How To Become A Better Public Speaker
If you’re looking for a new skill to develop this year, you may want to consider working on your public speaking.
It’s a valuable talent, because it can be used anywhere, with little notice and requires no external equipment.
It’s a skill that won’t get replaced by a robot – in fact technology has made it more important than ever.
The benefits of speaking well are obvious.
The bigger, unseen reward is the removal of fear and anxiety – not wanting to curl up into a ball at the prospect of talking into a microphone.
Jerry Seinfeld famously noted that public speaking is our most common fear, even more than death:
“This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy”
Good speakers get nervous.
So they should.
It’s an art, and it’s worth doing properly.
Nerves keep you sharp.
Anxiety is different. It makes you underestimate your talent and overstates your flaws.
This guide is designed to remove anxiety, and help you say “Yes” to speaking opportunities.
This is not a generic list, it’s a collection on the best advice I’ve received that I personally use.
I hope it makes your life easier and your speeches memorable.
The Three Rules Of Public Speaking (according to my dad)
1. Be Interesting
2. Be Interesting
3. Be Interesting
If you’re planning a talk that you know isn’t interesting, strongly reconsider.
If you can’t make the talk interesting, think harder and more creatively.
If you STILL can’t make it work, politely decline.
Nobody is impressed by you standing at the front of the room, making our eyes glaze over. Your ego does not permit you to waste our time.
What Is The Purpose Of My Talk?
There are three potential purposes, and you can have more than one.
1. To persuade the audience of something
2. To entertain the audience and delight them
3. To inform the audience of something they need to know
By keeping this at the front of your mind while writing your talk, you prevent yourself from rambling or missing the mark.
If you can’t see your purpose listed above, please reconsider your talk.
When Nervous, Speak Slower and Louder
When we’re nervous, we tend to rush through the talk. To counteract this natural tendency, we need to deliberately slow down our pace, letting each sentence sink in.
We also instinctively talk softly. Again, this strains the audience’s attention.
The antidote is counterintuitive – the more nervous you are, the louder you should talk.
This gives the illusion of confidence, captures the crowd’s attention, and gives you some early momentum.
Plan Your Hands
Everyone plans their lines and their slides.
People forget about their hands. What will they be doing at each stage of the talk?
Resting creepily somewhere on your body?
Waving around like mad?
When used properly, hands can emphasise a point, and guide attention.
If you don’t want to do that, at the very least create a quick plan for not looking weird.
First and Last
There are two parts of your talk that require a disproportionate amount of your attention:
The opening line, and the closing line.
The opening line matters, because the audience gives you about 5-15 seconds to see if you’re worth listening to. Everyone has a phone, so you need to be more interesting than Facebook Messenger or they’ll tune out.
It also builds momentum and confidence, especially if you can start with a relevant joke or intriguing question.
The closing line matters because it gives you a way of getting off the stage in a dignified way. Have you ever heard a great speaker end with “So, um, yeah”?
This is also your chance to tell your audience what you’d like them to do next.
Write out each of these lines in advance. You can improvise in the middle, as long as you have these two lines down pat.
This one should be obvious, but it’s not.
Put the punchline at the end of the joke.
The key to a good story is knowing which details add warmth, and which details distract from the point.
A good rule of thumb – focus more on the characters’ emotions and less on technical details.
See if you can cut 50-100 words from the story, you’ll be surprised and how little you need to make your point.
Assume Your Tech Will Fail
Videos and projectors are a bonus. If they work, great. If not, ensure your talk is robust enough that you can verbally explain the point if the tech fails.
I famously got this wrong at a TDi event three years ago – the venue Wi-Fi dropped out, and my video didn’t play. 45 excruciating seconds of me fumbling around trying to fix it. I should have binned the segment immediately.
From now on, all videos are files not streams, and they’re a luxury not a necessity.
Practice Out Loud
Your writing style and your presentation style are subtly different. You’ll discover this the first time you read your talk out loud.
Let’s hope it’s not on the stage.
By practicing out loud, you become comfortable with the material, pick up mistakes, and learn how long each section takes.
Once you’re comfortable, consider practicing in front of a few friends, preferably friends who are better speakers than you as they make great suggestions.
30% vs 90% Feedback
It’s good to clarify what sort of practice feedback you’re after.
30% feedback is when you’re still deciding on what content to include or cut, rather than where you’re standing.
90% feedback is when the content is set, and you’re looking for feedback on style, rather than a different idea for the talk.
This avoids frustration and offence for both you and your friends.
TED and Stand Up
The best public speakers are either doing TED talks, or are doing Stand Up comedy specials.
You should watch a tonne of them.
Not because you’ll imitate them, but because they spark random creative ideas, and help you develop a better gut sense of what works.
Good luck, let your nerves inspire you to plan your words carefully, and leave your audience delighted.