5 Steps to Becoming a Better Public Speaker
By Cindy Fisher Crawford
For many, the thought of talking coherently in front of a group is nerve-racking, be it accepting an award, giving a toast, or presenting to your team at work. And with a litany of “how to” tips from experts available, narrowing down best practices can be just as difficult. Lucky for you, we've done the legwork. Here are five foolproof tips for wowing a crowd from Toastmasters International and other public speaking experts.
1. MAKE YOUR SPEECH CONVERSATIONAL.
As tempting as it may be to type up a speech and read it word for word, refrain from doing so. Audiences listen better when the speaker talks to them instead of reads to them.
Public speaking coach Tammy Miller, a Pennsylvania-based international speaker and auctioneer with Tammy Speaks, recommends building your speech around a structure of key points you want the audience to come away with. “Structuring a speech can boost confidence,” she said. It will also prevent you from sounding robotic.
She uses an organizational “speech cookie” she calls OREO: Give your opinion, then reasons behind that opinion, offer an example that correlates with that opinion, and wrap it up reiterating the opinion again.
Matt McGarrity, principal lecturer in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, says writing a conversational speech should not be too difficult. “We as humans have evolved to where we have the ability to spontaneously speak” in ways that help get our point across easily, he says. “It is bad for us to deviate from what we’re used to doing.”
In other words, if you change your natural speech patterns to give a speech that's written like an essay you're setting yourself up to fail. He suggests using short phrases and smaller, simple words—avoid superfluous big words the audience would have to look up.
2. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.
A great way to ensure your speech goes smoothly is to rehearse what you’re going to say. Miller recommends using a timer to make sure your speech isn’t too long and drawn-out or too short and missing key points. Also, memorize those key points so you’re ready to move into the next topic smoothly.
Another method used in the path to perfection is to videotape yourself giving the speech; this allows you to critique your mannerisms and plan out your pace. Practice should help ease the jitters and make sure your speech is a hit.
3. CONNECT WITH YOUR AUDIENCE.
In addition to using an outline to guide your speech, Miller recommends making eye contact with people in the crowd to encourage engagement and gauge audience interest. If they’re yawning, you need to infuse a spark in the conversation, perhaps by asking the audience a question that leads into your next bullet point. If they’re taking notes and nodding their heads, you’re on the right track.
4. DELIVER YOUR SPEECH WITH PASSION.
The best way to get your audience to care about what you're saying is to show how much you care about the topic. The content of that toast for a best friend getting married or loved one who has passed away is most likely near and dear to you; use that emotion to drive your speech home.
“The best presentations are those that come from the heart,” Miller says. But be careful how much you practice a passionate speech. “If it is so powerful, like a speech about your son passing, and you practice it 50 or 60 times, it could lose the passion,” Miller says.
On the flip side, be careful not to get overly emotional. Keep out tears, anger, and overblown elation or you might be taken less seriously.
For those speeches where you don’t care about the topic but you have to talk about it anyway—and you know there will be times like this—McGarrity suggests going with your gut. Your natural pitch, tone, gestures, and timing will give your speech the semblance of passion. If you tend to freeze up in front of a crowd, McGarrity has a couple tips for feigning confidence: “One way to control pitch and tone is to write the speech for the ear instead of the eye,” he says. As for timing? “The most vibrant speakers pause at the right time, like before making a valid point.”
5. TAKE YOUR TIME.
Your presentation is not a race. Take your time as you interact with the audience and slow down if you make a mistake. Many tend to speed up when they slip up in order to get past the blunder as soon as possible, but that could disrupt your ability to get your message across and often causes more mistakes. Instead, breathe evenly and ease back into your speech with calm confidence.
If you've been pacing while lecturing, Miller recommends you "pause and walk casually to the podium and look at your notes," rather than scrambling back to your script. "Know that the audience doesn’t know what you’re about to say,” she says.
More than likely, the audience has no idea you even made a mistake. “Speakers often think the audience has a high expectation for a flawless performance,” McGarrity says. “But if you mess up and they notice, just move on.”