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The 11 tips that will improve your public speaking skills

May 6, 2021 - 12 min read

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What is public speaking?

7 elements of public speaking

The fear of public speaking

How to improve your public speaking skills

Own your authentic voice

Whether we’re making a contribution in a team meeting or asking a question in a stand-up, we all still have to speak in public from time to time.

What is public speaking?

The era of stand-up public speaking (complete with cue cards and auditoriums full of people) may belong to a bygone era. So is there a place for public speaking in our more virtual work spaces, with agile meetings and geographically-remote teams?

No matter which career path you’re on, most employees will be called upon at some stage to present, train, or lead — all involve public speaking.

And just in case you’re a back-office software tester and think you’ll be spared the speaker spotlight at work, just wait. There’s always your best man speech, daughter’s 21st birthday, or retirement party to prepare for!

What has changed in the modern domain of public speaking is how it is done and the challenge of getting an audience’s attention. Audiences today are diverted by email, social media or the ‘to do list’ of the day. This explains why formats like TED Talks (20 minute sound bytes) and Pechakucha presentations (20 slides in 20 minutes) are so popular. They provide the instant gratification that our short attention spans desire.

Truth is, the realm of public speaking has become that much more competitive. It's become more challenging to attract an audience and keep its attention.

7 elements of public speaking

At its core, for effective public speaking to take place, seven elements need to be considered:

1. The speaker 

That, of course, is you! One downside of technology is the minute we say the word "presentation," everyone hauls out their slide deck. But Powerpoint is not the content — you are.  

2. The message 

A coaching colleague once challenged me, stating, “If you can’t define it in a single sentence, it isn’t clear enough.” She was right. Although public speaking often contains many messages, you must be clear up front about the one topic that brackets them all. What do you want your audience to take away from your time together?

3. The audience

This is the most vital of our elements (next to you, of course). Do some audience research beforehand to determine if there is a common audience ‘type. This will help you tailor your message. For example, speaking to young prospective employees requires a far different approach than a positioning pitch to a mature client board.

4. The channel­

In the presentation coaching of the past, we focused on body language and non-verbal cues. The goal was to ensure that what we were saying aligned with what our body was saying. Today, we are often meeting virtually or presenting from a seated position. The challenge, now, is to allow our tone, our pitch, volume and facial gestures to tell the story of our presentation. 

When we are physically present, our posture and gestures add to the mix. Visual aids can be part of the mix, too. They should complement the message, rather than dominate it.

5. Feedback 

Communication has not taken place until the feedback loop has been completed. Feedback may be gauged by the questions one receives or perhaps a side conversation with an audience member after the session.

Nonverbal cues, however, are present from the outset of a presentation. From the eye contact of an audience member, to shuffling in the seat, or a frown on an audience member’s face, an in-person audience is rich with in-the-moment feedback.

6. Noise 

Temperature, lighting, sounds, or poor acoustics are all referred to as external noise in our speaking environment. I have often been distracted by the ringing of a cell phone, someone scrolling through email, or a conferencing facility that did not allow me to see the eyes of my audience.

Internal noise, on the other hand, refers to confused messaging or a lack of clarity in what the speaker is trying to convey.

7. Place 

When preparing for a high stakes presentation or proposal pitch, it is always advisable to scout out the venue beforehand to allow for optimal positioning and comfort. Encountering a data projector without the necessary connections or an audio system that doesn’t support the video you wished to stream is always nerve-wracking — and no fun to find out just before a presentation.

The fear of public speaking

For most people, next to visiting the dentist, their greatest fear is public speaking. ‘Glossophobia,’ as it’s officially called, has probably visited most of us at one point or another in our lives. You may be familiar with the experience of:

  •       Sweaty palms
  •      A fast-beating heart
  •      Dry or “glue mouth” as it’s often called
  •      A freezing or “blanking” of thoughts
  •      Shaking
  •      Nausea or a stomachache

I’ve heard a lot of suggestions over the years for combating stage fright, from imagining your audience naked (frankly, that just frightens me!) to power posing, courtesy of Amy Cuddy.

Here are a few tips I have found useful:

1. Preparation is key

Thorough preparation and knowing your content empowers you to feel more confident. Dry running your presentation in front of the mirror, your cat, and/or an audience member allows you to feel more prepared and confident.

2. Use your adrenaline

No athlete is able to perform at their peak without a good dose of adrenaline. Welcome the quiver of butterflies in your stomach or the slight tremor in your hands with the knowledge that your body is providing what it needs to deliver at your performance edge.

3. People, people, people

Brené Brown encourages nervous speakers to remind themselves that audience members are just people. “Speaking is vulnerable,” says Brown. “It’s a vulnerable act to stand up and be heard, no matter how confident you are. That’s you up there at the front of the room, or onstage, or anywhere else you’re letting your voice be heard.”

4. Use the power of your breath

Whether you’re a meditation guru, or simply make use of 3 deep breaths, breathe. This is our built-in mechanism to calm the body, center our thoughts, and lower our cortisol (stress) levels. Many studies have proven the benefit of this simple practice in your preparation.

How to improve your public speaking skills

1. What’s in it for them? 

As any business development executive will encourage, start with your audience. What is in it for them? Why should they listen to you and give up their precious time doing something else? 

This applies whether you’re presenting at a weekly meeting, providing feedback to a report or advocating for a promotion to your boss. Enticing them to listen is key. Connecting to your audience’s interests  builds rapport and establishes a relationship.

2. Harness the power of story 

We’ve all been in one of those deathly dull, data-based presentations where graph after graph is projected. However formal your presentation, always look for an anecdote or relevant example to make it come to life. Even a short dose of humor can break the monotony of a budget speech or compliance training.

3. Dry run, dry run, dry run 

Also known as practice, practice, practice. This is often where I see great presentations derail at the last moment. Be careful not to spend so much time beautifying slides (or heaven forbid, adding more) that you forget to practice what you’ll say.

4. Make a recording 

These days, whether you set up your cell phone on a tripod or simply make a Zoom recording of a rehearsal meeting, you can easily access the opportunity to watch yourself present. It takes a courageous person to view your own performance and to critically evaluate your habits. However, it is an accessible and powerful tool to make a few quick and powerful corrections.

5. Less is more 

This old cliché holds true: the fewer the slides and the less text, the better. If you have to use slides, go for lots of pictures and white space and speech captions so you don’t overwhelm your audience. The content is in what you have to say and how you say it.

6. The power of the pause 

In general, most of us speed up when presenting in public. The effort to view slides and simultaneously listen to commentary can be taxing if fired at a rapid rate. Allow your audience (and you) time to reflect after a key point or simply to pause for effect.

7. Get some coaching 

Whether you choose to attend a group public speaking course or receive coaching one-on-one, there are an abundance of skilled people to help you grow as a speaker. Suffering alone only increases anxiety and prevents you from getting the feedback we all need to raise our game. 

Many of those I coach suffer from the judgement of their inner critic. The best way to balance a harsh inner critic is with an objective and supportive outside voice to empower and equip you.

Own your authentic voice

After attending to all of these tips and practices, it is really important for your authentic self to shine through. It may be in the opening of your presentation with a confession to being somewhat anxious, or in a powerful closing with a personal story you choose to share.

Why does authenticity matter so much? Remember that we are in an age of distraction and information. When all one needs to do is spend five minutes on ‘Dr. Google’ to find out anything, why should we listen to you? 

Despite our busy pace and information overload, we are still enticed by an authentic brand. A personalized message and an authentic presence brings slides and stories to life. It is what elevates public speaking to an art.

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Published May 6, 2021

Karen Grant

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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