Public speaking tips – 7 essential public speaking skills
Public speaking is a skill you can learn fast so let’s explore those skills, tip by tip
There’s a lot of confusion about what it means to be a public speaker and how to give the best performance each and every time. I’ve been giving speeches for over 7 years now to companies such as Microsoft, Carlson Wagonlit, charities and schools and during that time I’ve learned that giving the very best presentation can ensure you get invited back to give more speeches. In this post, I’m going to break down what I’ve come to learn the most effective tips for improving your public speeches, and I’ll do this tip by tip.
The most powerful tool a speaker has
Of all the public speaking tips best learned is presence. But what is presence? Think of it as being a little larger than life; when you step on stage and before you even warm up your audience you need them to know you’re in the room. But how do you improve your presence? By being bold. Let me explain how I do this.
Picture two scenarios:
You’re sat in the audience waiting for a speaker to come on stage – let’s call him ‘Roger’. There’s a hint of excitement in the air. You know the speech headline, which gives you a taste of the adventures Roger has been on but he’s late on stage and when he arrives he shuffles, hunched over, and speaks in a low, monotone voice. The opening is flat and the story he tells is uninspiring. How would you feel? Annoyed that you’ve wasted your time and possibly money to listen to his dull speech? That’s not the kind of speaker you want to be. Now let’s flip this and looked how a speaker with real presence acts.
You’re sat in the audience once more. The memories of Roger have faded and you’ve come to hear his arch-rival, Basil, speak about how he overcame crippling nervousness to become one of the top public speaking experts in the world. This is a public speaking presentation that resonates with you. Basil strides onto the stage, his head held high and his lips spread in a broad smile. The information you crave is spoken fast and slow, the tempo changing with each flex of his story until your head spins. Basil speaks to the audience and pulls them in, getting members to nod their heads and repeat some of his affirmations. An hour passes in what feels like minutes and you can’t help but feel Basil is the best speaker you’ve ever heard. That’s what we call presence.
But don’t panic! Your first speech doesn’t need to knock the socks off your audience, and it’s unlikely to. I know because I’ve been there = my very first presentation was a near-disaster but the changes I needed to make were easy to learn and put into action, and you can do this too. The key to not being like Roger is to practice until your public speaking skills are honed and your every movement and word is second nature when you’re speaking.
Public speaking is easy, when you know how and the following 6 public speaking snippets of advice will give you a boost in your journey to becoming confident, calm and measured when in front of your audience.
The 7 speaking tips you need to know (minus 1)
Know your speech well
How well do you know your speech? A good measure of your ability to speak with confidence is your ability to remember pretty much all of the information you want to share. But this doesn’t mean you need to rely on rote learning (learning by repetition) to be able to speak well, but you do need to know the content inside out.
That last paragraph might seem confusing, so I’ll explain. Just about every good public speaker I’ve ever heard uses the power of a story in their presentation. But not just any story – it’s personal. Constructing a speech based on, or incorporating information that is personal to you is a surefire way to ensure you deliver your message.
For example, if you look around jamesredden.com you’ll see I’ve taken myself on many expeditions and adventures and have had a couple of very close calls with death. I’ve used these journeys and incidents in my public speaking to highlight qualities such as endurance, hope and determination people can develop with relative ease.
By using stories, tips and advice from across your life you are guaranteed to remember not only the flow of your speech but also the key information components you want to share.
Your public speaking needs to be pitched at the level your audience expects. But what does that mean?
Pause for a moment and think about the message you want to share. If you’ve been invited to speak at a school event full of 6 year old children there’s no way you’ll get away with a complicated story, or a presentation that lasts more than 15 minutes – trust me, I’ve been there several times and kids tend to have a short attention span.
On the flip side, if you stand in front of an auditorium crammed with 500 people desperate to know the secrets to dating success there’s no way on Earth you’ll satisfy them with a 15 talk about how Mr Bunny met Mrs. Bunny.
Communication and how people absorb information is important and you’ll have to practice giving your talk to a variety of age ranges and interest groups.
Takeaway: adjust your speeches to suit the listeners.
Put the needs of your audience first
The people in front of you are the most important in the world for the time you’re speaking to them. This is one of the most important public speaking ‘secrets’ I can offer you. If you fail them then you fail yourself and your chances of hitting the highs you dream of will crash and burn.
But how do you make your audience feel important?
I’ve found the simplest way to engage your listeners and make them feel like their centre stage is to forget you’re a public speaker, which may seem strange but hear me out. Public speaking is about the people in front of you. Sure, your story and the message within are super-important, but if you give the impression of being self-interested your audience will stop listening, and fast.
You need to put people first. Here are a few tips I use:
Self-deprecating humour. Have a joke at your own expense as this lets people know you don’t take yourself too seriously and allows them to feel connected to you. But don’t do this too often as it leads to you not being taken seriously, which is worse than being self-interested.
Involve the audience in your speech. We’ve touched on this already, but I feel the need to repeat this – asking questions, and getting your listeners to engage either physically or verbally creates a strong connection between you, the storyteller, and the people listening to your story.
Segment your audience and address their thoughts, concerns, desires, etc. This sounds a bit technical, but it’s really not as creating segments is simply an extension of the previous tip. The aim here is to identify what people want as you speak and then deliver. Example: you ask the questions, “Who wants to be a better speaker?” and “Who here has a fear of public speaking?” You’ll notice that not all people want the same thing, but now you have two segments to which you can directly address a part of your speech.
Don’t be late to the stage, and finish on time. Respect is key. If you’re late people will form a low opinion of you. Overrunning your public speaking engagement is a taboo too – especially when the clock’s hour hand is shifting ever closer to lunchtime. Besides, being punctual gives you time to speak to your adoring audience before and after you’re on the stage.
Is there something missing from your talk?
Way back when I first started my speaking journey I assumed shorter was better. And sometimes it is, but you need to look at your speech from every angle and ask yourself, “What’s missing?” Because, no matter how conscientious you are, there will always be something missing.
Here are a few ways I make sure there are no gaps in my talks:
Read the brief, repeatedly. Unless you’re inviting people to hear you talk e.g. you offer a free taster of your main speech and you post an ad in a local paper, you will have been given a brief from which you can map out the requirements (the brief should include a minimum of):
Group interest, age, length of the talk, location, and time.
Question yourself! Pause for a while and ask yourself what you’d want to know about a topic and make notes, then incorporate those ideas into your talk. I like to take this one step further by recording myself speaking, then reviewing and giving myself feedback.
Practice, alone and in front of someone you trust. Ask them to pretend they’re a listener with an interest in the topic, then give feedback.
Speak to your audience after the talk. Another powerful tool I use to get feedback and improve my speeches is to mingle after the event and ask people about the experience and if they thought there was anything missing. Try it, you’ll be amazed at how helpful people are.
Let your hands do some of the talking
When used the right way, hand gestures will enhance your talk. Using your hands to add emphasis to your words allows your audience to feel connected with you and experience the same thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc. But how do you do this?
It’s pretty easy. The vast majority of human beings use hand gestures in day-to-day conversation, but often the movements lack focus. Instead of simply moving your hands, think about the message you are trying to share, for example:
Imagine part of speech recalls the time when you were on a huge expedition. Early one morning you rolled out of your sleeping bag, pulled on your clothes and stepped outside to watch the first rays of morning sun easing over the horizon when, in the distance, you saw a herd of reindeer in the distance. At this point in your talk, you could extend your arm and point out over the heads of your audience, or squint whilst shielding your eyes from the glare of sunlight. At this point, you’ll be reliving your experience and the gestures you use will help your listeners be in that same moment.
Note: the science behind this is ‘mirror neurons’; our bodies and minds mirror feelings when given a visual or emotional cue. For example, most people will ‘feel’ pain when they see, or even think, of someone else hitting their thumb with a hammer. Try it now – close your eyes and imagine someone standing on a drawing pin, or tack. There’s a high likelihood you ‘felt’ the sensation.
When you are stressed the muscles of your neck tense and the pitch of your voice rises which makes you sound scared, or under stress. I use a couple of techniques to slow my breathing which reduces the tension and allows me to keep my voice at a lower, more relaxed pitch. Here’s how you can do it too:
Before you go on stage
Spend 5 minutes breathing deep into your stomach to relax your mind and allow the tension to fade.
After you come off the stage
If you’re feeling stressed after your talk, take five minutes to practice the double breath technique:
breathe in hard and fast 30 times, exhaling without forcing the breath;
after the 30th exhale, pause for 15 – 30 seconds before breathing in once;
hold this inhale for 15 – 30 seconds, then repeat twice more.
Engaging your listeners is key to success. What do I mean by engagement? It means getting them involved in your public speaking or presentation.
I do this using a number of tools:
Ask questions and give your audience time to think about their answer. But you need to follow up on this. Here’s an example from one of my recent talks: “I’d like you all to close your eyes and think about what it feels like to be really cold, so cold you can no longer move your fingers.” I gave them about 5 seconds to imagine what that experience felt like, then followed up with, “Hands up who enjoyed the thought of not being able to use their hands.” How many hands went up? I’ll let you know shortly.
Give your audience a task. Make them stand, smile at the person sitting next to them, and call out an answer. Physical actions give them the feeling of being part of the experience you’re talking about, and this is exactly what you want.
Use humour. One of the most powerful tools you have for bringing your audience closer to you, your story, and the people around them is the power of laughter. You don’t need to be a stand-up comedian to achieve this – a corny joke often works. The one thing I will say is to use this form of engagement sparingly as I’ve found too much laughter can make people forget why they came to listen to you, and that’s not what you want them to do.
Use visual aids. If you’re giving a presentation a good way of engaging people and passing information is through the use of slides, but don’t fill them with too many words. To learn how to use this tool check out my post – how to use slides in a public speech.
Wrapping it up
Public speaking is a skill you can learn with ease. I know a large number of people have a fear of any kind of public presentation, speaking or otherwise and I’ve written a post about how I overcame my fear of public speaking which I recommend you read as it’s based on my own journey from a terrified first-timer to seasoned speech-giver.
One final note: mastering the processes I’ve outlined above takes time – it took me years, but you have a shortcut – but don’t beat yourself up if you make mistakes. Instead, learn from what you did wrong and enjoy the journey.