12 Steps to Being a Better Public Speaker

Written by Jermaine Haughton Friday 26 August 2016
From motivating your team to speaking at an industry seminar, public speaking is a task likely to figure prominently in a manager’s career. With stage fright a common obstacle for even the most confident orator, public speaking experts toastmasters intern
Woman in a suit in front of a microphone

1) Speak in Public Whenever You Get a Chance

Unsurprisingly, actually speaking in public is the key first step.

All the planning in the world won’t prepare you for the first time you stand up to speak to a group of people. And remember that nobody delivers a perfect speech; even if you think someone did, that person can probably point out five things they feel like they screwed up on.

Toastmasters International’s Frances Cahill said: “It doesn't matter if it's for 30 seconds or 30 minutes. Even if it's just saying an affirmative 'Yes'. Take that first step. Step forward and take the opportunity. By starting, and breaking through the fear, even for a moment, you’ll find that in no time you will be unstoppable.”

2) Smile

Body language gives the audience vital clues towards how you feel and how they should feel about you.

“Smile and look them in the eye,” Cahill said. “Confidence is contagious. Your listeners will also feel happy and [start] smiling.”

Former American President Bill Clinton provides probably the greatest example of how a wide smile can help wow any crowd during presenting. He smiles during positive points, gestures with his palms for added inflection, and furrows his brows during serious moments.

And when he is making a point, he uses his index finger to tap the podium in front of him.

3) Speak About What You Know

Focus on your topic, rather than worry about your performance. From what beverage to drink to what to wear, there are a number of considerations to make as a public speaker but ultimately your message is what will keep the crowd gripped.

Cahill said: “Your background, your history and your experience are unique. People love to hear others share their unique perspectives. Use material from your past or present as an avenue into your content.

“It allows others to enter your world and experience it through your eyes.”

4) Take Improv Lessons

Fortunately, or perhaps, unfortunately, no public speaker will be left to speak to an audience forever. But the trick is to avoid leaving listeners to feel that you've been speaking for forever.

Therefore, utilising the time available effectively is a valuable tool for great orators

“Leave them gasping for more. Brevity is key,” Cahill said. “You should be able to deliver your message in a few well considered sharp and clear sentences. If you tend to be 'long-winded', you will need to wind it up and cut it down. Keep it snappy, focused and concise.”

Kipp Bodnar, CMO of software firm HubSpot, explained how taking improv classes helped with his timing during speech-making.

“What you learn from improv manifests into your daily habits,” he said. “Whether you’re in a meeting or at a conference, you bake in pauses when you’re talking. You breathe and take your time. You understand how powerful or distracting your movements can be. You stop pacing. You use your hands and facial expressions for impact, not as a crutch.”

5) Sprinkle the Humour

Ever been to an event or awards ceremony or after dinner speech, and seen a comedian, or compère? Yes? This is because the ability to make people laugh and entertain can help interact with the audience and subtlely amplify the impact of your speech.

And while no one expects you to be the Next Louis CK or Stephen Fry, adding personal funny stories, sarcasm and a lighthearted approach will help get people more invested in you and gives them a reason to care when you start to connect.

“Humour brightens up our lives. It also endears us to the speaker and their message,” Cahill said. “Even a hint of humour can put your listeners at ease. However, use it wisely – too much and your message can be lost in the jokes.

“So sprinkle it rather than ladle it.”

6) Use Pictures

Using imagery and props gives your audience something else to catch their attention. Also, depending on how creative one wants to be, images can be not self-explanatory, thus adding another dynamic by leaving the audience to think amongst themselves, “What is that for?”

Why is he/she using this? Why is this relevant? By inviting the thoughts of the listener, skilled presenters often encourage themes and symbolism within the pictures to help convey their key messages professionally.

“A picture speaks a thousand words,” Cahill said. “You can compose word pictures (verbal descriptions that paint vivid pictures) or use actual pictures to clarify or focus your message.

“People love colourful, creative images. Let your visual imagination, flow. You’ll be amazed where it takes you – and your audience.”

7) Play the Act

Everybody gets nervous about something, and for many it’s speaking in front of a crowd of people. One way of battling this is to concentrate on issuing your authority on the task in hand.

Cahill said: “If you still feel your stomach churning and your legs wobbling; act as if you are cool and calm. Don your mask of confidence, smile, look them in the eye and speak. They will never know that inside bubbles volcanic dread ready to erupt but held in check by a cool, calm exterior.”

As journalist and co-author of the book Insider Secrets of Public Speaking Nadine Dereza, notably explained: “ Public speaking is an act of leadership. Although you don’t want to come across as a demagogue, you still have to be very careful about letting anything undermine your authority.

“Know more about the subject than you have put in your speech and be at ease with the subject matter. You are an expert on the topic and your opinion matters.”

8) Find a Mentor

A mentor should be able to help you grow through listening, feedback and advice. Someone who can already do well at what you dread is the ideal mentor, and their experience and skills are just what you need.

9) Be Ambitious

So many presentations are the same. A dreary powerpoint with a typical formatting style, and outline of the speech.

Managers with great public speaking skills can spice up their presentations by thinking outside of the box, and blending into their routine newer ways of interacting and connecting with the listener.

Speaker Michael Port is a good example. During his presentations, he has the audience repeat key messages back to him or make gestures back of the takeaway points of his speech.

This keeps the audience involved, but even more brilliantly, it gives them devices to remember the material.

10) If at First…

As with all skills, practice, practice and more practice is likely to make you an even better public speaker.

Whether you practice in the mirror or to family or record yourself on your phone, find opportunities to practice your speed, cadence and comfort with speaking.

In addition to settling nerves, it can also you help fix any errors in speeches you’ve planned.

“Try and try again,” Cahill said. “Keep on getting up and giving it a go. No matter how badly you feel it went (and it is usually never as bad as you think) – get up, try again and focus on improving through practice.”

11) Travel

Aid your practice by speaking in front of different types of audiences. Whether they are an all-female group or people from another country, speaking to diverse groups will help orators learn how to adapt their speeches to appeal to different demographics.

“Don’t always speak at the same groups. Go to the next town, or visit groups you’ve never met before,” advises Cahill. “This will broaden your physical and mental horizons. It gives you new material, new experiences and new feedback.

“It creates a cycle of expansion that will help you develop your speaking – and your business.”

12) Use 'I'

Don’t forget to speak about yourself. People are listening to you, after all.

Therefore, speaking from a first person perspective at points during the presentation can help open yourself up the public, provide unique insight and show your passion for the topic.

“The 'I' word is powerful. Use it often, but use it judiciously,” Cahill said. “Use it to reach out and connect with your listeners. Use it to express feelings, experiences and thoughts.

“The 'I' comes from your heart, your soul and encapsulates your individuality – the part of your business that no one else can copy.”