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Public Speaking Tips for Beginners: Dos and Don’ts for Giving Speeches

Catherine Giordano is a public speaker and author of a book of essays based on her speeches.

Tips and tricks for public speaking

Tips and tricks for public speaking

Even if you are new to public speaking, you can give a speech like a pro. It is simply a matter of preparation, practice, and understanding the techniques of giving effective speeches and presentations. Here are the dos and don’ts of public speaking.

Understand the Primary Purpose of Your Speech

There are four types of speeches.

  • Persuasive Speech: A persuasive speech will mainly provide reasons for a particular opinion or course of action.
  • Informative Speech: This will be a straightforward speech to provide the facts about a subject to your audience.
  • Inspirational/Motivational speech::This speech will use emotion to get people excited to undertake a course of action. It is like the “pep-talk” a coach gives his players before they go out on the field.
  • Entertainment Speech: The primary objective of this speech is just to entertain. You might want to tell a humorous story or do a dramatic monologue.

Combination Speech: Often, a speech will have two or more of the above elements. For instance, you will provide information and then motivate people to act, or you will use an entertaining story to persuade people to your point of view.

How to Prepare a Speech

I recommend writing your speech out even if you will not be reading it. You may want to work with an outline, or you may want to just do a stream of consciousness. Either way, you have to make decisions about what to include in your speech. As you are writing, ideas will come to you; include them all. Later you will have to edit the speech for flow, language, and time.

  • Flow: You need to have food segues from one point to another. It should feel logical and seamless. You do not want to jump from topic to topic without a smooth transition.
  • Language: You are speaking to people, not writing an encyclopedia entry. Write it the way you speak, but also consider your audience. If you are presenting to a business group, you may want to be more formal than if you are speaking to friends.
  • Time: Always ask how much time is allotted for the speech. When the speech is ready, read it out and time it. If your speech is funny, make sure you include the time for laughter when you time your speech. The average person speaks about 130 words per minute.

Practice Giving the Speech

Say it out loud. Give it to your family. Videotape yourself and see how it looks and sounds. If there are any tongue–twisters in your speech, get rid of them.

Prepare an Introduction

Keep it short. You do not have to list every degree and award you have ever received or everything you have ever published. Just list the things that are most relevant to the audience. You can include personal information if it is appropriate. Send a copy of the introduction to the person who will introduce you in advance. Carry a copy of your introduction with you just in case it is needed.

How to Deal With Nervousness

The people in the audience are there because they want to hear what you have to say. They want to like you.

You can “have them at hello.” When you take the stage, pause for a moment. Familiarize yourself with the audience. If someone you know is in the audience, look at that person as you begin. Pretend it is just a conversation between the two of you.

Don’t immediately begin your speech; begin with a pleasantry. Comment on the weather, the eloquence of the previous speaker, etc. Just a sentence of two. This will give you time to compose yourself. You may be a little nervous at first, but as you focus on your message, you will become calmer.

It can be helpful to give yourself a little pep talk before you take the stage. Use affirmations. Tell yourself how great you will be. Visualize yourself delivering a flawless speech.

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Should You Read or Memorize Your Speech?

The worst thing you can do is go up to the lectern and drone on as you read a prepared speech. Some people are comfortable speaking off the top of their heads. As a beginner, this is not you (although you should aspire to this.) You can use notes or a text until then.

I type my speech in 14- or 16-point type so I can easily read it. I make sure I break the page at the end of a paragraph and not in the middle of a sentence because this is where a natural pause will occur. I bold or highlight a key phrase. I number the pages and put them into a loose-leaf binder. The binder prevents the pages from getting out of order.

Having the speech written out gives me confidence. If I get an attack of nerves and I can’t remember what to say next, the text is there for me to use until I regain my composure. I don’t try to memorize the speech. However, I rehearse a lot, so I know the speech well enough so that I can glance down, see the key phrase, and then lift my eyes to the audience and say more or less what I have written down.

The audience should feel like you are having a conversation with them. You want to speak TO your audience, not AT your audience.

The Body Language of an Effective Speech

Make eye contact. The main reason for not reading is that you need to make eye contact with your audience. As you look out into the audience, you will see someone who is very engaged. This person may be sitting forward, smiling, nodding. Hold eye contact with her for a sentence or two. Now move your eyes to another section of the audience to find someone else to make eye contact with.

Vary your tone of voice. I used the word “drone” before. Prevent droning by using vocal variation to emphasize your meaning. Some parts make more sense when spoken slowly, some are better spoken quickly. Some parts are better spoken loudly; some are better spoken softly. Don’t be afraid to pause for a beat or two after an important point to let the information sink in.

Go ahead and use “voices” if appropriate. For instance, I speak in a child's voice when I use something my son said as a child. If you are talking about something that makes you angry, sound angry. Act out your speech as appropriate.

Avoid verbal tics. In ordinary conversation, you can get away with saying "um,” “er,” and “you know.” You must rid yourself of these verbal tics when you give a speech. Study your videotape. If you have these bad habits, train yourself to pause while you gather your thoughts instead of interjecting a meaningless sound.

Use natural gestures. You don’t want to stand there like a statue, but you don’t want to be waving your hands. Your gestures should look and feel natural. Check your videotape to see if you are using natural gestures.

When and How to Use Props

Only use props if you really need them to make your point clear. Suppose you are giving a speech to salesmen and want to tell them to get on the phone and make sales calls. No need to hold up your phone. Everyone knows what a phone looks like.

But suppose you want to demonstrate the script the salesmen should use and show them how to handle objections. Now you could take out your phone and hold it to your face as if you were making a call. You can act out both parts of the conversation by switching the phone to your other ear and changing your voice when you are speaking the dialogue of the other person.

How to Use PowerPoint for Delivering a Speech Effectively

The biggest mistake people make with PowerPoint is putting the text of their speech on the slides. You do not want people reading the slides instead of listening to you. Even worse, you don’t want them to read what you are going to say before you even say it. On top of that, the people in the back are feeling put out because they can’t read it.

Only use PowerPoint if it adds to the presentation, for instance, to show a diagram or picture. If you use words, keep it very simple. Use a topic sentence--something like the words in this text that appear in bold. Remember the KISS principle: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

For more advice about PowerPoint Presentations, see: How to Write Better Reports and Presentations.

How to Use Humor in a Presentation

Use humor liberally as appropriate. I try to have a laugh line every few paragraphs. I don’t use jokes. I just make a wry comment. If you use a joke, it may fall flat. If you just say something slightly funny in the context of your comments and nobody laughs, it’s no big deal. No one besides you knew it was supposed to be a joke. Just keep talking.

This reminds me of a joke. Some people are so afraid of public speaking that if they have to deliver the eulogy at a funeral, they would gladly change places with the guy in the coffin. I set that up as a joke. If you didn’t laugh, I just “bombed.”

If there is laughter—and sometimes you get laughter where you didn’t expect it— pause until the laughter dies down. Don’t try to speak over it.

How to Handle Audience Participation

Having the audience participate can help people stay engaged, but be careful you don’t end up leading a discussion group instead of giving a speech. One good way to get audience participation is to ask an innocuous question and ask for a show of hands. For example: “How many of you have ever . . . ?" Don’t ask a question that people will be too embarrassed to answer.

Some speakers are fine with people asking questions in the middle of their speech. I don’t like it. Before hands are raised or questions are shouted out, I will say that I will take questions at the end.

You might want to utilize “call and response,” especially in a motivational speech. Preachers do this when they say “Can I get an amen?” Another example is the chant from peace marches: "What do we want?" "Peace!" "When do we want it?" "Now!"

Once in a while, you may get a heckler. Handle it with humor. The audience will be on your side and will shut the heckler down for you. It’s never happened to me. I’m waiting for a chance to use this line: “That’s a very good point. Be sure to make it the next time someone asks YOU to give a speech.”

How to End a Speech

Don’t just stop talking, and don’t say “in conclusion,” either. It’s a good idea to “close the circle” at the end. Refer back to something at the beginning of your speech. Signal that the speech is over by the tone of your voice or by saying something that will help signal to people that this is the conclusion.

Make Sure Your Clothing Works for You, Not Against You

Make sure not to wear anything that will make noise. Ladies, this means be careful of jewelry that may jangle.

Make sure your clothes are comfortable, and you can move in them. Also, be sure that there are no hems hanging.

If you will be wearing a mic, make sure you have a good place to clip the mic and the battery pack.

Speak Like a Pro

Follow these dos and don’ts, and you will come across as a pro. (Notice how I closed the circle, going back to the beginning.)

You might also want to join Toastmasters.

This is an organization that has taught millions how to do public speaking. There are groups all over the world. If there is more than one group in your area, visit a few before deciding which group is best for you.

The best way to become an effective public speaker is to start giving speeches. Toastmasters will give you the opportunity to do that.

In a year, you will be speaking like a pro.

Talk Like TED

© 2015 Catherine Giordano

I welcome your comments.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on August 19, 2016:

He is right, but I'm a "senior citizen" and my memory is not so good. Even a card with key words on it might not be enough to jog my memory. But I have mastered the technique of not sounding like I am reading. I start a paragraph and then look up at the audience because the one sentence reminds me of what I need to say. The script is a crutch--but what if my mind goes blank? It is reassuring to know the script is there.

Ced Yong from Asia on August 19, 2016:

To read or not to read! My speech lecturer in Uni immediately failed anyone who read from a full script.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on March 25, 2015:

DzyMsLizzy: If it is a medical issue, It calls for "coping strategies" and "work-arounds." I hope you can figure out a way.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on February 23, 2015:

Thanks for the extra pointers. Problem is, I AM a mouth-breather, and it has nothing to do with nerves. Between allergies and finding out I have a deviated septum, I don't feel as if I get enough air in through my nose; I feel like I'm half suffocating unless I breathe through my mouth. :(

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on February 23, 2015:

First, thanks for telling me I'm on the HP Facebook page. I didn't know that.

You want to be able to maintain a strong voice. I think the idea of drinking water before hand is a good one. Have water at the podium. You can pause "for dramatic effect" and take a sip. Try to stop where you might naturally pause. Also, try to become aware of how you are breathing. If you are feeling nervous you might be breathing through your mouth instead of your nose. It is OK to pause to take a deep breath. Are you talking fast? If so, speaking at a slower pace might help. I hope this helps.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on February 23, 2015:

Well put! I found your article on the Hub Pages' Face Book page! Congrats for being selected for that placement!

I've done assorted impromptu public speaking, usually at school board or city council meetings. At first, I was nervous, but I have gotten over that. What I now have to overcome is the fact that my voice rapidly becomes hoarse and weak-sounding because of heavy-duty air conditioning systems in large public buildings. Ugh! It makes me lose my voice! I have received a tip to drink extra water in these situations, but the chance to put this to the test has yet to arise.

Voted up, interesting and useful.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on January 19, 2015:

Thank you Iris for commenting, voting up, and sharing. These are tips for beginners, but I hope even more experienced speakers can pick up something useful.

Pro Shell from Vereinigten Staaten on January 19, 2015:

I am not afraid of speaking up, but these are great tips for people with less self confidence

Cristen Iris from Boise, Idaho on January 19, 2015:

Yay for public speaking! You made me really miss my Toastmasters days. But I still take every opportunity I can to speak in public. Your advice was excellent as always. Voting up, sharing, etc.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on January 17, 2015:

BlossomSB. Preparation does make for confidence. A little bit of nervousness can be good--it makes you more vivacious. Experience also helps keep the nervousness down. Thanks for commenting and I'm glad you found the speaking tips useful.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on January 17, 2015:

Some good tips here, thank you, it's an interesting hub. I think it depends on the situation and on how comfortable one is with the topic whether we get nervous or not. If it's well prepared we can be more confident.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on January 17, 2015:

PegCole17: You are right--preparation and practice can reduce jitters because you will confident. Remember the audience wants to like you. They are not thee to judge you. They are there to hear what you have to say. So relax and enjoy yourself.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on January 17, 2015:

Public speaking can really give me a case of nerves. Once I get going on a topic that I'm comfortable talking about, the nervousness seems to go away. Your tips are valuable reminders for preparing and practicing for a speech ahead of time. The one about PowerPoint is so true. People do not seem to enjoy a speaker who reads the text already on the screen.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on January 16, 2015:

lambservant: It takes a lot of practice to get good at public speaking. When I started, I found that there are a lot of small groups looking for speakers who will speak for free. I networked to find these groups, and I practiced on them. Now I get paid to speak.

Lori Colbo from United States on January 16, 2015:

These are all excellent tips. I've done public speaking a few times and tried to employ these. But it takes time to fine tune things. This was really helpful.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on January 15, 2015:

Jackie Lynnley: Public speaking does get easier with practice. When I think back, I can't believe how nervous I once was. thanks for your comment.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on January 15, 2015:

CherylsArt: I'm glad you found the public speaking tips helpful. thanks for commenting.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on January 15, 2015:

Billybuc: Teachers get to do public speaking every day all day.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 15, 2015:

Great pointers, Catherine. There was a time when public speaking terrified me. Being a teacher helped immensely because now I have no problem with it at all.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on January 15, 2015:

Great speaking tips. It always gets easier with practice! ^+

CherylsArt on January 15, 2015:

Good tips. Good pointer on allowing time for laughter for the funny speeches.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on January 15, 2015:

PegCole17: I think my mind is slipping. I make homophone and spelling mistakes all the time now where I never did before. Thanks for telling my. I will fix the mistake.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on January 15, 2015:

Hi Catherine, I'm pretty sure you didn't mean for the spelling in the picture to read as it does. Please feel free to delete this comment after you read it, won't you? The word to look for is Public (it's kind of funny).

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on January 15, 2015:

eidithorne: Thank you for commenting, voting up, and sharing. Someone from HubPages saw in my profile that that I did public speaking and they asked me to do a hub on the topic. I thought there might be lots of others who need advice on public speaking.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on January 15, 2015:

As someone who speaks as part of my job, I can say these are all good tips! Voted up and sharing!

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