Public speaking is one of the most popular fears there is. It’s believed to affect up to 75% of the population. And typically, I find typical public speaking tips to be pretty useless. Why would I want to imagine people in their underwear? How could that possibly make me feel better?
I started standing up on stages in front of people when I was 5 years old. I have about 20 years of practice under my belt. And over that time, there are a lot of things I’ve learned about what makes a public speaking gig successful.
My #1 piece of advice to be better at public speaking is practice. Doing it will make you better at it. But that is easier said than done. So here are a myriad of other tips, tricks, and things to remember when preparing for a speaking engagement.
Get Your Mind Right – Public Speaking Isn’t About You
If you’re speaking at a meetup, conference, or some other type of educational event, you probably have to adjust your mindset. Unless you’re someone famous (in which case, you probably wouldn’t need this advice) no one is there to see you. Sounds harsh, but it’s true. You’re there to give out information to the people in the audience. They are there to see how they can benefit from what you’re saying.
People are often afraid that if they speak in public, they will be judged. Or that they’ll choke and be embarrassed. That the people in the audience will somehow think less of them or laugh at them if they make a mistake. That’s the ego talking. Unless you have some real jerks in the audience, people won’t care if you stumble or pause or say something incorrectly. They just want to hear what you have to say so that they can apply it to their own problems.
So you first have to stop thinking of public speaking as something that is about you. Your presentation is about the information, and the people you’re giving it to.
Public Speaking Tips for Preparation
As I said before, practice makes perfect when it comes to speaking in public. The more you do it, the better you will get and the more confidence you’ll have.
When it comes to your first few times, manufacture that experience through practice.
When I say practice, I don’t mean memorize. Unless you’re giving a TEDTalk, you don’t want to memorize a presentation word for word. You’ll get too caught up in getting the words in the right order that you’ll lose track of the actual flow of information.
If you’re giving a talk on something, it should be something you already know a good amount about, which means that you should not need to memorize. But being comfortable with the flow of your talk, knowing what section of information comes after which, is important for feeling prepared.
Make Your Rehearsals Work For You
When rehearsing, try recording yourself and playing it back. Make note of areas where you got stuck or lost your train of thought. Observe the way you stand and if you fidget. Identify the things you do without thinking and try to improve the next time.
Some public speaking tips for poor habits:
- Avoid filler words, like “um” or “uhh”, in between thoughts. We typically use these words because we’re afraid of a silent moment and want to fill it with something. Don’t be afraid of silence. In those moments, let yourself take a breath, then move on. Silence helps to punctuate a point and can actually be useful to let an important idea sink in.
- Don’t trail off at the end of your sentences. You might notice that as you speak, your voice gets lower or quieter as you end a sentence. This means that people might miss the end of your thought altogether. It might feel unnatural at first, but practice ending each sentence as strong and loud as the rest.
- Prevent fidgeting or swaying. This comes from nerves and is super common. But it can be very distracting to your audience. Instead, focus on gesticulating with your hands and arms instead. So long as you aren’t overdoing it, this can be less distracting and much more personable.
- AR-TIC-U-LATE. One thing I learned from my theater background is the importance of articulation, which is the slight over-pronunciation of your consonant sounds. It will feel silly at first, but practice over-pronouncing your words to make the consonants really pop! Remember that even with a microphone, in a large room, sounds get swallowed up. And if you’re mushing words together, the microphone just amplifies the mush. Over-pronouncing those sounds into a large room can mean they land sounding just right.
- Slow down! Almost nothing is worse than speeding through your talk. If you’ve over-prepared and have memorized, this is easy to do. You actually want to speak at about 25% less of the speed than you normally do. The point is for people to understand and take in what you’re teaching. They can’t do that if they’re still processing what you said two sentences ago. It will take some practice to get used to this – it’s very unnatural to slow down the way you speak and you may feel like you sound ridiculous. But I promise, it helps!
Public Speaking Tips for Delivering the Actual Presentation
On the day of your presentation, you might be wracked with nerves and anxiety. That’s okay, and totally normal. I’ve never spoken in front of a group of people and not felt nervous beforehand, even when I’m confident in what I’m going to say.
The more prepared you feel, the more those nerves will feel like excitement rather than anxiety. Make sure you’re hydrated, fed, and have visited the restroom! Hunger, a dry mouth, and a pee-dance are not going to help you focus during your talk.
Dress the part to eliminate a distraction for you and your audience.
Pick an outfit that is comfortable for you. You don’t want to have tassels or drawstrings or anything that you can fidget with. I’ve always been partial to clothing that is free of patterns, marks, designs, or logos. (With the exception of my GoDaddy Pro shirt!)
Before you speak, warm up! As a speaker, your voice and your body are your instruments.
Find a quiet place where you can jump up and down or jog in place for a moment to get out your nerves. Shake out your feet and hands to wake up your body. I’ll even do this in the back of the room, just before I get introduced.
Say a few tongue twisters to get your mouth warmed up. Remember to over-enunciate your consonants as much as possible, stretching your mouth in an exaggerated manner as you do so. My favorite short tongue twisters are:
- Red Leather, Yellow Leather
- The Big Black Bug Drinks Black Blood
- Toy boat. Toy boat. Toy boat.
- Unique New York
Pick 3-4 people in the audience and talk directly to them. Even better if they are your friends!
One of the most nerve-wracking things about public speaking is the audience itself. A sea of faces, all with their eyes on you. You want to engage with them and try to make eye contact as much as you can. I try to switch faces for every point I’m trying to make.
However, with all the other things you have to remember, this can be tough. If you’re just starting out, try to pick 3 or 4 people who look engaged and interested. If there are people in the audience you know, include them as well. Bounce your attention between those people and pretend you’re just explaining the topic to a few of your friends.
Making eye contact with the audience is one of my favorite parts of giving a talk. There is nothing like giving a presentation and seeing someone smile, laugh, or nod at the right time! If you’re not looking at them, you’ll miss those awesome moments.
Work fun into your presentation!
Nothing is a better stress-reliever than laughter. If appropriate, write a few jokes or funny anecdotes into your presentation (so long as they support your topic.)
A popular trend at some WordCamps is memes or gifs that add some personality and fun to the talk.
If you can, factor in an interactive activity like a poll. Ask rhetorical questions, instead of just spouting facts, to get people thinking. Don’t be afraid of casual language. Give yourself wiggle room to get creative because that removes the rigid structure that can lead to anxiety.
A Quick Tip on Presenter Slides
Public speaking tips are great and all, but your slides are a huge part of your presentation as well. They can affect how you speak.
Your slides should be there to assist you, not as a crutch. The goal is to be able to give a presentation and prove your point, even if something happens and you can’t use your slides.
Slides should act as an outline for you, reminding you what the next point is, and visual aid or reference for your audience. Keep the slides minimal and focused on larger concepts/ideas and supporting imagery. Don’t stand at a podium and read your slides. Do use your slides to guide the flow of information.
This is still something I struggle with. Coming from theater, I am used to having a script I can refer to. But trust me – if you know your topic well, you can manage without the slides.
If you’re having trouble minimizing your slides, challenge yourself to a single sentence per slide, and only 10 slides. This will force you to examine what the most important sections of your presentation are, and force you to rely on your own knowledge.
One Final Public Speaking Tip
Smile! I know, it sounds cheesy. But at the beginning of your presentation when you greet the group, and at the end when you finish, give your biggest and most genuine smile.
Not only has it been scientifically proven that forcing a smile can make you feel better, but chances are, the audience will smile back at you. And I don’t know about you, but a friendly smile is really reassuring to me when I’m nervous.
I hope these public speaking tips have helped you! What tips have I left out or forgotten?