Public speaking can evoke fear, anxiety, and panic, but preparing and rehearsing can help mitigate your nerves. We’ve all heard the basic public speaking advice to speak slowly, take deep breaths, and make eye contact with members of the audience. But what else can you do to become a better public speaker? We talked to public speaking coaches and professional speakers for their best advice.
1. UNDERSTAND YOUR AUDIENCE.
Whether you’re giving a wedding toast, speaking at a conference, or lecturing in a classroom, understanding your audience is key. According to Melissa Goldman, a public speaking coach and founder of Speech Capital, knowing what your audience cares about, what their problems are, and what they already know about your topic will help you understand where to begin your talk. Getting a handle on even seemingly trivial things can help your audience identify with you and make you stand out as a compelling, empathetic speaker. “Ask yourself questions like: What's on the schedule before and after you speak? Are they [the audience] coming from lunch? Have they been bored to tears by the last half dozen speakers they heard that morning?” Goldman says.
2. FOCUS ON GIVING RATHER THAN TAKING.
Speaker and author Simon Sinek told Entrepreneur that audiences can easily discern a speaker's authenticity. “Even at a distance on stage, we can tell if you’re a giver or a taker, and people are more likely to trust a giver—a speaker that gives them value, that teaches them something new, that inspires them—than a taker,” Sinek said. If you approach your speech with the mindset of helping, instructing, or enlightening your audience, rather than selling yourself or trying to get them to like you, you come across as more genuine and authoritative.
3. ELIMINATE FILLER WORDS.
As a speaker, establishing credibility is essential for building trust with your audience. In a short amount of time, you must convince listeners that your ideas are valuable and that they should spend their time listening to what you have to say. Maria Ralph, the founder of Public Presence Agency, tells mental_floss that one way to showcase your credibility and knowledge is to replace filler words with a pause. “End your sentence with a pause for a definitive close. Nothing undermines your credibility like filler words,” Ralph says. Ridding your speech of uh, um, and like will probably take some practice. Record yourself giving a speech and listen closely for extraneous words or phrases—you may not even be aware of how frequently you’re vocalizing them.
4. WRITE SOME KIND OF SCRIPT.
Some speakers wouldn’t dream of standing behind a podium without notes, while others believe that speaking off the cuff is the best way to go. Even if you fall into the latter camp, most public speaking experts recommend that you have something written, whether it’s flash cards, a list of bullet points, or a fully annotated script. Having notes of some kind decreases that chance that you’ll ramble, get lost in thought, forget a key statistic, or stray from your main message. And if you want to be extremely prepared, you can write an annotated script, complete with stage directions that remind you when to pause, take a breath, emphasize a word, or smile.
5. IF POSSIBLE, MOVE AROUND THE STAGE.
Depending on the stage setup and type of speech, you may be able to move around as you speak. Audiences are listening to your words, but they’re also watching and responding to your non-verbal communication. To inject excitement into your speech and keep your audience interested, use gestures and walk around the stage as you change topics, emphasize a point, or relate an anecdote. Appropriate movement can also convey confidence in the message you’re delivering.
“People believe those that themselves believe in what they say. You can manifest confidence by using your voice to project energy and movement on the stage to showcase ownership,” Ralph says. Just don’t go overboard with gesticulation and movement, lest you distract your audience from what you’re saying.
6. SIMPLIFY YOUR CORE MESSAGE …
When you’re giving a long speech, it’s easy to get lost in facts, statistics, and stories and forget the main point you want to convey. “Cramming more information into a speech doesn't create more value for the audience. It creates more overwhelm and increases the likelihood that the audience will completely forget about your message,” warns Michelle Mazur, Ph.D., the founder of Communication Rebel. Instead, Mazur suggests that you focus your speech on one big idea that you want the audience to remember and take action on.
7. … THEN SIMPLIFY EVEN MORE.
Public speaking expert Connie Miller, the founder of Pivotal Presentations, likens a good presentation to an appetizer: small, clear, tasty, and easy to digest. “You do not serve your audience by telling them everything you know about a topic ... Remember that your audience members can become messengers for your message, but not if you confuse them by giving them too much,” Miller says.
Ralph echoes the “less is more” philosophy, advising speakers that they need to clarify their core message: “Your message needs to have one most critical thing about what you are saying to ensure that it is remembered. People have short memories, make sure your message is simple.”
8. FORGIVE YOURSELF AND MOVE ON.
Most likely, your speech will not go exactly according to plan. You may have a brain freeze, stumble over your words, or have a microphone or PowerPoint malfunction. When something goes wrong, excessively apologizing only calls more attention to the problem, makes your audience nervous, and distracts you from your message. Forgive yourself if you make a mistake, and move on—ASAP. If you handle the situation gracefully and calmly, your audience may not even notice or remember afterwards.