Public Speaking Skills For Dummies
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Even though some make it look easy, public speaking requires effort. But you don’t want the audience to see that effort. You want your voice to be the same one you use when talking to family, friends, and colleagues. You can develop your own style and sound like yourself. However, many issues can arise while preparing for and during your speech. You may be afraid, your body language may make you look and feel shaky, or your breathing may not be helping you as much as it could be. All these things can be addressed.

Man speaking onstage next to a projected image © Product School /

6 things to do before you present

You’ve written your speech, practiced it, and you’re ready to get up there and present. Surprise, surprise — you have a few things to do, or at least check, first.

Make a checklist and be organized

Even though you’ve practiced, you need to have the written speech with you. It could be the entire speech on a piece of paper or just the main points on a cue card. Make sure you have everything you need onstage with you and ready to go: Your slide deck, if you’re using one. Props. Bring water, even if you think water will be provided to you.

Whether you have your main points on cue cards or are reading from a sheet of paper, make sure you’ve put them in the right order. Same thing with your visuals. Go over them one last time. If you’re using a computer presentation, make sure you have access to it, and a backup. Be diligent and don’t miss this step!

Have you actually memorized your speech? Kudos to you! You still need to have your speech on you. If there’s a disruption in the room, it might fluster you and you might lose your place.

Go with as big as a font as you need. Only you will see it.

Don’t have your speech on your phone. The screen is too small, and you’ll be squinting to read it. You’ll have to remember to turn the auto-lock function off so the screen doesn’t keep going dark. Plus, when you look down at your phone, your energy goes down with it. You want to keep your energy up and look out to the audience when you’re presenting.

Warm up

You’re thinking, “warm up, that’s crazy” — but it’s not. Public speaking is a performance. Would you want to see a concert where the orchestra spent half of the first act bumbling along at half volume because they hadn’t warmed up? Do something physical: Go for a walk or a quick run if you like. Move through a couple of yoga poses. Get your breath moving and release some feel-good endorphins.

Try not to slouch when you’re warming up — or ever, for that matter. Think of roots growing down from the bottom of your feet to the earth and energy moving up through your body and out the crown of your head. Not only does this help with your alignment, which reduces stress on your ligaments, it gives you more room in your body to let your breath move freely.

Your voice is a part of your body that needs warming up, too. Humming is a great way to warm up. You can hum in the stairwell walking up to the venue and even in your car.

Move your mouth around. Exaggerate and make it as big as you can and then make it small. Pretend you’re a goldfish and pucker up those lips. Then give a huge smile. Channel a horse and flap your lips.

Tongue twisters work well to move your articulators — wake up your face and practice with different pitch levels. Try this: Who washed Washington’s white woolen underwear when Washington’s washerwoman went west? Really exaggerate moving those muscles in your face.

The goal is to say tongue twisters clearly — not to rush so that everything sounds garbled.

Drop your breath into your abdomen

Ideally, you want to breathe from as deep inside your lungs as possible. Imagine dropping your breath deeper than your lungs, down into your lower abdomen. Think of your abdomen being a balloon. When you inhale, the bottom of the balloon expands as it fills up. Go through a few cycles of inhaling and exhaling. In fact, make it a habit.

Practice your speech out loud one more time

It may look really good on the page, but the audience won’t be reading it. Take the time to find which words you want to emphasize or elongate. Do you want to pause for dramatic effect? Where do you want to change your pitch (how high or low do you want your voice to go)? Is there a time in the presentation where your volume can get very quiet? All of these things add to your vocal variety and make your speech more exciting.

Don’t ever get onstage without having practiced your speech out loud — yes, out loud — several times. Reading it out loud beforehand is essential to giving a great presentation.

Dress the part

If you’re presenting in your boardroom, think of your clients. If you’ve just had a company golf match, you might want to change into something more professional. Always look your best. First impressions are important, and you want to make a good one.

If you’re speaking at a formal dinner, formal attire is in order. If you’re at a community barbecue, go ahead and wear those jeans (but not the ones you wear when you garden). Look professional and appropriate.

If you’re planning on speaking in high heels, make sure you practice your presentation while wearing them. You can also start in a flat shoe and work your way up to the actual shoes you’ll be wearing.

Check out your space

If you have the opportunity to practice in the room where you’ll be presenting, grab it. The more familiar you are with the space, the more comfortable you’ll feel when you’re speaking. If you don’t have that opportunity, check out the place as soon as you get there.

Is the lectern where you imagined it, or is it elsewhere? Can you work with that? Is there a power cord stretched across the stage? Will you need to walk over it at some point? Is there room to move when you speak? Is there anything that could get in your way? Can the entire audience see you? If not, can you move around so that they will? If you’re in a boardroom, where are you going to sit? If using a screen, can you move beside it so that the images aren’t flashing across your head?

4 secrets to successful speeches

Some people just seem to knock it out of the park when they speak. Sure, being a natural is a terrific place to start, but even the best speakers still have to work at it to get better. A four-year-old may be a natural pitcher, but it’s going to take a lot of work and dedication to get to the major leagues.

Here are some tips to help you focus that work.

Know your audience

Find out what they know about the topic. What are their demographics? Has anything occurred recently in the community that has been a good thing, like winning a sports championship? Has anything happened that has been traumatic, like a fire that destroyed the high school? You may want to mention something about these things in your speech. That will give you an automatic connection with the audience and a good first impression that you’ve done your homework and really care about them. However, make sure that you really understand the situation before you address it.

Hook the audience and leave them wanting more

Reel that audience in once they’ve sat down.

The hook usually comes in the first sentence and sets the tone for the speech. Let’s take an example of a speech about growing a community garden:

  • Pose a rhetorical question that you don’t expect an answer to. You want the audience to think about it: “Would you be in favor of an amenity that makes your neighborhood more beautiful, feeds your community, and gives many people a sense of purpose?”
  • Throw out a statistic. “A garden that is cared for can yield up to half a pound of produce per square foot.”
  • Tell a story: “When my next door neighbor grew too old to care for her garden, all the neighbors pitched in to help. Often we’d have worker bees and end up at someone’s house for a barbecue. It was a wonderful way to connect with each other.”
  • State your main point. This is the thesis of your speech. It can be said in one sentence. Then you begin laying out the arguments that support your main point.
  • Preview the ending: The ending is the summation of the speech. How do you want to leave the audience feeling? Can you preview that in your hook? Maybe it is the end of the story where you talk about your neighborhood itself growing, and more community gardens being started after your neighbor planted the first seed.

Write in your own voice

The essay may have been useful in college, but now you need to write to speak. That is different. The audience wants to get a feeling from you and get to know who you are as a person — not just understand impersonal words on the page. If you feel that you have to write that essay because you feel more comfortable and like you’re hitting all the points, feel free. But then say your speech out loud. Is that how you speak? Do the words make sense for you? Are these words that you use in everyday language — or are they “essay” words?

Record yourself giving your speech and analyze it. You can use an audio recorder or video recorder. Listen to your voice — it may not sound the way it sounds in your head, but that is indeed what it sounds like to everyone else. Use that knowledge to improve your delivery.

Use visuals and slides — or not

Ask yourself whether you really need them. Will they truly enhance your speech — or just give you something to do instead of focusing on delivering your speech?

Don’t read from your slides. The audience can read. You may not need words at all in your slides. If you must have words, let them appear on the screen line by line, one at a time, with a maximum of five or six words at a time. Make sure everything is big enough for all to see. Make the type large and clear.

Instead of reading word for word, paraphrase what is on your slides.  

Pictures often work better because they can evoke memory for the audience.

Pay special attention to color. People who are colorblind often can’t differentiate between red and green. If you’re using a green background with a red graph, they may not be able to see it.

5 tips for getting past stage fright

Maybe you’ve kept your head down when your boss has asked for volunteers to present. Maybe you’ve even bypassed promotions because you’re afraid to speak in front of a crowd. But now you’re the head of your team and have to take that leap. You may be thinking: “I don’t know as much about this as my colleagues. What if the audience hates me? What if I forget an important bit of information?”

Get those negatives out of your head and replace them with positives. Visualize a successful outcome. Believe that everyone wants to hear what you have to say. Heck, some are grateful that it’s you up there and not them!

Stage fright can occur at any time in your career. Sometime an event precipitates it. The fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in, and you feel small and scared. Make yourself as big as you can and own your space. Don’t be slouched like a prey animal. Be that superhero ready to save the day! Maintain an up and out pose. Find someone in the audience or boardroom table to look at and tell your presentation to and talk to them — then move on and find someone else to connect with.

You’ve got this. Cut yourself some slack! You’re not perfect. You shouldn’t even want to be. What you want to do is to strive to be your best.

Breathe deep

Breathe deep. Often when you’re afraid, you take short gasps of air into your upper chest. When you were a kid and were upset, you were told to breathe deep and that it would help to calm you down. You know why? Because it works.

Sometimes when you’re afraid, you stop breathing altogether. You hold your breath. And when you stop breathing, there’s no oxygen going to your brain, so you stop thinking as well. Don’t just take small amounts of breath into your upper chest — think of dropping your breath as low as it can go into your lower abdomen. Take long, slow breaths.

Release useless tension

When you’re frightened, you tend to tense up. If you’re standing up there giving your speech and you’re gripping that sheet of paper for dear life, you’re probably tensing up other parts of your body, too. Like your jaw, for example. The audience is going to see that — and will mirror you. They won’t be thinking abut what you’re saying. They’ll be tense themselves and worried you’re going to snap!

You can work through tension. Go through your body and tense up each part. For example, start with your hands. Hold that tension for a few seconds and then release it. Doesn’t it feel great when you release it?

If you feel tense when you’re waiting to present, go ahead and really tense up a part of your body, like your toes. Do that for a few seconds and then release. This can relax you, and no one will know. You can do this even at the breakfast meeting when you’re sitting.

Adopt powerful body language

In the animal kingdom, the animals that make themselves big are the ones with the most authority and confidence. You don’t want to approach a bear when it’s on its hind legs, do you? You don’t have to roar like a lion, but you can adopt an up and out position rather than being down and in.

In a down and in position, your focus is on the floor, your body is closed, and you feel and look like you want to skirt away. In an up and out position your focus is looking outward, your chest is held high, and your body is open. Try it. It actually makes you feel more confident and ready to take on the world — and your speech!

Use affirming affirmations

Negative thoughts try to crowd into your brain all the time — even if positive ones precede it. For example: “I’m excited that I get to speak at the conference — I just hope I don’t screw up!”

When negatives get into your head, overwhelm them with positives. You can do this by using affirmations: Think to yourself, “I’ve got this. I’m the best person to give this talk. I’m fabulous!” You don’t have to tell the crowd, of course, but no one can stop you from having that running through your head.      

Visualize giving a great speech. People are smiling and paying attention Are they giving you nonverbal cues like nodding in agreement? What happens at the end? Imagine the slide deck functioning perfectly and you giving your speech without any hiccups.

Be the early bird

Whether you’re giving a presentation to your colleagues around the boardroom table or to 100 people you’ve never met, get to your venue early. Not only can you check out the room for what you need, you can also talk to those who have arrived and establish a relationship with them right off the bat. You can shoot the breeze about anything. That will make you more comfortable, and the audience members will connect with you as a human being. Then when you give your presentation, you’ll have some friendly faces in the audience to talk to.

When you focus on an audience member, only do so for five or six seconds. If you keep looking at one person, she’ll start feeling uncomfortable, and the rest of the audience will start feeling excluded. Look around the audience and talk to other people in turn as well.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Alyson Connolly, BFA, MFA is a voice and public speaking coach who specializes in painless public speaking and overcoming perfor- mance anxiety. She is also a keynote speaker, having been a performer her whole life, starting out as a child actor, and has been a teacher of drama and theater for the past 30 years.

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