10 Tips for Public Speaking Preparation

By Alyson Connolly

So, you have a speech coming up? This list is designed to help you prepare your body, your voice, and your mind for delivering that speech.

Warm Up Your Body and Your Voice

You know who warms up? Pretty much everyone. Your favorite athletes, your yoga instructor — anyone who uses his or her body for some sort of performance warms up. And guess what? Public speaking counts as using your body.

You know when you see speakers up there, talking your ear off, not doing all that much moving around, and they’re sweaty? Like dripping with sweat? Yeah, they may be nervous, but chances are their body is working a lot harder than you think. So, if you’re not working hard up there, you’re not doing your job. And if you don’t warm up, you can’t work hard.

You can go for a run, practice some yoga — heck, walk up some stairs. Try the Elaine dance from Seinfeld. Anything that gets your cardio going.

Place your feet shoulder width apart. Imagine roots growing from your feet ten yards down into the earth. There is energy growing up past your head. Your shins are stretching up to your thighs. Your pelvis is set straight, where it should be; you aren’t sticking your stomach in or out. Imagine your vertebrae stacked neatly on top of each other. Your neck is released. Your head is loose like a bobble head. The energy is stretching from your feet up through the crown of your head out to the sky.

When you go through a warmup, do it full on. If you ever played piano, you have to practice your scales with the same energy that you perform the song. That doesn’t mean you have to push, just use the same energy. Have a certain intensity. Here are some things you can do to warm up:

  • Hum. Make humming sounds, moving from a high-pitched hum to low and back to high.
  • Make horse lips. Brrr like a horse. Add some sound and go high and low. Have some vocal variety.
  • Be Tarzan. Pound your chest on an “Aaaa-aaa-aaah!”
  • Be fabulous. Put your arms up and walk around the room repeating, “I’m fabulous.” You might just feel it!
  • Wake up your face muscles. Lightly tap all over your face.
  • Give your face a massage. Make sure to release your lower jaw.
  • Be a cat. If you’re alone (or not self-conscious), try meowing. Exaggerate your jaw opening.
  • Work your jaw. Pretend you’re chewing a mouthful of crackers; count to ten while chewing. Keep breathing!
  • Work your lips. Pucker up, then smile. Repeat a few times.
  • Work your tongue. Stick your tongue out. Draw circles with your tongue one way, then the other. Keep breathing!
  • Try some tongue twisters. She sells seashells down by the seashore. How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
  • Pant like a dog. Just a little. Now add a “Ha.” Move up and down in pitch.

Visualize dropping your breath deep into your lungs down into your lower abs. Breathe in through your nose for a count of four, and then out for the same. Increase your counts when you feel comfortable. Keep your body aligned with energy reaching up to the sky.

Yoga breathing: Try this exercise, inspired by yoga expert Amy Weintraub’s book Yoga Skills for Therapists (W. W. Norton, 2012). Breathe in a third of your breath capacity while stretching your arms out in front. Then breathe another third with arms out in a T. Then inhale the final third of your breath with your arms up high above your head. On an exhale, open your mouth, say, “Ha,” and bring your arms down while bending your knees to a standing squat. Swing the arms behind you with your palms facing up. Make sure your arms are stretched to the fullest. When they’re above your head, try not to lift the shoulders up as well. Repeat this up to nine times and you should begin to feel joyful. At the very least, you’ll be warmed up. When you’re done, close your eyes and take note of how you feel.

You may want to avoid this pose if you have untreated high blood pressure, head or eye injury, migraines, or glaucoma. Many of my clients feel light-headed when they do this exercise. If that happens to you, stop the exercise.

You can also try the following inspired by Patsy Rodenburg in her book Right to Speak (Routledge, 1993): Stand in alignment. As you breathe in, move your arms up into a T. Make sure your shoulders don’t creep up to your ears. Allow your arms to drop down by their sides when you breathe out. Repeat this a few times. Now do it again, and when you drop your arms and breathe out, say, “Ssss,” “Ffff,” or, “Hmmm.” Allow all the breath to exit your body with that sound. Try not to collapse your spine or create any tension when you do so. Feel the need to take a breath and then breathe in. Repeat up to five times.

Adopt a Power Pose for at Least Two Minutes

When Amy Cuddy discusses the power pose in her TED Talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”, she states that adopting the pose for only two minutes can change the way you think and feel about yourself. In other words, all you have to do is look powerful, and you might start to feel powerful. We humans are pretty smart — sometimes we can even outsmart ourselves to our advantage. This is one of those times. With the Power Pose, you’re more confident and have greater self-esteem.

How does it look? In a Power Pose, either extend your arms over your head in a V shape or rest your hands on your hips like Superman or Wonder Woman. It’s as simple as that. Stand still and maintain that position for two minutes to really get the full effects.

If your arms are over your head, make sure your shoulders don’t creep up to your ears.

You probably can’t walk into the board meeting with your arms up in the air. Or maybe you can. What you definitely can do is maintain an up and out position (head atop the spine, chin up, not hunched over) at all times, which is also a power pose.

Practice Your Speech While Doing an Unrelated Task

You want to get this speech down? You need to know it as well as you possibly can. And unless you’re a billionaire, you probably have some monotonous tasks you have to do with nothing to entertain yourself while doing them.

Try this: Recite your speech while doing chores. Take out the garbage, clean the coffee machine, put those files back in their folders. Practicing this way helps you get the speech out of your head and “into” your body, so that it becomes second nature. Think muscle memory — for you brain.

Eat Healthy, Drink Water

This is overlooked so much it isn’t even funny. I’d say most of my clients have okay diets. It’s one of the first things I ask them about themselves: “What do you eat?” But for some reason they rarely concern themselves with their health on the day they have a presentation. One of my clients even told me he treats himself to junk food before a presentation, as a reward.

That’s a no-go. Here’s the golden rule: Don’t deviate from your normal eating routine, don’t not eat, and don’t get “hangry.” If you’re going to deviate, do it in a healthy way.

Protein maintains you and gives you the fuel you need.

  • Have a meal with protein and some carbs: good, complex ones like beans, lentils, or brown rice. Let that energy take its time.
  • Don’t stuff yourself so that you feel like you’ll have to roll onto the stage. You can eat later — for now have something small and eat smart.
  • Drink water. You don’t need to drink eight glasses. Just drink enough so that you don’t feel thirsty and you’re well hydrated.
  • Don’t drink that can of pop. It has loads of sugar, plus you’ll be full of burps. You’ll feel great for awhile, then you’ll crash and burn.
  • Drinking milk can be iffy. It may feel like you have mucous in your throat, but really it’s the texture and thickness of the milk that can cause you to clear your throat to get rid of it.

Visualize a Successful Presentation

Have you ever seen race car drivers before a race? You might see them sitting in a chair, full race gear on, visualizing every last corner they’re about to zip through. These guys know everything about the course and what they can expect from the conditions. They always win in their minds. Why not take the same advice?

Before you’ve dressed up to speak, find a place where you can have silence and be still. Not when the kids are running around getting ready for school or when your colleagues are discussing the party last night. Find a quiet place where you can be alone.

You can sit on the floor, on a chair, on the couch. You might try some external imagery, such as watching a video of yourself. Allow your mind to think about your upcoming presentation. Think about what you’re wearing. Whatever it is, it should make you feel good. Really see it on you. The shirt, jacket, pants, tie, dress, shirt, shoes. You’ll feel powerful and ready to go.

The MC is reading your bio. And you know what? You’ve achieved a lot in your field. You’re sitting and waiting while he discusses your successes.

It’s time to walk up to the front of the room. You walk with purpose. You’re taking slow, deep breaths. You put your speech on the lectern, take three slow breaths, and begin.

You look at the audience. You find someone who is engaged and direct your message to her for five seconds of your speech. Then you move onto someone else. You see the audience nodding in agreement and listening to what you have to say. Your slides roll easily from one to the other. Any props are well received. You’re enjoying yourself!

You have ended the speech and there is applause. In the words of Sally Field when she won her Oscar, you think, “You like me, you really like me!”

The presentation has been a success and you feel great!

You can also actually go through some of the motions, mentally and physically. Walk with purpose onto the stage — maybe this is just you walking in place, maybe you’re walking from one room to another. Visualize all the minutae. Is the stage smooth or is it carpeted? Put your notes on the lectern. Hear the flipping of the pages. Find the remote for the PowerPoint and click on the first slide. How big is the remote? Does it fit easily in your hand? Go through all the points of the presentation. See the audience engaging with you. Hear the applause at the end of your presentation.

Recite Your Speech Dressed in Your Presentation Clothes

You want to look good, right? Of course you do. But there’s more to dressing up than just looking the part. You also have to make sure nothing you wear is inhibiting your speech.

Ask yourself some questions:

  • Do your clothes fit?
  • Can you move your arms?
  • Is your hem too high when you walk onstage?
  • Does that necklace hinder your breathing?
  • Does your tie need to be loosened?
  • Are you feeling grounded with your high heels? If not, practice with low heels, then gradually move to the ones you want to wear.

Practicing in your clothes also helps you feel more professional and ups your game.

Arrange Your Notes and Visuals

Before you step up to that lectern, you need to have everything in order. And that includes, of course, what you’re going to be referring to in your whole speech. Have you ever seen speakers fumbling with their notes? Don’t be one of them.

Get organized. Number the pages of your cue cards or speech and organize them in order. You really don’t want to lose your place up there! Get your USB stick, or computer, for your slide show in order. Any other visuals or props should be prepared and ready.

Don’t forget to put everything you need in your bag or briefcase.

Bring Water

You may be presenting at a hotel where you know it has that water jug. You ever hear of Murphy’s law? What if all the water jugs need to be refilled, and that won’t happen until after your presentation?

Being hydrated is the easiest and most often overlooked way to get your body into equilibrium. You will need water. You don’t want to take a glass and go to the bathroom to fill it with water, or ask the hotel staff for some when you only have minutes to present. Pull out that handy water bottle you brought from home. You don’t have to use the expensive brand name bottled water. Nowadays you can buy sleek water bottles that look really snazzy and fill them up yourself.

Arrive Early

You want to get to the venue in plenty of time to be able to check out the place and make sure everything’s as it should be — and if it’s not, you’ll need time to fix that.

Here is your early bird checklist:

  • Introduce yourself to the organizer.
  • Were you planning to use a lectern? Is there one? Do you need to move it?
  • Are the chairs organized so that everyone can see you?
  • Is there a screen to project your visuals?
  • Is there a microphone, and will you need it? Is there a technician to help you? Who will help you if there isn’t a technician?
  • Go ahead and walk on the stage if no one is using it.
  • Move to where you’ll be starting your speech, and to the other areas as well. If you’re really early and no one is there, go ahead and practice your presentation. The more practice you get on the stage, the more comfortable you’ll feel.

Introduce Yourself

Be the early bird, as I say. But you won’t be the only one. There are always a few people who feel they have come early. I have a confession: I am one of them. Even if I’m not the speaker, I like to find a decent place to park, find the venue, get a good seat. I really hate being late for anything, and being early is that antidote.

If you see a few people coming into the space early, don’t despair that now you can’t be alone to check out your space. You’ve taken my advice and got there with time to spare, and these people are doing the same. Maybe they also feel uncomfortable with the venue and wanted to give themselves tons of time to figure it out. Maybe it’s a new topic or there’s a speaker they’re excited about. Maybe they’ve been there all day and come in yacking with the friends they met, or with old friends they haven’t seen in a while. Either way, go over and say hi. Maybe they’ll recognize you from your bio picture (unless you used the one from 20 years and 20 pounds ago — in that case, shame on you, get a new one).

The more people you connect with and establish a relationship with early on, the more comfortable you’ll feel. And they’ll feel a connection with you, too. Be pleasant and polite — don’t complain about the technician or lack of one. They don’t care and don’t know. The technician may have been on a well-deserved break for all you know.

Ask them about themselves. Why are they here, what did they like about the morning session, how was the lunch? If you’re from another city, ask them where you should go for dinner or what you should see while visiting. Compliment them on the flowers around City Hall or the clean streets.

The more comfortable you become before your speech, the more comfortable you’ll be during it.