The keys to becoming a good public speaker are thorough preparation, careful planning, and frequent practice. Start by speaking to small groups of friends on a topic you know well and care deeply about; the more you practice this, the easier it will become. Work on improving your memory so that you can speak naturally and in a conversational tone without having to refer to notes. Realize, too, that persistence is essential. Allow your personality to shine through when you speak, and make sure the setting is one where your audience can focus on you and not be distracted.
Start your speech by arousing your audience’s curiosity, tell a story, or ask a question. Keep their interest by appealing to their interests, using human interest stories to get your points across, and giving colorful descriptions. Close your speech with a summary of your key points, an appeal for action, or a joke that leaves them laughing.
Finally, pay attention to your vocabulary. Boost your command of language by making use of the dictionary and Thesaurus, and getting acquainted with the great writers of literature. Following these tips and techniques will allow anyone to become a confident public speaker.
Time and again people shy away from the challenge of giving a public speech, fearing that they cannot face such a challenge. The reality is that everyone initially is nervous about public speaking, but anyone can learn to overcome this fear and deliver well-crafted and exciting speeches with confidence.
Gaining the self-confidence and courage to be able to think clearly while talking to a group of people is not nearly as difficult as most people believe. It is not a gift enjoyed by only a few; it is a skill, like the ability to play golf. Anyone can develop that talent if they desire it. After all, there’s no reason why you cannot think just as clearly standing in front of a group as you can while lying down. If anything, the presence of other people should spur you to function at a higher level. The key point to remember is that training and practice will wear away your stage fright and give you self-confidence.
It is also important to remember that even the most eloquent of speakers were often plagued with fear and self-doubt at the start of their speaking careers. Mark Twain himself has said that the first time he stood up to deliver a lecture, his mouth felt as if it were filled with cotton and his heart was racing. Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, a noted speaker, said he would rather have led a cavalry charge than faced speaking in parliament for the first time. And, two thousand years ago the immortal Roman orator Cicero wrote that any public speaker worth listening to was afflicted with nervousness.
To learn how to be a successful public speaker, four things are essential:
- Resolve: have a strong, persistent desire to achieve your goal; think about what it will mean to you, both personally and financially; imagine the satisfaction of learning this new skill.
- Know what you will talk about: to quote Teddy Roosevelt in his Autobiography, “Don’t speak until you are sure you have something to say, and know just what it is.”
- Act confident: the best way to develop courage in front of an audience is to act as if you already have it. It also helps to take a few deep breaths before you begin speaking, to get the oxygen flowing to your brain. Stand tall, look your audience in the eyes, and don’t fidget.
- Practice: nothing eases the fear of public speaking like doing it repeatedly. Pick a topic that you know something about, put together a three-minute talk, practice it by yourself a few times, then practice it with a group of friends.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PREPARATION
The best way to overcome your fear of public speaking is to be thoroughly well prepared. This means assembling your thoughts, ideas, and convictions. The best talks happen when the speaker draws on his/her own feelings.
When he was working on an important speech, President Lincoln would think about the topic as he went about his daily work. He would stop to jot down notes on any scrap of paper he could find, until he was ready to sit down and study them all. He reportedly mulled over the text of his famous Gettysburg Address for days, then wrote out a rough draft and carried it around in the top of his tall hat. He kept thinking about the speech and tweaking the phrasing until the morning of its delivery.
Not all of President Lincoln’s speeches were a great success, but those that resonate the most were the ones where he spoke with conviction about subjects that he cared about deeply—the abolition of slavery and the preservation of the Union. These were topics that he thought about constantly, and his passion and conviction carried through into his speeches.
To practice speaking, pick any topic that interests you. Spend some days mulling it over; talk about the topic with your friends. The aim is not to bore everyone with an abstract lecture, but to engage them with a topic you genuinely find interesting. As you prepare your practice talk, think about your audience and want they may want.
Research your topic. Most of the material you gather won’t be used in your talk; but, the more you know on the subject, the more confidence you will feel, and the more force you can bring to your speech. This extra material will become your ‘reserve power.’
Start with a plan. No-one would attempt to build a house without some sort of plan; a speech deserves the same. Think of the speech as a voyage that must be charted. There are a number of different ways to structure a speech. Here are three examples:
1. The action seeker
- State your facts
- Argue from them
- Appeal for action
2. Show that something is wrong
- Show problem
- Show how to remedy it
- Ask for involvement
3. The educator
- Gain the audience’s interest and attention
- State facts and educate the audience about the merits of your proposition
- Appeal to the motives that will make the audience act
THINGS TO REMEMBER
There are no ironclad rules for how to arrange your ideas and construct your talk; it depends on the subject and the audience. But there are some general rules of thumb:
- Cover a point thoroughly then move on; do not refer to it again.
- Help the audience to visualize your facts; instead of saying, “This is a very large city,” say “The city is the size of Boston, Paris, and Berlin combined.”
- Build up to some kind of climax—touch the heart, make an emotional appeal, issue a call to action.
- Deliver your speech with enthusiasm and conviction.
- Hone your speech; keep polishing it until all the waste is gone and only the best points remain.
- Avoid using notes while you talk; if you absolutely have to, refer to your notes briefly but try not to make it obvious to your audience.
- Do not memorize your talk word-for-word; the delivery will be too dry. Instead, have your main points clearly in mind and fill in with examples and illustrations.
- Above all, practice!
IMPROVING YOUR MEMORY
There are only two ways to remember something: an external prompt or association. When it comes to memorizing the key points for your speech, you can use an external prompt in the form of referring to your notes; but as has already been pointed out, that will really detract from your presentation. The best way to remember your points it to memorize them.
There are three natural laws of remembering; every so-called ‘memory system’ is based on these three laws.
Start by getting a deep and vivid impression of the thing you want to remember. Concentrate and observe closely. Use as many of your senses as possible—this might mean taking note of a scent or the feel of something. It might mean reading a passage aloud so you hear the words as well as read them. Above all, form pictures in your mind to visualize the thing you are trying to remember.
Anything can be memorized if it is repeated often enough. The key is to go over the passage you want to memorize once or twice, then take a break and come back to it again later.
The only way to remember something is to associate it with something else. Remember a person’s name by associating it with his face or occupation; come up with a nonsense phrase that will trigger the association for you. Remember a date by associating it with something else that also happened at that time. To memorize a string of facts, like the order in which the original thirteen colonies joined the Union, tie them into a story that is easier to recall.
When it comes to preparing a speech, association will be your best tool. Arrange your points into a logical order, then use association to remember them. Any group of ideas can be linked together into a story or sequence of mental pictures; the more ridiculous, the easier they will be to remember.
PERSISTENCE IS KEY
One of the most important things to bear in mind as you study the art of public speaking is the necessity of persistence. As with learning any new skill, after swiftly conquering the lower slopes of the mountain there will come a time when you reach a plateau, a feeling that you have stalled and are not making any new progress. Don’t give up!
You may always be somewhat nervous before speaking in public. With perseverance, however, you will learn to eliminate all but these initial moments of anxiety. Once you start speaking, this fear will evaporate.
A young man once asked President Lincoln for advice on becoming a lawyer. Lincoln replied: “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.” President Teddy Roosevelt took this advice to heart; he said that whenever he faced a difficult challenge or task and started to feel discouraged, he would look up at the portrait of Lincoln hanging in the President’s office and try to imagine what Abe would have done in his place.
Thousands of men and women conquer their fears and learn how to be excellent public speakers. Most of them are not exceptionally brilliant; they are the kinds of ordinary people you will find in your own hometown. The one thing they do have in common is persistence: they did not get discouraged but pursued their goal with grit and determination.
Learning any new skill is never a process of gradual improvement. Whether you are learning to speak another language or to play golf, the learning comes in fits and starts. So, too, with becoming a successful speaker.
THE SECRETS OF GOOD DELIVERY
The secret to delivering a good speech is communication. The speaker should not sound like someone who has taken a training course in public talking. Rather, the audience must feel as though something important is being communicated right from the heart and mind of the speaker in the most natural way possible. In other words, the secret to a good speech is not just what you say, it’s how you say it.
Training people to speak naturally is mostly about removing barriers, so that they can speak with the same ease as in any spontaneous social situation. The way to achieve this naturalness is to put your heart into your talks, and to practice speaking in a natural style. The essence of a good delivery is to use a conversational tone; talk to your audience as though you expect them to stand up and talk right back to you.
FOUR PRINCIPLES OF NATURAL SPEAKING
1. Stress important words
In conversation, we naturally stress one syllable in a word and skip over the rest fairly quickly: MassaCHUsetts, enVIRonment, etc. We do almost the same thing in uttering a sentence, placing emphasis on the major, important words: I have SUCCEEDED because I have been DETERMINED.
Different speakers or topics may call for a different emphasis; the key is to stress the important words in your sentences.
2. Vary your pitch
When we’re having a conversation, the pitch of our voices naturally flows up and down. If you deliver a talk in a monotone you will sound wooden, rather than natural and human. You can make any word or phrase stand out in your talk by raising or lowering your pitch.
3. Vary your speed
This is another example of how we speak in ordinary conversation—we constantly and unselfconsciously vary our rate of speech. If you want to emphasize a word or idea, isolate it from the rest of your speech by drawing it out, saying it slowly and with feeling.
If you say the phrase “thirty million dollars” quickly, it sounds trivial; if you say it slowly, your audience will be impressed by what a big number this is.
4. Pause before and after important ideas
This is a trick that President Lincoln often used in his most effective speeches. He would stop and stand silent for a moment, gaze out at his audience, and then make his point. Invariably, the audience would be rapt with attention, waiting to hear what he had to say.
Similarly, he would pause after the phrases he wanted to emphasize, letting the meaning sink in for a moment and so adding force to his words.
Practice this natural way of speaking in your everyday conversations, and then carry this style over into your speeches.
PERSONALITY AND PRESENCE
Personality is perhaps the most important factor of all in delivering a good speech. Personality is a complicated thing; a combination of particular physical and mental traits, predilections, tendencies, experience, and background. Nevertheless, it is important to allow your own unique personality to shine through in your speeches. There are a number of ways to ensure this happens.
- Be well rested. No-one can be a magnetic or engaging speaker if s/he is exhausted.
- Avoid a heavy meal right before speaking; if you’re full of steak, potatoes, and dessert your brain will be sluggish and so will your personality.
- Look well groomed. If you stand before your audience looking sloppy and disorganized, your audience will not take you or your words seriously.
- Smile! Let your audience know that you are glad to be there; they will warm to you and be more receptive to hearing what you have to say.
- In addition to these tips about your own personality, pay some attention to the physical location where you will be speaking.
- Crowd the audience together. No-one will be moved or engaged if the audience is scattered around in an open space. Better to have people packed in the aisles of a small room than sprinkled around a large one. If necessary, take a few minutes before you start speaking to encourage your audience to move to the front and be seated near you.
- Keep the air fresh. A stuffy room will send people to sleep no matter how dynamic your talk. Open a window if you have to.
- Light up your face. If you deliver your speech in a gloomy room, the audience will not be enthusiastic about what you have to say. Make sure the light is on you, so that the audience can see your features and react to your expressions.
- Don’t fidget. An audience will look at any moving object, so resist the temptation to twiddle your thumbs, fuss with your clothes, or play with a pen and paper.
- Minimize clutter. Don’t crowd out your space with a table, chairs, water pitcher, or other distractions. Use a podium if it helps you feel less nervous when you are first learning to give speeches, but it is better not to stand behind furniture when you talk. The best backdrop for your talk is something simple so that the audience’s focus is on you.
- Avoid guests on the platform. Another person will distract your audience; they will be paying attention to his appearance or to her fidgeting, instead of to you.
- If possible, seat your audience so that they will not be distracted by any late arrivals coming into the room.
Many of the previous tips can be summarized by one word: poise. Fussing with your clothes is not only distracting, it makes you look weak. Instead, face your audience with calm confidence. As you take your place to speak, pause for a moment to let both your audience and your own thoughts settle down. Stand tall with your arms hanging naturally at your sides.
Finally, avoid making unnatural gestures. Some guides to public speaking urge you to learn a set of gestures as part of your speech; but these invariably end up looking wooden and forced. Nevertheless, there are some things about gestures that you should bear in mind.
- Do not keep repeating the same gesture; it will become monotonous.
- Avoid short, jerky movements from the elbow; movements from the shoulder look better from a platform.
- Do not end your gestures too abruptly; that looks jarring to the audience.
Above all, a gesture is not something you put on like a jacket; it should be spontaneous and natural, something that arises from the flow of your words and the passion that you feel for your subject.
STARTING A SPEECH
For generations teachers of speech have encouraged their students to divide their presentations into three parts: introduction, body, and conclusion. Often the introduction became as long as the body of the speech, an opening salvo of entertainment and news. In our faster-paced world, however, we do not have the leisure to listen to long introductions; so, if you are going to use one in your talk, make it short and snappy.
PITFALLS TO AVOID
Many inexperienced speakers start with either a joke or a self-deprecating apology. Both are poor ways to begin a speech.
1. Avoid Jokes
Most speakers think they have to be funny for a speech to be a success, but the sad fact is that 99 out of 100 speakers will do a woefully poor job when it comes to telling a funny story. It is better to think of humor as the frosting on the cake or the filling between the layers, not as the cake itself.
2. Avoid Apologies
Do not open your speech by saying something like, “I am no speaker…” or “I’m really not prepared for this…” You may think you are buying the audience’s sympathy, but in fact you are telling them there is no point in paying attention to what you are about to say. The audience is there to be informed and interested, not to be told that you don’t know what you are doing.
There are a number of different tactics that you can use in your opening remarks, ways to engage your audience from the very beginning of your speech.
1. Arouse their curiosity
There are many ways to do this. You could start with a surprising fact, or an opening sentence that begs for more information: “I was walking down Main Street this morning when I saw a man dressed like a king.” Your audience is now wondering, who was he? Why was he dressed that way? Where was he going?
Similarly, start by describing an effect, so that the audience wonders what the cause might be: “A member recently stood up in the legislature and proposed a law that would prohibit tadpoles from turning into frogs within two miles of a school.” The audience now wonders, is this true? Why would someone propose such a thing?
2. Begin with a story
This is particularly effective if you are drawing on something from your own experience. It also works well if the story has some form of action. The idea is to engage the audience from the outset and, again, to arouse their curiosity. “Three nights ago, a man was shot in the street outside my house.” Now your audience is waiting with baited breath to hear what happened next.
3. Start with a specific illustration or use an exhibit
It’s tough to follow abstract ideas for a prolonged period; any audience will get restless after a while. It is a lot easier to pay attention to an illustration. Similarly, you can begin by holding up something for the audience to look at. “Has anyone ever found a coin like this on the sidewalk?”
4. Ask a question
Opening with a question lets the audience think with the speaker; it gains their cooperation.
5. Target the audience’s personal interests
Get their attention from the start with something the audience will care about deeply. “Do you know how long statistics say you are expected to live?” You could introduce a talk about the importance of preserving forest land by saying something like, “What I am about to discuss will affect your businesses, the price of the food you eat, the very quality of the air you breath.”
6. Use shocking facts
Start with a surprising or shocking fact to get your audience’s attention: “Slavery still exists in 17 countries in the world today.”
7. The casual opening
Finally, there is the opening that starts on a very casual and personal note: “Yesterday, as the train passed through a city not far from here, I was reminded of a marriage that took place there a few years ago.” This opening sounds natural and spontaneous, as if the speaker were telling a story to a friend.
ENDING A SPEECH
In many ways, the ending is the most strategically important part of a speech. It certainly needs to be as carefully planned and thought out as the opening. If you end with, “That’s all I have to say so I’ll stop now,” or even worse just keep rambling on without knowing how to stop, you will leave the audience with a bad impression that ruins all the work you put into the rest of your talk.
Here are some ideas for how to plan your closing remarks.
- Summarize your points. Even a short speech will likely have included a lot of information. Remind your audience of your key points with a succinct outline summary.
- Make an appeal for action. “I urge you, ladies and gentlemen, to support this proposal.”
- End with a compliment, something that appeals to your audience’s vanity. Just make sure that it is sincere and not a gross piece of flattery.
- Be humorous; leave them laughing if you can, without it seeming forced.
- Close with a poetic quotation. The public library or Bartlett’s Quotations are good sources.
- Build up to a climax. This isn’t appropriate for every speaker or subject, but if it works this is a very effective way to wrap up a speech.
However you choose to close your speech, always aim for brevity. Leave the audience wanting more.
MAKE YOUR MEANING CLEAR
Every speech has one of four goals:
- To make something clear
- To convince the audience
- A call to action
Aiming for clarity can be the most challenging goal. To help make your meaning clear to your audience, consider the following techniques:
- Use comparisons: if you’re talking about a very large building, say it is as large as two US Capitol buildings stacked atop each other.
- Avoid technical terms: this is particularly important if you are a lawyer, doctor, engineer or from some other profession that tends to use a lot of jargon that is meaningless to the general public.
- Make sure what you are trying to explain is very clear in your own mind.
- Use visual cues, such as illustrations or exhibits, if appropriate; if not, paint a mental picture of the scene or object you are trying to describe.
- Restate your big ideas (but not repetitively, use different phrasing and examples).
- Use concrete examples: if you are describing how much money professional athletes can make, cite how much specific well-known individuals earn in a year.
- Don’t try to cover too many points; your audience will get lost.
- Close with a brief summary of your main points.
INTEREST THE AUDIENCE
Whatever your topic or the overall structure of your speech, you must be sure to keep the interest of the audience. There are a number of ways to do this.
The best way to win your audience’s interest is to relate your speech to something they understand. An Illinois farmer may not care much for a description of the great cathedral at Bourges, but will likely play close attention to a description of farming techniques in the Netherlands.
The art of being a good conversationalist depends on getting the other person to talk about his interests or her business, his children or her success. Similarly, when giving a speech, talking in a way that appeals to people’s own experiences will better engage your audience.
Talk about people. Rather than present a lot of dry facts in the style of a lecture, tell stories about specific people to illustrate your points. Human interest stories can enliven any topic. A story about someone beating the odds or battling against great adversity can be particularly appealing.
Be concrete. Rather than just describing someone as a troublemaker, say that as a child he invariably got a detention every day at school.
Scatter word pictures throughout your speech. Give the audience colorful images and impressions.
IMPROVE YOUR VOCABULARY
The final step in learning how to be an effective public speaker is to improve your vocabulary and diction. We are all judged and evaluated by what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it. The best prepared speech will not be a success if the speaker makes no attempt to polish his/her phrases or to speak spotless sentences.
The secret to boosting your vocabulary and improving your diction is simple: books! Read voraciously and widely; soak your mind in a constant flow of literature. Read Shakespeare aloud to improve your style. Copy written passages that exemplify good phraseology. Above all, cut back on reading newspapers and substitute the great works of literature. Be sure to read Tess of the D’Urbevilles by Thomas Hardy, one of the most beautiful tales ever written, and make the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson part of your daily diet.
The well-known writer Mark Twain developed his famous facility with words by carrying a dictionary with him on his travels and studying it regularly. In this way, you can learn not just the meaning of words, but their history and derivation. For example, the word salary comes from the Roman word for salt; Roman soldiers were given an allowance for salt, which became known as the salarium, a piece of Roman slang that became the modern word.
Breadth of vocabulary will also bring richness and interest to your speeches. A speaker who repeatedly uses the adjective “beautiful” will come across as dull and uninteresting. There are plenty of synonyms that could be used instead: handsome, comely, radiant, pretty, lovely, graceful, elegant, and many others. Roget’s Thesaurus is an excellent resource to use for expanding your vocabulary.
Finally, beware of using worn-out phrases that lack originality. Everyone says, “cool as cucumber,” a common-place phrase. Try saying something like “cold as clay” or “cool as the rain in fall” instead.