In this guide, I’ll show you how to practice public speaking best and make your es unforgettable

Before we get into the specifics of how to practice public speaking we need to look at what I call success criteria. Yes, this does sound very scientific, but you need to understand what it is you want to achieve as part of your practice – after all, there is no career guide for speakers and we have to work hard to improve each and every public presentation we give.

Here are my success criteria:

  1. What? What final outcome am I trying to achieve when I start to practice a public speech? Examples include: entertaining my audience; getting people to sign up for my public speaking coaching programme; creating a huge buzz that generates word-of-mouth recommendations and increasing the audience size of my next public speaking gig.
  2. Specifics? Where do I see both strengths and weaknesses in my talks and how can I improve on them? Stamping those filler words – the umms and errs that slip into my speeches – is vital to improving the flow of my public speaking and improving audience engagement.
  3. Comfort? Do I feel comfortable when I’m speaking? When I practice my public speaking in advance of an event I get a feeling of ease and confidence which shines out when I stand on stage.

This list of tips is only a starter. There are plenty more ways to help improve your presentation, talks and speeches and I’ve linked some of them at the bottom of this post.

Speak often to improve

I’ve covered this topic in my post about How I overcame my fear of public speaking, which I recommend you read if you have any fear or doubts about your ability as a speaker. In the context of today’s conversation, taking time to practice your public speaking often will help remove some of the uncertainties and fears you have about public speaking in general – the more comfortable you are with the subject matter of your presentation, the more confident you’ll feel when those inevitable blips occur (and the faster you’ll improve). I’ve never given a speech where something hasn’t gone wrong and the process of repeated practice has helped me sidestep those moments with ease.

Step by step practices for speakers

Identify the skills you want to practice

A very long time ago, the Prussian General Von Moltke (he aided Lord Wellington in the defeat of Napoleon) said: “No plan survives contact with the enemy…” Well, those weren’t his exact words but they’re pretty close and the meaning is nearly identical. The message he was attempting to give was that our plans will always be jarred and dented by life, and there’s no escaping that fact as it’s nearly impossible for us to control external factors.

But this doesn’t mean we should discard any notion of planning, or practicing.

Instead, create one. A plan gives you a focal point to aim for and when you are knocked off course your plan, and the ultimate aim, will pull you back on track.

How do we apply this to improving these skills and our public speaking? It’s pretty straightforward:

  • Record yourself giving a speech.
  • Review the recording.
  • Identify what you think are weak points in your public speaking skills and make a plan to address each one as individual development points

If you’re feeling really brave, ask a friend or colleague to watch the recording and give tips and feedback. If you’re feeling heroic, give a free presentation or talk and make the audience aware you’re looking for input on specific areas of your speech (I know a few speakers who use this latter tool as a way of identifying the skills that need to be improved).

Note: your public speaking skills include verbal and non-verbal aspects of your presentation i.e. body language, hand gestures, eye contact, etc are all important communication skills to be developed.

Record you speech

Gone are the days when I had to search the web looking for a good quality camera with which to record my talks – my iPhone has all the tools I need to record a speech for review or to post on social media.

Your recording should last about 5 minutes – don’t practice the full speech the first time, that task will come later. Your aim here is to identify areas to be improved. This is how I do it:

  • Positioning. Locate your recording device in a position that captures all of your movements and speaking.
  • Record. Capture 5+ minutes of your speech but, and this is important, DO NOT stop the recording if you make a mistake. Keep going. I record all my mistakes as I’m in a constant cycle of improvement and all feedback is useful.
  • Analyse. Now’s the time to start sifting your presentation, or speech, for areas that can be improved.
    • Look for mistakes that show you don’t fully understand the topic you’re talking about;
    • listen for filler words (the umms and errs that nearly always come when you first start to practice your speeches);
    • ask yourself how you’d feel listening to the speech. When I analyse any of the talks and get the feeling of ‘meh’ this is a good indication it needs some work to give it the zing your listeners will want.

Now that you’ve listened to the playback, it’s time to switch off the audio. I know, you’re probably asking why you’d want to watch a public presentation without hearing what’s being said and how can this help you improve. Well, there’s a very good reason why – a large part of your communication is found not in the words, but in your physical presence and actions and a muted video is a powerful way to analyse how your use your body to carry a message.

Here’s how I do this:

  • Movement. How you move, dominate the stage and use your presence to convey a message forms a huge part of your speaking toolkit and this is why you need to set up your recording device to capture your full body and movement. Ask yourself:
    • do I move about and the use range of my ‘stage’? The key here is to strategically use the stage – make it yours – and shift back and forth, addressing sections of the audience.
    • are any of my movements unnecessary? When I first start speaking I move around a lot – it seemed like the right thing to do but, as I came to learn, moving around when you don’t need to can be distracting for listeners if the movement doesn’t support your talk.
    • when your hands move are they supporting your message? For example, let’s say you’re a scientist and you want to convey the vastness of the universe by spreading your arms

Remember what I said about the power of three? The analyse section of the above tips is a perfect example of how I break down sections of my talks, courses and coaching to help the words and ideas resonate.

Before we move, there is one incredibly important observation you need to make when you’re reviewing your speech: which parts of the talk were solid and flowed, and which sections resonated with you? I find obsessing over mistakes and constantly striving to make a speech ‘perfect’ is draining and does little to help you improve – after all, you’re never going to wow every person in the audience and the best piece of advice I can offer is to make the talk the best you can for the majority of your listeners (and don’t be hard on yourself if ti goes wrong; as public speakers, we’ve all had those moments where things go wrong).

Focus on your communication skillset

As a public speaker, your communication skills are a key area to be developed. I’ve found developing my own style of speaking has given me a huge amount of confidence and allowed me to add flair to my speeches. Here are some of the communications skills I make a point of practicing as often as possible:

  • Speak in simple language. Jargon is great if you’re talking to an audience that uses jargon on a daily basis, but most people either don’t speak this way or don’t want to hear jargon outside the workplace. I use simple words which avoid confusion and help my audiences follow the story without them having to pause and work out what I’m saying.
  • Vocal variety. Match your tone to the talk. In those moments of tension and drama, slow down the rate at which you speak and lower the pitch of your voice. Speed up when you’re excited.
  • Repetition. When I want a particular message to stick in the mind of my listeners, I repeat it over the course of the talk.
  • Make your audience think. But at the end of your talk. I always leave them with a question or thought to chew over after the speech.
  • The power of three. which I didn’t follow in this section! Group your thoughts, observations, questions, etc into groups of three – I’ve found this technique helps listeners to cluster information together making my speeches more memorable, which is what we all want.

Find an audience

Once you’ve run reviewed your video a few times and tweaked your presentation, it’s time to put it in front of an audience and get feedback. You don’t need to carry out this step for every talk you give – but it’s useful if you have people who can offer some of their time to review your speech.

But, who can ask?

  • a trusted group of friends, or work colleagues;
  • a local community group (if you’re religious ask your fellow adherents as they’ve no doubt heard many talks, presentations and sermons over the years and can give amazing advice);
  • family members (these are my last choice, not because I don’t trust them but simply because I find it harder to give a talk in front of my family).

After you’ve run through your presentation or talk, ask people for feedback and, if possible, get it written down (this is my preference, you may differ, as I like to have a reference point from which to work on my public speaking skills).

You should try to improve public speaking in small chunks

When I first started my public speaking journey I was determined to practice the whole presentation, from end to end, and in one run. And that was my biggest mistake. After reading an article on Mindtools, one of the tips I took away was that chunking down each speech into manageable chunks is a more effective way of memorizing and improving the content.

I’d go so far as to say that among all the presentation tools you have available to you, breaking down and practicing your talk is one of the most effective you have to hand if you want to improve and be a truly great speaker.

Don’t forget the core speaking skills every public speaker must learn to be effective and wow their audience

I’ve written a number of other guides to help you on your path to becoming brilliant at public speaking, and I’ve listed these resources at the end of this post. But what other presentation skills can help improve public perception of your talks and have people raving about you?

  • projecting your voice;
  • pauses
  • pacing
  • laughter (a form of engagement)
  • hand gestures.

All of these tips are covered in the following posts:

  • A big guide to the best opening of a speech;
  • how to project your voice – simple tools to take your voice from mouse to lion and wow your audience;
  • how to use hand gestures to enhance your delivery – simple movements of your hands can make or break your presentation;
  • 5 types of engagement to keep your listeners glued to your stories – if you fail to engage, your speeches will crash and burn.
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