort with silence in a conversation. We are conditioned in our normal conversations to immediately respond after the other person speaks, without a pause.

In conversation, the awkward pause is just that—awkward. So, when we publicly speak, we try to eliminate the pause with ahs, ums, likes, and you knows. But in public speaking, the pause conveys importance to your words.

Some extra tips:

  1. Record yourself. This will help you identify the extent of your problem. Be prepared to be surprised. Don’t strive for perfection because you can’t be. Instead, strive to be more relaxed.
  2. Speak slower and be conscious of the silent pause. Embrace the pause.
  3. When you finish a thought, take a breath.
  4. Practice, practice and still more practice. There is no way around it. Darn it!
  5. Avoid caffeine, or any stimulant, before you speak.
  6. Do some dry runs and have a friend or relative Taser you every time you use a vocalized pause. Just kidding—have them raise their hand every time you do.

There you have it. These techniques have worked for me and I hope some may work for you.



5 Comments on “15 Tips to Better Public Speaking”

Louis Cammarosano

Jessica I am curious what did the instructor say to do instead?

Jessica G

Great tips, Joe. Speaking in front of groups especially is not an easy thing for most people. The more you do it, though, the better you be at it, naturally. I recently attended a refresher public speaking course and the instructor said to not do #12. I really like to say “good question”, though.

Jay Thompson

Great post Joe. I’ve read that other than death, public speaking is the greatest fear of most people. I happen to enjoy it, but I’m not normal. :)

These are all really good tips.

Joseph Ferrara.Sellsius

Thanks. You are a natural, Jay.

Linda Davis

My favorite blogger’s quote is “Bloggers don’t make great speakers but they do it with passion”. You are the exception Joe, you blog and speak very well. I love and need this post. Thanks for the tips.

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