Be a better public speaker

Most of us, at some point in our professional or personal lives, will be called upon to make a speech. Announcing sales targets for next year. Explaining new product features to the press. Pitching to a potential new client. Toasting the bride and groom.

Some people seem to thrive on these public speaking occasions – practice having made perfect – and have the happy knack of being able to stand up with a microphone and deliver a speech that is engaging, inspiring, funny, memorable, all with seemingly effortless ease.

For most of us, however, public speaking is a bit of an ordeal – not necessarily terrifying, but certainly stressful enough to cause a sleepless night or two, coupled with a strong desire to be anywhere else on earth as the moment of truth draws near.

As part of our media training service, we advise clients not only on the type of message they should be delivering, but also on the practicalities around the delivery itself – how to prepare, how to start (literally), how to overcome any nerves and give a confident, accomplished performance.

And the first thing we say is that nobody is a natural public speaker. Not Michael D. Not David Norris. Not even Obama himself, the undisputed master of the microphone. Standing up and addressing a real-life audience is simply not part of our make-up, or theirs. What they all have in common, however, is that they work at it.

This is something you should be encouraged by. Because it means that with a little work, and a lot of practice, you can become a good public speaker as well. So here are a few practical tips to get you going.

Don’t be afraid to be nervous

If you’re not at least a little nervous before delivering a speech, you might want to check your pulse. Indeed, survey after survey has found that people are generally more afraid of speaking in public than they are of death.

So when someone comes up to you and says “Don’t be nervous!” shortly before you’re due to tap the microphone, ignore them. It is perfectly normal and natural to be nervous; it’s your body’s way of getting you ready, just as an athlete or singer feels nerves before a performance.

Instead of fighting your nerves, accept them as part of the process. They are putting you on your toes, on alert, getting the adrenalin pumping so that you’re physically ready to get up and speak.

At the same time, you don’t want nerves to stifle you, so some deep breaths – in through the nose, suck the air right down into your stomach, out through the mouth, repeat 10 times – will help you master the situation.

Work on your content until you’re content

This is the most important point of all. It’s also what sets the elite speakers apart from the rest – they work and work and work some more on their material.

If you are charged with making a speech, get something down on paper as early as you can – then start refining. Keep it on your mind. Be thinking about it during your off-time – when you’re at the gym, when you’re cooking, when you’re out walking, keep turning it over in your mind.

One of our staff members was best man at a wedding recently and he tells us he started working on his speech a full three months before the wedding! By the time the happy occasion came around, he estimates he was on “draft 11 or 12” and knew his content inside-out, to the point where he was able to get up and deliver a flawless speech.

It makes sense. The more time and effort you put into anything, including a speech, the better it will be. And the happier you are that you’ve got the content right for your audience, the more comfortable you’ll be when the time comes.

Say it loud

Of course, there’s more to a good speech than the contents of the speech. After all the thinking, writing, editing, refining and perfecting comes the physical activity of actually delivering the speech – and there’s a big difference between looking at the words on a screen and standing up to actually speak those words out loud.

Here again, practice and preparation are key. Print out your speech. Grab yourself a can of deodorant (hair spray will also work). Get in front of a mirror. And with ‘microphone’ in hand, start speaking. This is where your speech comes alive, where you start to get a proper feeling for the words and phrases, and how you’re going to deliver them in front of an audience.

As you rehearse your speech for real, you’ll discover which sentences are too long; which combinations of words are potential tongue-twisters; which jokes or serious points need more emphasis; where to slow down and speed up; where you’ll get a chance to pause for breath; how it all hangs together.

Start on your own and graduate to practising in front of other people. Every single time you rehearse your speech will improve the quality of the real thing. So if you practice 50 times, you’ll be 50 times better!

“Ladies and gentlemen…”

Crunch time. But by this stage, you should be thoroughly familiar not only with what you’re going to say, but how you’re going to say it. Not a lot to add at this point, just a few final tips on your delivery:

Start with a smile – give your audience the pearly whites to get your confidence flowing

Em-pha-sise – especially on important points, slow down and pronounce each word carefully

Breathe in, breathe out – a deep breath at every opportunity will keep you on top of things

Maintain eye contact – get your head up and look at the audience as often as possible

Speak, don’t read – you should consult your speech, not look as though you’re reading it out word for word

Keep going – even if you have a stumble, believe in yourself and keep going right until the end