Man in white dress shirt holding microphone

How to Become an Effective Public Speaker

Are you more afraid of public speaking than you are of death? If so, you’re a member of a large segment of the population. It’s called glossophobia, and 75% of the population struggles with it.

It’s a little ironic for me to dispense public speaking tips. My online persona is louder than my physical presence. In fact, even now there are people who complain they cannot hear my soft spoken thoughts. As an introvert, it’s in my nature to keep my words to a minimum, but introverts are not necessarily shy. I am a Leo at heart and love to command attention when the occasion warrants it.

This is my advice based on personal pet peeves and personal experience.

Speak Beyond the Script

Never read what your audience can read for itself.

Reading a script, or reading from your PowerPoint, makes for a dull experience. Don’t steal your own thunder by devoting too much energy to what’s on your page or on the PPT slide. Your attention ought to be focused on engaging your audience. The hope is that you are an expert at what you’re delivering, so keep your attention focused on the people who made time to see you.

If you are blind and read Braille, you shouldn’t be using your eyes to read the Braille. Keep your eyes on the people watching you.

If you have literature worth sharing, hand out copies at the end of the presentation. This will give them additional information and provide one more means of keeping you in mind.

Keep Visual Aids in Their Proper Place

Use appropriate images. A picture is worth a thousand words and all that, but never make your visual aids the center of attention.

There’s a time and place for screaming fonts and rich multimedia. If the purpose of your presentation is to persuade, the audience needs to establish trust in you, not your props. The larger the distraction, the less likely it will be that your audience will give you their complete attention. The one possible exception to this rule is a sales pitch.

Remember people will only remember 25% of what you say. Use your quota wisely.

Make Yourself a Moving Target

That is to say, never stand in one spot.

You are not a static visual aid. You are a breathing specimen with the capacity to coax and cajole. Move to a different position to introduce a transition in your presentation or emphasize a point. If you are relying on PowerPoint, make sure your clicker will work from your strategically chosen locations.

If you are stuck at a podium, use body language to emphasize points. I feel I did a better job of hand gestures when I could see better. My hesitation is mostly self-conscious doubts, so I try to engage movements that feel natural for me. Smile. Raise your eyebrows. Narrow your eyes. Shrug your shoulders. Use your hand to highlight comparisons, etc.

Whatever you do, do not assign specific gestures to specific points in your speech. You’ll run the risk of forgetting the association and freezing under pressure. If it does not come naturally, don’t do it.

Maximize Your Greatest Weapon

In a presentation, your voice is your greatest asset. When you speak, aim to fill the room. If you are using a microphone, make it compliment your voice. Do not eat the mic. If you cannot move the microphone and you feel confident enough, let go of the microphone and use your own voice to project.

I’d never thought of one’s voice as an instrument until I began dating a vocal performer. It makes sense, and as such, you should use variation in your tone to illustrate important concepts. I am reserved and generally not prone to theatrics, but even I can lean on a little wit and sarcasm to change my inflections to drive home certain points.

Always Practice

I’m going to recommend you do something I do not practice myself. I can think of only a handful of situations where I have rehearsed speeches. I tell myself I don’t rehearse, because too much practice is apt to make me nervous at show time.

But, even though I may not always rehearse the entire speech, I do practice a few excerpts to ensure I am nailing the right timing on key points. I’ve bombed jokes before and am no rush to repeat those mistakes.

Practicing will help you pronounce words correctly. This includes people’s names and easily confused words like “formidable,” “hegemony,” and “inevitable.“

Work the Crowd

I’ve saved the best for last.

Here’s a secret: If you are a horrible public speaker, you will be able to distract people from this reality by stirring the audience.

Make generous use of the Socratic method when the occasion allows. Nothing will keep people awake and alert more than the possibility that they might be called on. When you read it that way, it sounds like it could get nerve wracking. It’s up to you to establish a warm atmosphere. You want people to feel excited at the prospect of sharing their input.

I once had a member of the audience tell me she did not get up to go to the bathroom, because she was afraid I would call on her. I’m going to chalk that up to a success, because had she been truly afraid, she would have looked for a reason to leave that conference room.

There are only a few situations in which a one-way dialogue is understandable. One of those is speaking from the pulpit at an LDS Sacrament meeting, and even then I worked hard at making people laugh to give me some audible clue that people were still paying attention.

Pro Tip: Never allow an audience member to intimidate you, no matter how senior their status. The beautiful thing about being the designated presenter is that when you speak, they listen.

Final Thoughts

Like most things in life, public speaking in of itself is not difficult. We control how challenging the experience will be, and even though it violates conventional advice not to introduce new ideas at the conclusion, the fact you made it this far means you deserve to be told the most effective technique in public speaking is to treat it like a conversation.

By treating public speaking like a conversation, you will feel yourself relax. You will use nonverbal gestures that feel natural to your personality. Working the crowd will come easy, because you’re fully engaged in maintaining a dialogue. You won’t need to stick to a script, because you will be animated enough to want to tell your audience what you know and ask them to do what you want them to do. Remember, you are the main event. Visual aids will be the cherry on top.

What did I miss? What would you add? Sound off in the comments!

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My blog is a collection of advice I wish someone had shared with me when I was young and targets subjects like personal finance, careers, and relationships. It publishes Mondays with the occasional bonus article. Sign up to have fresh content delivered straight to your inbox, no SPAM!


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