Public Speaking Tips

Public Speaking Tips

by By Ted Harwood, Ph.D.
Business Persona: Executive Communications Consulting

Maybe you’re like a lot of people who, when invited to give a talk, ask themselves: “How can I get out of doing this?” “Why did I even agree to talk?”

If you view public speaking as a chore or, worse, as a nerve-wracking, anxiety filled experience, the chances are good your audience won’t enjoy and benefit from hearing you talk, even if you have worthwhile information to give them.

The first thing you have to try to do is change your attitude — by coming to view public speaking as an enjoyable activity, something you look forward to.Your enjoyment of speaking will increase the chances that your audience will attend to what you say, actively listening and absorbing your insights — rather than just sitting there noticing your discomfort and awkwardness, and then turning their minds someplace else.An audience can be looking at you, nodding mechanically, but without hearing a word your saying — because they lost interest the minute you got off on the wrong foot.

Here are some speech practice tips that you can start applying right now:
Step #1:Take a subject that you know well, and develop a couple of pages of talking points on that subject — enough for a 15 to 20 minute talk.Don’t write out your talk word for word, as you would do if you were writing a report or business article.

  • Talking points are brief headings — often a single sentence or two that summarizes a key point that you intend to expand on during your talk. 
  • Here is an example of a short idea, first written out in full, and then as a talking point.The speaker is talking on the subject of succession planning: 
    • Full content of the idea:
      “When I decided finally that the time had come to establish a succession plan, I developed an action plan, and a calendar.Before contacting our family attorney, to get referrals to other experts in estate planning, I convened the family members who were in the business and also had an equity interest in the business.It was important, I believed, to talk to them first before talking to non-family key employees or others.I believed that if I did not hold this initial consultation, serious problems and conflicts might crop up later.”
    • Talking point:
      Succession plan: Why I consulted family members in the business first. 


You might be thinking: “How will I remember all the information I want to convey if I just use talking points?Isn’t there a chance I’ll forget key ideas if I rely on brief talking points in the speech?”

Talking points have a clear advantage.Your talk should be spontaneous and flow naturally, as it would in normal conversation.Indeed, the more you talk as though you were in a conversation with your audience rather than reading from a “speech,” the more effective you’ll be.Your audience will express more interest.

You’ll also have more freedom to develop the idea that suddenly occurs to you at the time, just like in ordinary conversation.Also, talking points are easier to scan, and makes it easier for you to review where you are in your talk — compared with a talk that is written out word for word.

If you know your subject, and you have internalized the information, then you won’t have to worry about overlooking crucial information in the talk.
Step #2: Take your talking points and try them out on your family, or a group of friends.Imagine that you are at a board meeting, or an executive committee meeting. Let’s assume that you had not planned to address the people around the table.You assumed that a colleague was going to give the report. But 20 minutes before the meeting, you learn your associate can’t attend and you’re been picked to make the presentation in his or her place.

If you were back at the office, what would you do? You’d probably write down on the back of an envelope, or piece of paper, the key points and issues to be addressed.You might be a little nervous, but the chances are good you’d carry off your impromptu talk very well!

This is called “extemporaneous speaking” and it works every time!It almost always works better than the talk that was carefully written out in advance and then is read by the speaker, at the time of the talk, almost as written.

People don’t like lectures as a rule.They do like a speaker who engages them in what appears to be a conversation.
Step #3: Now take those 15 to 20 minutes of talking points and try adding in some humor, to help you and your audience relax.If you begin with the right kind of humor, that will help get your audience on your side.Appropriate humor also breaks down the barrier that a “speech” often raises with an audience — who may be prepared to be bored because of their experience with so many dull, uninspired lectures heard at college!

Try some self-effacing humor, perhaps starting with an anecdote that ties in with your topic, perhaps something that happened to you recently, or in your business, or something amusing that happened enroute to the talk.It should be humor that your audience will respond to, and it will work best if it’s relevant to your subject.

Avoid stock gags and jokes.Even though the joke may be fresh to the audience, stock gags that don’t relate to your subject can signal to the audience that you’re trying to sugarcoat a bitter pill! It’s a little bit like saying, “we all realize a speech isn’t any fun, and I apologize for putting you through 15 to 30 minutes.Hopefully, this gag will ease the pain of it all.” A stock gag signals to the audience that a stock speech is in the making!

The personal anecdote, with a surprise feature, is a good way to begin.Here’s a possible way to start (if you have a story that will work)

“You won’t believe what happened to me a week back, when I was serving a customer the likes of which I have never experienced, and that I never again hope to encounter! I have to tell you about this experience because it ties in with the subject of my talk this evening on customer service, and how the customer isn’t ALWAYS right……etc., etc.”

Humor always works when it’s the right humor!

Spontaneity, the natural flow of your ideas as though you were speaking in a conversation in which you just happened to be doing the talking will give you the most effective results!When you have internalized your subject so well that you can speak impromptu, you have even more credibility with your audience — compared with reading a speech.
If you follow the above practice tips, you may find yourself enjoying public speaking, even looking forward to it!