25 Tips for Successful Public Speaking
It is easy to understand why public speaking terrifies so many people. A public speaker is literally up on a pedestal, subject to the scrutiny and judgment of a large group. Any mistake is unlikely to be ignored. In many cases, it might even be magnified and unforgotten for a long time. When books and experts speak of stage fright, what they are actually referring to is thus the dread of impending humiliation. A speaker crippled by stage fright doesn’t fear the audience. He fears the widespread mockery resulting from slip-ups and bloopers.
There are many ways to manage stage fright, a humorous and well-known method being to imagine the audience naked. Effective as these methods might be, they do not remove the actual “threat,” this being the blunders that invite ridicule in the first place. To put it in another way, successful public speaking goes far beyond managing fear, the larger and tougher tasks being to communicate with, impress, and convince the audience. To put it in yet another way, strengthening your content and presentation vastly minimizes the risk of gaffes and screw-ups. Successfully executed, there wouldn’t even be any reason to fear public speaking.
For ease of understanding, the following tips are divided into
- Style Tips: Tips involving the delivery of the public speech.
- Content Tips: Suggestions on how to craft an effective and easily understood public speech.
- Informative Speech Tips: Areas to pay attention to when presenting an informative speech.
- Persuasive Speech Tips: Important things to note when preparing a persuasive speech.
- Special Occasion Speech Tips: What and what not to do when delivering a special occasion speech.
Refer to tip 13 for descriptions of the three types of public speeches.
1. Use Cue Cards (Style Tip)
One of the worst things to do when delivering a public speech is to read from a script. Vice versa, it is also needlessly hazardous to entirely depend on memory. The proper thing to do is to use cue cards.
Cue cards. Neatly prepared written or printed reminders containing the main points of your speech.
When you read from a script, the only thing you accomplish is isolation from your audience. Your attention is occupied, denying you of opportunities to read and react to the reactions of your audience. Worse, you might also fumble with your script. Just imagine yourself looking away for a moment, or sidetracking to answer a question, then realizing, oh gosh, you can’t find the line you stopped at. All that’s before you is a dense sea of words.
Likewise, depending on memory is simply too dangerous. You can never entirely predict the circumstances during your speech or presentation. Tension or environmental factors could overwhelm you, or you could lose your train of thought after being interrupted. To minimize the risk of all above-mentioned crippling situations, utilize cue cards instead. Write down your key points and practice speaking about those points. Doing so inherently forces you to utterly understand your content too, which is an important and beneficial end goal. With practice, you might soon be able to improvise on the spot because you are no longer dependent on pre-prepared content. In other words, you have achieved mastery of the content. Your speech is just the channel that delivers your message.
2. Don’t Forget to Engage (Style Tip)
It’s commonly called public speaking, but in truth, it is public communication. As the term itself implies, there needs to be a two-way process in order for it to be effective. Successful public speaking is thus not just a robot droning a prepared statement. It is the successful conversation between one person and many.
There are many ways to accomplish this conversation, or “engagement” as public speaking experts call it. Eye contact is foremost, this itself the key reason why you should never read from a script. (See tip 1). Appropriate pauses are also important. You want to allow your audience time to digest your message, also not impress upon them that you are insensitive to their reactions. More advanced methods include spontaneity and scrutiny. For example, you should constantly check your audience and when appropriate, throw an impromptu question or a joke, or invite for feedback. The crux of it, it is communication. You want to give your audience the impression you are not talking down to them. What you are doing, instead, is establishing a mental connection.
3. Don’t Get Carried Away (Style Tip)
Never, ever, get carried away when delivering a public speech. You might think you are speaking with passion. In reality, your audience would quickly find you incomprehensible and comical, or worse, hysterical and frightening. Moreover, getting overly worked up stresses your system, setting you up for that nasty, nasty pitfall of not being able to respond to ad-hoc situations like request for clarifications, because you are so lost in your own heat. In summary, stay composed. Speak evenly and clearly throughout your speech no matter how agitated you feel. Do not rant or shout into the mic, static electronic feedback is a massive turn-off. Don’t roar, shriek, growl, thump the podium, curse, crush your cue cards, or whine too. Theatrics like these only work in the hands of the most competent orators. They certainly wouldn’t work when your head is clouded by your own fervor.
4. Don’t Speak Without Rehearsing (Style Tip)
I’m not just referring to rehearing the actual speech or presentation. That’s understood. I’m referring to props. Especially electronic props. Think about it. Ever had that situation when your laptop suddenly freezes because of some sudden update? Ever been in the middle of a slideshow when abruptly, something happens, and no matter what you do, you cannot get the slideshow to continue?
Know your room, as it is said. In the context of successful public speaking, this includes the things in the room that you are working with. Not only must you be utterly familiar with them, you should also factor in contingency measures because no prop is ever entirely dependable. While at that, review whether the equipment you are using is so complicated they either suck away your audience’s attention or add to your speaking burdens. For example, slides packed with so much information, your audience would be too busy deciphering them to hear what you’re saying. Lastly, never use props that require numerous assistants. Each person you add to the show increases the chance of blunders exponentially. In many cases, a trio is already too many.
5. Don’t Dress Inappropriately (Style Tip)
As kids, we are taught not to judge by appearances. Yet, don’t we still do it? In public speaking, what this means is that you should assume audiences would be greatly influenced by physical appearances. By this, I’m not suggesting that you need to look glamorous or flashy to be able to connect or communicate with your audience. I’m saying your dressing needs to complement your speech topic. To give some examples, aren’t you going to look weird introducing the workings of a car engine while in suit and tie? If you’re selling an investment product, is it appropriate to be in a crumpled a t-shirt and slacks? In short, you must always give thought to your audience and dress as they would expect you to. Never overdress or underdress. Needless to say, what attire you choose should not hamper your delivery too. Speaking while being half-choked by a tie is just foolish.
6. You Need to Know Your Audience (Content Tip)
With reference to tip 5, anticipating how your audience expects you to look is part of that all-important beginning task to successful public speaking. That of knowing your audience. Every word you speak, every action you do, every demonstration you prepare must revolve around your audience’s expectations. It is not at all an exaggeration to say disaster is imminent the moment you misread your audience. Generally, the following areas demands much consideration:
- How long your audience expects you to speak.
- The credentials (about you) that your audience expects to hear.
- The level of linguistic sophistication expected. Too florid or too simplistic could equally be a turn-off.
- The number of demonstrations or examples expected.
- The depth of discussion expected.
Note my constant re-use of the word “expect.” This is a one-word summary of what it means to know your audience. Successful public speaking is in many ways a delivery of what your audience hopes for.
7. You Need to Know Your Topic (Content Tip)
There is no quicker way to invite ridicule during public speaking than not to know your topic in-and-out. The very fact that you are afforded attention means you are viewed as a specialist or expert of sorts. In exchange for this limelight, your audience expects you to thoroughly be familiar with what you speak about. At the risk of sounding harsh, you shouldn’t be speaking to a crowd if you are unsure about your topic. Note that this doesn’t mean you need to know everything about your topic, you just need to know more. What exactly is “more” is, in turn, the backbone of the speech or presentation you are preparing.
8. Be Mindful of Your Opening Content (Content Tip)
Journalists regard the first statement of any article to be the most important. Why? Because they assume that most people wouldn’t read the entire article. Therefore, they communicate key details right away.
This would be difficult for speeches, particularly if you are beginning with anecdotes. That said, it is still possible to set the pervasive theme of your speech with your opening statement or paragraph. Approach it this way. Take it that your audience would only remember the first 30 seconds of your speech. After that, their attention slowly dwindles to zero. What is it that you want them to go home with? What are the things you want them to remember more than anything else? After you decide, put these at the beginning of your speech.
9. There Is No Need to Fill up Every Second (Content Tip)
Say for example you have been instructed by your boss to introduce a new product. You are allocated ten minutes. Do you use up every minute you have? After writing your script, would you repeatedly amend i.e. lengthen it to fill up every second?
If you do, then you have fallen into an invisible trap. A deadly one.
Never feel compelled to fill up your entire allocated time slot. In other words, always set aside “spare time.” You need to do so because no one can ever be sure what would happen during the actual speech or presentation. Would you be interrupted by questions? Would unexpected electronic or environmental factors hamper your smooth delivery? To put it in another way, why corner yourself by having no time leeway? Know that in public speaking, there is one thing worse than a poorly written speech. It’s an unfinished one. You leave matters hanging in the air. Many people would be highly inclined to dislike you for this.
10. Use Storytelling Techniques Carefully (Content Tip)
The worth of storytelling techniques is well-known nowadays, thanks to numerous online write-ups. Executed properly, stories can establish profound levels of connection. People also tend to remember stories more readily, as compared to hard facts.
The problem though, it’s often challenging to tell a good story. A memorable tale needs to be terse, fluid, logical and inviting, the failure of which the entire story becomes a distraction or a bore. Because of this, it might be wise in most situations to stick to punchy quotations. Anecdotes, as in crispy ones, would usually also be preferable to rambling, drawn-out sagas.
11. Be Conservative with Metaphors (Content Tip)
Dictionaries define metaphors as figures of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. Correctly used, they immediately establish a powerful connection between your audience and you, a connection a professor of mine once described as a “mental orgasm.” On the other hand, a poor metaphor immediately puts off an audience in more ways than one. You mystify, you might even annoy or offend. The worst is when only you can remotely see the applicability of the metaphor. There is no surer way to drive away the attention of your audience.
You should therefore be extremely conservative when using metaphors. Do not ever use a metaphor in a speech or presentation without first testing it on friends and acquaintances. Often, you’d be surprised you are the only one who understands or appreciates your metaphors, and only so because of your personal quirks. If you receive uncertain responses during testing, conclude that the metaphors should still be omitted, ambiguity is an equally huge hurdle to successful public speaking. Finally, even if your metaphors are universally understood, carefully evaluate whether they are necessary to begin with. Some audiences expect you to get to the point right away. Anything more is condemned as verbose.
12. Successful Public Speaking Gives Audiences Something to Take Home (Content Tip)
In marketing, the “call to action” is all important. This applies to successful public speaking too. Regardless of your nature of public speech or presentation, you must give your audience a call to action. Something that sticks in their minds to go home with. In practice, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical action. Many a times, you just want your audience to remember something or to hold on to a certain opinion, disposition, etc. Last but not least, your call to action should be mentioned in both your opening and ending. Think of it as a cycle. You begin where you want people to be. You end by reminding them where they ought to be.
13. Know That There Are Three Types of Public Speeches in Public Speaking (Content Tip)
In order to craft effective content, it is important to know that there are different types of speeches and presentations. Experts sometimes disagree on how many types there exactly are. For this list, three generic types would be discussed.
Informative speeches or presentations aim to explain events, persons, objects, or places. In other words, an informative speech shares details about a chosen subject, with the subtler aim of facilitating easier comprehension through elaboration. (Refer to tips 14 to 17)
A persuasive speech aims to convince the audience into embracing the speaker’s point of view. It inevitably includes various justifications or evidence. As spice, there might also be anecdotes or stories. Often, persuasive speeches end with a very marked call-to-action. To buy a product, to reject another viewpoint, to vote for someone, etc. Because of their intentions, persuasive speeches frequently get very fiery. (Refer to tips 19 to 21)
Special Occasion Speeches
Special occasion speeches are those that address a particular event or moment. They could be toasts, welcome statements, prize-giving introductions, or even eulogies. Many involve impromptu situations too, thus making them the most harrowing. Of all three types of speeches, special occasion speeches are arguably the hardest to prepare for. In many situations, you’d have to work with an audience you have little time to research about. (Refer to tips 22 to 25)
In real life, speeches and presentations are seldom delineated so clearly. For example, many special occasion speeches are strongly informative in many ways. A sales pitch could be informative and persuasive at the same time. Regardless, the fundamentals of good speechwriting/strong content preparation are the same for all. These fundamentals include knowing your audience, presenting your information or arguments logically and clearly, and being appropriate in manner of delivery.
14. Do Not Overload (Informative Speech Tip)
Overloading is when you cramp so many details into your informative speech, it becomes painful to listen to. You are literally introducing new facts every half a minute. What happens when you do that? The audience shuts off. It is a reflex reaction.
Overloading is also when you use overly complicated props, or do not give enough time for your audience to understand visuals, or permit unnecessarily distractions such as answering every impromptu question thrown. To avoid this deadly mistake in public speaking, place yourself in the audience’s shoes. Assume too that you only know the barest about the subject on hand. How would you expect to be informed? What sort of pacing would be comfortable for you to digest everything? Craft your speech based on these estimations. Most important of all, never write your informative speech from the viewpoint of a person who already knows i.e. yourself. That becomes a silly situation of talking only to yourself.
15. Inform, Don't Simply Tell (Informative Speech Tip)
I’ve mentioned in tip 2 that successful public speaking communicates; it is not just talking to a group. Likewise, when doing an informative speech, inform, don’t simply tell. By choosing to listen to you, your audience is already expecting elaboration, not a regurgitation of what is obvious or already known. (In some cases, they might even want your analysis or opinions too.) In addition, remember that effective communication requires a two-way exchange. Your audience would have queries. In other words, don’t forget to allow time for questions, at appropriate timings.
16. Be Comprehensive (Informative Speech Tip)
Most things need to be explained in sequence. However irrelevant one “step” might feel to you, don’t skip it. At least give it a mention.
You will never know. Someone in your audience might be that particular. Or he might be puzzled by why you didn’t do so-and-so before attempting so-and-so, and quickly end up confused. There’s also the likelihood of a step being second-nature to you, but of major, big-time concern to another person. The short of it, be thorough. Neither skim nor skip. When informing, always aim to provide the whole picture.
17. Avoid Being Too Technical (Informative Speech Tip)
Jargons. A sprinkling gives the impression you are knowledgeable. Too much and you baffle your audience. Making it worse is the fact that there are often different jargons for the same thing, or your audience might have different interpretations of the terms. As a general rule of thumb, minimize your use of jargon. If you can’t avoid them, accompany each with a brief elaboration. Ensure that there is no unhelpful misunderstanding or puzzlement left in the air.
18. Limit Your Objectives (Persuasive Speech Tip)
A strong persuasive speech always has specific objectives. Textbooks disagree on how many there ought to be, but if you are new to public speaking, the recommendation is to work with only one. Doing so prevents sticky situations like your audience accepting your first viewpoint but rejecting the rest. Or appreciating one viewpoint but not the other. As a guideline, master working with one clear objective before moving on to more. Put your all and best into this one mission. Don’t spread out your effort.
19. Avoid Fallacious Arguments like the Plague (Persuasive Speech Tip)
Fallacious arguments are twisted justifications that stand on false, exaggerated, or assumed information. They thrive on short-term gains achieved from emotional responses like fear, anger, panic, or envy. Effective as they might seem in the context of a persuasive speech, be aware they often invite unpleasant repercussions. To put it simply, many people will feel cheated or indignant once they see through your “trick.” Your reputation will be irredeemably smeared.
There are many types of fallacious arguments. Out of these, the three most commonly used ones are:
- Straw Man Arguments: A rhetoric way of arguing by painting an exaggerated, distorted or misrepresented scenario of the opposing viewpoint(s). When you use straw man arguments in persuasive speeches, you are not justifying your own position, you are misdirecting. You are also hoping for irrational fear to drive your audience to your viewpoint. Your audience will despise you for making a fool of them, or lying, when you are debunked.
- Ad Hominem: This is Latin for “attacking the man.” It means you aren’t attacking an opposing viewpoint or reinforcing your own, you are attacking the believers of opposing viewpoints. This gets really dangerous because you could easily venture into slanderous areas. Avoid this unless you long to be sued for libel.
- Unrepresentative Statistics: This is when you claim certain people to have benefitted from adopting your position, thus everybody else should do likewise. You aren’t exactly lying, but neither are you anywhere near telling the truth. To give an example, lauding a product by saying your friends and family both loved it is a classic case of unrepresentative statistics. The astute would immediately know there is no way the number of people you know would represent a whole market. Under some commercial laws, this act might even be considered as trickery.
Inciting anger through fallacious arguments will often feel like an easy way to win over your audience. But consider what happens when you bear the blunt of that overblown fury.
20. Forecast Audience Resistance (Persuasive Speech Tip)
You wouldn’t be able to forecast everything, but you should at least try to predict some counter-arguments to your persuasive speech. Once again, put yourself in the shoes of the audience. Think like them. Be like them. How would they react to your justifications? What are the possible reasons for them resisting your argument? As much as possible, factor these resistances into the content of your speech and try addressing some of them in advance. While doing so, please be brutally honest too. You are not going to defend against the worst if you aren’t willing to consider the worst.
21. Structure is All Important (Persuasive Speech Tip)
Persuasive speeches often involve complex changes to lifestyles and habits. Changes that are unpleasant or even painful. To facilitate easy acceptance and to give the impression change is not as hard as it sounds, present your speech using structures proven to be effective. For example, you could work with the following structure.
- Step 1: Introduction. (Secure attention. Establish your topic or position i.e. your objective. State your credentials)
- Step 2: Body. (Present two to three reasons to adopt your position. Include supporting data or facts. Succinctly address the most pervasive counter-arguments at appropriate intervals)
- Step 3: Conclusion. (Reiterate your position. Reinforce it. Deliver a strong call to action)
22. Adapt to the Audience (Special Occasion Speech Tip)
This is rudimentary. You are addressing an occasion and so of course you have to respect the mood of the occasion. No inane jokes during eulogies. No exposé of the groom’s bedroom secrets during wedding toasts too! For impromptus situations, take a few seconds to observe the audience before beginning, lots of people wear their emotions on their faces during such moments. This will give you a good indication on whether to restrain yourself or to go all out with the banter. Sometimes, you might even need to entirely change your approach on the spot.
23. Do Not Hog the Limelight (Special Occasion Speech Tip)
Unlike the other two types of speeches, you play a secondary role when giving a special occasion speech. Your duty is to complement an event or provide relevant (background) information about it. Because of that, don’t rant. Don’t go on and on and on. Ever listened to a welcome statement and wished that the speaker would end soon? Ever felt a person giving out a prize somehow seems jealous of the actual recipient or is trying to remain on stage for as long as possible? That’s how unpleasant it can get when you hog the limelight during a special occasion speech. Be concise. Respect the occasion. Do your duty and scoot off.
In another context, not hogging the limelight is especially important for crisis management. A statement or an update about a crisis is also a special occasion speech, yes? Your audience expects to hear about the occasion/incident, nothing else. Don’t whine about how badly you are suffering too, or how hard you are working to contain the crisis. Speak only about the occasion or at least angle all your content to be about the occasion. Failure to do so is why some companies get so badly flamed during crises. It’s not that they aren’t trying to contain the crisis, it’s because they project the impression they are more concerned about themselves. Think of this as the best man who talked endlessly about his own greatness when toasting the groom. Is this tasteless? Undoubtedly.
24. Don’t Forget the Importance of Background Information, When Applicable (Special Occasion Speech Tip)
Special occasion speeches include events like anniversary statements, prize giving, and project inaugurations. For these, it is imperative to include background information in your speech. Not all the details, just salient, digestible bits to add flesh to the occasion. The lack of such background information wouldn’t exactly destroy your speech, but including them infuses deeper meaning. It also facilitates easier understanding.
25. Remember to Thank the Occasion, If Necessary (Special Occasion Speech Tip)
Once again, you are not the star here. Even if you are giving a thank-you statement for an award, you are not the star. The star is the event that awarded you. For this reason, always thank the occasion. Thank the occasion even if no one expects you to. Doing so projects you as a person with decorum. This strongly encourages positive reception of your speech.
Bonus Tip: Don’t Magnify the Threat (General Successful Public Speaking Tip)
Public speaking is a science. A lot of experts have devoted years to understanding and mastering it. That said, public speaking is neither the most complex nor the most inaccessible skill around. Because of this, your first step to successful public speaking is simply not to magnify your own apprehension. It is true that people can be unforgiving and picky, even nasty and scornful. Yet, how often do people remember for years and months? Do you remember the headlines on your local newspaper from a week ago?
In other words, don’t be overly fearful of potential gaffes. Even the best public speakers slip up now and then. A positive way of looking at it is that it’s all a learning experience.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Kuan Leong Yong