Public speaking. Something most of us dread, but something almost all of us must do in our lives. Several people have written to me and asked me to write a post on how to improve their public speaking skills. I am by no means an expert on this topic, but over the years I think I have gained insight into public speaking and what makes someone an effective communicator. Speaking in front of a group of people can feel scary—especially if you are a naturally shy person.
Looking back on my own public speeches, I realized that there were certain public speaking skills I wish I knew before doing mine. My first major speaking engagement was back in 2009. During that time, I took part in an internship where I was conducting neuroscience research. At the end of the internship I had to take part of a research symposium—which meant giving a presentation on my findings in front of a room full of people, including a few neuroscience professors. I was beyond nervous!
Since then I think I’ve improved my public speaking skills, which is why I want to share my thoughts with you about this subject. I’ve also made a video about this topic so I could clearly demonstrate some of the tips I was explaining in this post. Scroll to the bottom to watch it!
1. Start by preparing and practicing
This is the most important step! Without proper preparation for your public speech you will never be able to improve your public speaking skills. This part is absolutely essential and must be done. Of course I’ve heard people who say they can just wing a public speech but I honestly don’t truly believe that. If you want to engage and captivate your audience, then you need to prepare the nitty gritty details beforehand.
The best way to do this is by properly organizing your thoughts into an outline. Start by focusing on how you will open your speech. This is the time you have to capture the audience’s attention right away.
Another important thing to add to your outline is to make sure you have smooth transitions between topics. There is nothing more chaotic than hearing a public speaker have no transitions between their speech! Without clear transitions, the listeners cannot follow what you are speaking about.
The last thing to add to your outline is your closing. The closing is equally as important as the opening! This is a good time for you to wrap up and leave your audience remembering you and what you were speaking about. This is a good time for you to connect with the audience. Engage and be friendly!
So after you’ve got your preliminary outline, you need to go back and fill in the material you will be speaking about. I understand this is not easy, but it is a completely necessary component. If you have a PowerPoint presentation to go along with your speech, then it is a bit easier to combine everything you want to talk about into the topic. If not, write a few flashcards about what you want to say.
Then you need to practice. By practice, I do not mean memorizing or reading from your notes. There is nothing more robotic than seeing a public speaker do that! Practicing means that you should be able to go through your speech naturally with only needing a couple of cues to help you remember what you want to say. You should have a few keywords that help you remember exactly what you want to speak about.
Please don’t rely on your PowerPoint either! I’ve definitely witnessed people having technical difficulties with their projector during a slideshow. There is nothing more embarrassing than not having anything to say without your computer. Print out your PowerPoint or just carry some notes with you in case this happens.
Keep practicing until you feel comfortable giving the speech. It may help to practice your speech out loud a few times in front of close friends of family members beforehand.
2. Make sure you tailor your message to the audience
You want to make sure whatever you are speaking about is something that will be compelling and interesting to your audience. Here are some questions to help you brainstorm about the audience:
Will the audience be mostly women or men? How old are they? How many people will be there? How much does the audience know about the topic? Will there be any experts watching this speech? These kinds of questions should help you to prepare.
If for some reason you do have an expert in the audience, don’t be alarmed! When I was giving my neuroscience presentation I definitely had some experts in the room. I was just a beginning researcher at that time, so I made sure to adequately prepare. Having an expert in the room just means you need to be properly prepared and be able to address any questions that come up confidently!
3. Learn to deeply breathe for confident public speaking
Something that has truly transformed my public speaking is the fact that I became conscious of my breath. This is one of the best tips I can pass onto you.
Often times when we get nervous or breathing becomes very quick and shallow. This is the opposite of what you should be doing before and during a public speech. Our voice can easily convey if we are nervous or confident; breathing properly will help you to truly appear more confident.
Becoming consciously aware of your breath is something you want to do a few weeks before having to do public speaking. The reason is because this does require a bit of training. You can start by learning the difference between shallow breathing and deep breathing. If you are unsure I made a YouTube video about mindful breathing which you can check out here.
To breathe deeply you want to start practicing with taking about eight slow, steady and deep breaths. As a beginner, it might help you to mentally count your in breath and your out breath. At first, this might seem a bit difficult, but over time it will get easier and easier! I can guarantee you that after a few weeks you will start to do this naturally. Again, if you are unsure how to do this just check out my YouTube video I linked in the paragraph above!
Being able to recognize that you are having shallow breathing due to the fact that you are feeling nervous will help you take control of your breath before or during a public speech. If you learn to become aware of your shallow breathing, you will be able to learn to focus on slow, deep breaths. This in turn will make you feel more calm and confident.
4. Focus on your body language to improve your public speaking skills
When you are practicing for your public speech you should be focusing on your body language as well. Tall and upright posture is something that conveys you are confident. I used to naturally slump—like most of us often do—until I started doing yoga. There is a posture in yoga called Mountain Pose which helps you to stand upright properly. I definitely suggest trying it to help improve your posture. Here you can see a YouTube video from Yoga Journal on how to do it.
It is also important to make sure you are not standing statically in one area of the room, but moving around. Not frantic movement, but calm and fluid movement. This will help keep your audience engaged.
In addition, gestures will help you to really convey the topics you are speaking about. You must be mindful to not cross your arms, or stand with your arm behind your back. Try to keep your arms neutral, and let your natural gestures flow from you. I’ve demonstrated what I mean in the video I made for this post, just scroll to the bottom to see it!
Finally, it is super important to maintain eye contact with people while giving you speech. If you are an introvert like me, this can seem like a challenge at first! You’ve probably heard the trick to look at the back of the room or focus on the forehead of another person. I would suggest not doing these things. People can usually sense when you are not making eye contact with them. It might work if you are in a large audience, but definitely not in a small one.
Instead try to practice making and maintaining eye contact with people you are comfortable with. Then you can practice with other people—like the cashier at a store or a colleague at work. Just keep practicing and be patient with yourself. Over time making and maintaining eye contact will become a natural thing for you to do.
5. Dress for the part
Plenty of eyes will be on your when giving a public speech, so you want to dress for the part. What you will be wearing is going to depend on where you will be speaking. This goes back to knowing your audience and using that information to help you gauge what you should wear.
In general, clothing should be moderate—especially for the ladies. Nothing too tight or showy. Of course, you also want to make sure your clothing is comfortable. I can speak from experience that I bought clothes before giving a public speech before—including a new pencil skirt and heels. But, what I did beforehand was break the clothes in; I didn’t buy them only to wear them on the day of my speech. That could have been a total disaster, especially with the heels! So if you plan on buying clothes or shoes beforehand, make sure you break them in.
6. Embrace your inner actor or actress
My mom gave me this tip once for days I was feeling really shy and having a hard time communicating with people. She just said, “pretend you are an actress” until you feel more comfortable in the setting you are in. It has totally helped me! So maybe it will help you, too.
Now, I’m not saying that you should start your public speech copying Audrey Hepburn’s every move and gesture. But, I am saying that you should embrace that inner actor or actress inside of you. At the end of the day, public speaking is really a performance. So if you find yourself really nervous and uncomfortable before giving a speech just imagine yourself in a theatrical performance and you just need to go out and deliver your lines. If you prepared yourself beforehand, then this is just show time! You can do it!!
7. Don’t forget to smile
Often times when we are nervous, we forget to just relax and smile. It’s so important to convey warmth and friendliness to and audience and you can do this by simply smiling. My suggestion would be to flash your smile at the beginning of your speech. It will help relax you, and also help the audience to connect with you. Remember how important first impressions are!
During your speech it is also a good idea to smile throughout. Make it as natural as possible; you will know when the right time is. If you are carrying cue cards with you then it might be a good idea to write in “pause” after certain segments. This gives you a moment to reconnect with the audience and show your beautiful smile.
8. Be prepared for questions
I once gave a public speech that I totally nailed. Then at the end I was asked a tricky question I wasn’t prepared for. My face turned red and I fumbled over the question. It completely derailed my presentation. Learn from my mistake—don’t do what I did!
You must be totally prepared for questions that may come up. I understand you can’t prepare for every single thing that someone may ask you, but you definitely want to be prepared for anything directly related to your speech.
How about a question you can’t answer? I would probably handle the question by saying something like this:
That is a great question! That isn’t my field of expertise, but I’d love to research that question for you and get back to you as soon as I can. (I would also tell them to either stay after my speech so they could give me their email or business card.)
There are plenty of other strategies on how to handle questions you don’t know, so you just have to find a method that works for you. If you really don’t know the answer, I find it’s best just to be honest and tell them you will research it and get back to them.
On the other hand, if the question directed to me was in my area of expertise, then I would try to answer the best of my ability. Looking back to that tricky question I received a few years ago, I know it was something I could have answered. Maybe not 100% but definitely enough to appease the person asking! But, in that moment I panicked because I thought I didn’t know the answer and that I wasn’t prepared enough to answer it. If you ever face a moment like that, take a moment and just breathe! It will help you to collect your thoughts and come up with a logical answer.
9. Incorporate fun elements like stories or Q&A time
Don’t make your speech so dry you put your audience to sleep! I love to start out presentations with a question because it really gets people thinking about the topic. In this way, I’ve engaged the audience from the very beginning. Alternatively, you can incorporate question and answer time throughout your presentation. This will help you to keep the audience’s attention on the topic, and allow them to take part as well.
Another method is to use stories to demonstrate a point in your presentation. People are usually captivated by the story you are telling, which in turn keeps them engaged and listening. I also find it fun to tell stories from my life during a public speech. It breaks up the monotonous speech into something a little more fun!
10. Just be you
So, the last tip is just a little reminder to just be yourself when speaking in front of others! When you get up to give a speech you don’t want to pretend you are someone you are not. The audience will be able to sense if you are not being genuine. If you are able to just be yourself during a public speech you will feel more relaxed and be able to truly engage with the audience.