12 Ways to Improve Public Speaking

Improving your public speaking skills could enhance your career.

If it hasn’t happened yet, chances are sometime in your career, you’ll find yourself faced with the job of making a public presentation. Perhaps you’ll be invited to address your local Rotary or Chamber of Commerce, a church or synagogue group, or you may be called on to make a presentation to a group of business colleagues, maybe even a sales pitch for your massage practice. Whatever the occasion, your career as a successful businessperson can be greatly enhanced every time you step up to the speaker’s lectern—provided you’ve mastered the all-important basics of public speaking.

Also, whatever the specific area of your expertise, there’s an audience out there that wants to hear how you did it, and in some cases, they’re willing to pay you to share your secrets. Public speaking has even blossomed into a highly paid second career or a profitable sideline for thousands of business owners and professionals.

As with most personal accomplishments, skill in public speaking is part natural ability and part learned technique. Here are a dozen important public speaking tips and techniques that will add significantly to your ability to make a successful presentation:

1. Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.

Keep in mind that fear of speaking in public is an almost universal condition. One of the most effective ways to improve public speaking and overcome the nervousness that every new public speaker experiences is careful preparation. Don’t try to talk off the top of your head—it won’t work. Always limit your talks to material you are thoroughly familiar with and organize your material carefully. That will boost your confidence and help overcome your nervousness.

2. Always have a point

Every successful speech has a point. When you are planning your talk, ask yourself what is the major point you want to make to your audience. If you can’t summarize the point of your talk in two or three sentences you run the risk of rambling—a sure turnoff for every audience.

Then, concentrate solely on the point you want to make and not on your own anxieties.

3. Use a “narrative hook”

Successful magazine and book writers use a technique known as the narrative hook. That’s a literary technique used in the very first paragraph of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention so that they will keep reading. The technique works equally well in the opening of a public presentation. An opening that hooks the audience into wanting to know what is coming next is a surefire way to get their attention and a great public speaking technique. Your hook might be a challenging question to the audience, a dramatic, controversial, or unexpected statement—anything that will capture the audience’s attention. Whatever you use, make sure it is directly related to the point of your presentation.

4. Get comfortable with your surroundings

Professional speakers know the importance of arriving early to size up the room and the speaker’s lectern. Don’t be hesitant to make your needs known in advance. If you arrive expecting a lapel microphone and you find a fixed or handheld mike, it may be too late to change.

5. Greet as many members of the audience as you can before your talk

Another tip for great public speaking is to learn as much as possible about them. It’s easier and more comfortable to talk with a group of acquaintances than with strangers. One well-known speaker says she likes to mentally picture her audience as her “guests.”

6. Make eye contact

Look audience members in the eye, but not more than five or six seconds each. Eye contact longer than that will make some individuals uncomfortable. Avoid focusing your gaze on a single person or spot in the room; that’s a definite no-no.

7. Humor is OK, but be careful

Most people enjoy a good joke or a humorous anecdote, but not everyone can pull off an attempt at humor—and a joke that falls flat is a sure way to detract from your talk.

Will Rogers and Mark Twain were well known for successfully lacing their talks with humor, but unless you’re confident in your ability to make people laugh, it would be best to lay off the jokes. And, of course, using off-color humor is treading on dangerous ground.

Experts agree: the best form of humor is self-deprecating humor. Making fun of yourself is a sure way of connecting with an audience through public speaking.

If you’re not comfortable using humor in your presentation, try telling a story. Everyone loves a good story, and if you can tell a story that in some way relates to the point of your presentation, you’ll be helping to put your audience in a receptive mood.

8. Stay aware of your body language

Your body language will give your audience a constant stream of information about what’s in your mind. If you’re overly nervous, if you don’t believe in what you’re saying, or if you aren’t familiar with your material, your body language will give you away.

While it may be necessary to use a lectern to hold your notes, a good public speaking tip is to try to get away from behind it as much as possible. A lectern provides an obvious barrier between you and your audience and can give the impression that you’re trying to “hide” from them. Instead of standing behind a lectern during your entire presentation, engage your audience by walking around, making eye contact and appropriate gestures to emphasize a point, and, most important of all, smile. Picture in your mind the most impressive speaker that you’ve heard and there’s a good chance you’ll remember him or her doing all those things.

Always pay attention to your body language. Stand up straight, don’t use gestures that are unnatural to you, make appropriate eye contact, and smile. Anything you do to make yourself appear relaxed will help you be relaxed.

9. Use your natural voice

Many people who are engaging conversationalists depart entirely from their natural voice when they stand up to speak in public. One public speaking technique to minimize nervousness is to concentrate on avoiding departure from your normal tone of voice. In particular, avoid the dreaded monotone. To some people, a monotone voice is akin to scratching a fingernail across a chalkboard.

You can void a monotone by varying your pace and volume. Sometimes you should emphasize a point by increasing your volume, but successful speakers know that lowering your voice almost to a whisper is a very effective way to keep an audience’s attention.

10. Obey time restrictions

Perhaps one of the most common afflictions of all among public speakers is speaking too long. Talks that drag on interminably make many people resentful of the speaker. In most cases, you will be given an expected time limit for your talk; observe that limit carefully. To do otherwise risks offending your audience as well as the sponsors of your talk. You’ll make your audience happy by taking only as much time as your need to clearly make your point. Then sit down.               

11. Start strong and finish strong

Using a narrative hook is one of the best ways to start your presentation on a strong note. But remember: it’s equally important to finish strong. Old time vaudevillians used to sum up the importance of finishing strong with their saying, “always leave ’em laughing.” While you won’t necessarily want to leave your audience laughing, you do want to leave them with a strong closing worth remembering.

One of the best ways to improve public speaking is to think carefully about how you want to close your talk and plan it well. Keep in mind that your audience is most likely to remember your first words and your last words. In short, start strong and finish strong.

12. Finally, as you’re speaking, remember that people want you to succeed. Audiences are on your side. They don’t want you to fail.

—William J. Lynott

blynott@comcast.net

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