How to Improve Your Public Speaking, and Even Enjoy It

By: Benjamin Thiele-Long
May. 1, 2020
Share this article

Public speaking — any form of presenting to a group of people, whether it’s a simple team meeting, a media interview or a keynote to a theater full of people — is daunting. I don’t care how many times you’ve done it before; it’s daunting. Even if you enjoy it, it’s still daunting. Nerves are natural.

But like any athlete or actor will tell you, nerves and adrenaline can actually fuel your performance. Heart thumping on the starting blocks, pulse racing right before a penalty shot, nausea before that first step on the stage. All of it can power a great performance, but the challenge is how to channel it. 

The key is not to think, “How can I suddenly become a flawless and worry-free public speaker?” Such a thing does not exist. Even the most impressive speakers that you’ve seen have worked hard at their craft, and they still get anxious. That’s a fact.

However, from my experience as a barrister, courtroom attorney and public speaking coach, there is some basic guidance that can give you the confidence needed to speak well in a room, present your ideas clearly and compellingly, and take down mental barriers.

There is a terrific book titled “The Devil’s Advocate” written by Iain Morley, Q.C., which provides an indispensable guide to lawyers on how to be “seriously good in court.” I still have my original copy, now tattered and full of notes from all sorts of previous cases. However, the part of the book, which has stuck with me for the last 15 years, was just two simple words: Be irresistible.

In my view, this concept should be the North Star for any speech, address, interview, presentation or meeting. The goal should be to present what you have to say, and say it in a way that your audience cannot help but willingly and happily agree with you. 

If everything starts and ends with that premise, not only will it help you create and follow a concrete structure, but you’ll also have the confidence to say what you have to say with pride and with purpose.

With that overarching guidance in mind, here are some of my top tips to become a compelling pubic speaker, and hopefully, you’ll even learn to love it.

Know your audience.

Understanding exactly who you are going to be communicating with guides you, in terms of the format, language, tone and level of detail needed for the information you’re communicating. A Monday morning briefing with important information to convey? You probably should be clear, to the point and lay out specific bullet points. An evening panel event where the wine is flowing? Bring your facts, but also a sense of humor.  

Be present.

Standing properly, feet firmly on the ground, allows you to stand tall and hold focus — and grounds you to project your voice. Pacing in front of a crowd can be distracting. If you’re on a panel, then don’t slouch. Look alert and interested, especially when other panelists are talking; your body language conveys volumes, even in silence. And remember to breathe — natural pauses allow for cadence and a more conversational tone.

Tell the story.

Narrative is important because it helps your audience follow what you have to say in a logical manner. But here’s the trick: If you structure what you’re saying as a story, it’s also easier for you to remember. Think: beginning, middle and end. This also means you can rely on notes less, and you won’t lose your train of thought.

Never read the text.

If you went to the theater and the entire cast was reading from scripts, it would be entirely unengaging, and the audience will assume that the actors haven’t prepared. Eye contact is crucial to establish trust, and lets you check that your audience is following you and engaging. If you’re presenting a slide deck, then remember three key points from each slide and say them in your own words; don’t read the text. 

Minimize slides.

The slides are not the presentation — you are. If you are presenting with a deck, the slide should illustrate the point you are trying to make, not the other way around. Simple. Doing this also means that your audience spends less time reading the screen, pulling their attention away from you. If you’re presenting to a big room, then make your slides mostly visual, to illustrate your points. 

Inject personality.

If you’re speaking, people are there to hear you, so show personality. Using humor, anecdotes and real-life examples humanizes the content and can bring it to life. Telling a personal story right off the bat is also a natural icebreaker for a big audience — they want to like you. This is especially true when presenting in the corporate world. “Show, don’t tell,” should always be the rule, establishing credibility.

Take a tip from comedians.

Comedians use a trick called the primacy and recency effect. We remember the first and last thing we’re told most of all; this is why standup comedians open and close with their strongest jokes. Start with something impactful, and finish with a strong call to action.

photo credit: cultura