Ten Top Tips to Improve Your Public Speaking

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As a writer, teacher, attorney, and business owner, I can tell you that people will judge you by what you say and how you say it. When you are invited to present a speech at a professional convention or conference, you must take care to present yourself well in your speech. We can all improve our public speaking by learning a few simple techniques which can help prepare us to speak confidently in public. Surveys of Americans have shown that people are most afraid of public speaking; death ranks a mere number two. But you can rein in your fear and speak with confidence if you read on and do your homework.

This article shares with you the ten top ways that you can use today to improve your public speaking.

Top Tip #1: Plan your speech.

Planning plays an important role in all of your communications. In public speaking especially, you should follow the formal research and preparation which an outline requires. This process and its result will keep you organized and flowing in your presentation. This first tip is actually a bundle of tips.

Here’s how to get started and do the outline:

First, ask yourself: Who is my audience?

Assuming this will be your professional group, your colleagues will require a different style and approach than another group. A group of potential customers, for example, will probably need more information about what services your company provides and how you can help them fulfill their needs. On the other hand, your colleagues will want to know your particular expertise and how you go about satisfying customer needs.

  • Direct all of the ideas and examples toward the audience’s interests and needs.

Second, ask yourself: How do I narrow the topic?

For a presentation to your professional group, you will often be invited to speak in a general area which the coordinators feel is needed for the theme of the conference. Be sure to get the brochure and look at the advertisements so that you know what the theme is! Look at the other topics included in the brochure. How does your area fit in? Your topic should, if at all possible, be related to a “hot topic” in your field. You will know what those are from your professional
publications and  journals. If you don’t get them, go on-line and do your research.

Think of an interesting twist on a subject of high interest in the field. Everyone says, “Don’t reinvent the wheel,” but what if the right approach to a problem in your field is, “Reinvent your own wheel,” or, as Bruce Springsteen says, “Sometimes you just have to write your own narrative!” You may wind up with a highly creative wheel that spins faster than all the others.

Third, do the outline:

All presentations have big ideas and little ones, categories and details, main ideas and examples. Pick the style you like and go with that. The top communicators in all of history tell stories. Once you have the big ideas and categories outlined, tell stories for the examples and details—it is a great educator’s tool. Look back at what we have studied so far for a good example. The big idea: Plan your speech. The details of how to plan your speech: a)
know your audience b) narrow your topic c) do the outline of big ideas (the I, II, III’s) and the examples (A,B.C under each).

Here’s another good example. In my series of e-books about learning the principles of success by studying the biographies of successful people, I am currently planning the fourth book in the series. The working title is Success Stories IV: Second Winds and Success on the Rebound. The big idea is in the title and the stories will be the examples. I have begun to make the outline of
stories I will tell which exemplify the principles explained in the first book in the series and which show second starts and careers.

There are so many stories out there that give us tremendous hope for the future and for what we can do even late in life to improve the world we live in that the hardest part is selecting the best examples I can find for the principles to be learned. I have four selected so far. The most thrilling I have found (because I didn’t recall ever knowing the latter part of this story) is the story of Alexander Graham Bell. We all know him as the inventor of the telephone and how that invention changed our lives forever. But did you know that his true calling was to teach the deaf how to speak? Did you know that Helen Keller’s parents were referred to him by a medical specialist when they were looking for a teacher for Helen? Bell took the wealth earned by his hard scientific work and put it to good use to improve the lives of the deaf. And he recommended Anne Sullivan to Helen Keller’s parents, giving birth to “The Miracle Worker.” The invisible hands of providence were working there for sure.

A story about a real life person like that is so gripping that it teaches us a lot about possibilities and dreams and changing lives. It tells a lot about how you can get a second wind in life, a second chance to do the things that are really important to you and that you know in your heart and soul you are called to do.

Whatever your field is, you will have case studies and role models in your patients, customers, vendors, employees, colleagues, students, and assistants. Think about their stories and tell them in appropriate places in your outlined presentation.

Other benefits of using an outline are that you won’t be tempted to read it because it will just highlight the main ideas and also your speech will have a logical, well-organized flow.  Everyone has heard a speech where the speaker seems to be jumping back and forth,  skipping main transitions, and just generally not doing a very organized pesentation of the material. It’s no fun for the audience to try to keep up and figure out where the speaker should be. Always plan your material so that the organization provides a framework for the ideas. Your speaking will be greatly enhanced and more readily received. And your audience will love you for it!

Top Tip # 2: Select your words carefully.

In this day and age, we are plagued by the imprecise use of language. I think it has to do with all the cyber world speed junkies all around us! Do your homework and you will soon discover that you are able to communicate your ideas far more effectively and easily than you may have thought. Remember that words have both a dictionary definition as well as a connotation—the feeling or implication of a word is key to its proper use. Don’t use the word “cry” when you really mean “howl;” don’t use “request” when you mean “plead;” don’t use “happy” when you really mean “ecstatic.” Pay attention to the words you use and where you use them. You can make your speech far more accurate and effective by selecting the correct words. Besides that, you can make your public speaking far more compelling by using active verbs and nouns and descriptions which really tell a story in a more fascinating way.

Say what you mean, and mean what you say!

Top Tip # 3: Avoid slang and jargon.

Avoiding slang and jargon is very important in making yourself clear to your listeners. Slang is almost useless outside the forums where the teenagers hang out. Unless you work at the mall selling t-shirts, drop the slang out of your speech habits. Slang has the hallmarks of imprecise speech. One kid will say it and then they will all pick up on it. If you are a parent, you will know that slang is basically coded speech. In other words, the kids don’t necessarily want you to know what they mean. If you feel it helps you in communicating with your
teenagers, by all means, that may be a context in which you may want to use their language. But be careful that slang does not infiltrate your every day speech at work.

Jargon is that particular set of words which has special meaning for a professional or business group. Lawyers are particular bad about using jargon—as a lawyer, I hear it every day. Many states have even passed “Plain Language” laws to require lawyers to speak and write clearly and plainly about what they mean. So much of the jargon that lawyers use relates to old formalities. I have noted that certain clients will want to impress us with their ability to sprinkle their communications with us with “whereas” and "hereinbefore”! I avoid that type of stilted speech as much as possible.

There may be legal documents which require the use of “terms of art” which have special legal meanings, but for everyday speech and communications, I have found that they can be avoided entirely! If you really understand a word and its usage, you can speak it plainly. Other professions also have problems with jargon. Think about the explosion of e-terms we have to live with today. It’s not a book, it’s an “ebook;” it’s not just commerce, it’s “e-commerce;” not just marketing, it’s “emarketing.” These words are everywhere now, and you probably get them every day in your e-mail box. They are so common these days that many of us are just dropping the hyphen and using the “e” as a full suffix! That saves time typing on the keyboard.  Send me an email. Write an ebook. You will see them both ways for a while, but then the hyphen will disappear. What you should do is try to cut down on the jargon as much as possible. For clarity’s sake, you should try to avoid jargon in your speech with people outside your field.

Top Tip # 4: Avoid verbal stalling mechanisms.

Ask someone who loves you whether you are using annoying stalling mechanisms when you speak. Go ahead. You need to know the truth. Maybe it’s only sometimes, like when you don’t jot down notes before making that phone call. But if you focus on this tip for a day, I promise you that you will discover the times and places and circumstances in which you are likely to falter in your speech.

“Ah…,” “Ummm…,” “Hm…” We’ve all heard them and we’ve all used them. These are verbal tics which we need to avoid as much as possible. If you have planned your speech, you will be able to overcome this obstacle. If you feel an “Um” coming on, that is the time to glance down out your cleverly devised outline and move on to the next idea or example. I always hold a pen up there at the podium. It is easy and effective to check off each point as you go.

At times it is appropriate to insert a dramatic pause, or take a sip of the discreetly placed glass of water, or have handy a verbal cue to yourself— “Does anyone have any questions before I go on to the next point?” or make a short announcement to the audience: “Remember if you have questions please write them down on the question card distributed with your materials (or outline) and
someone will come around to pick them up.” This type of transition works every time.

Top Tip # 5: Practice your speech. Out loud.

Trial lawyers, orators and teachers will all tell you that practice, practice, practice is the best method to achieve success with the spoken word. Listen, the spoken word has been every bit as powerful as the written word in the history of the world from the very beginning. God said, “Let there be light,” and it was so. For people, practice is key. From the beginning of this country, the spoken word has held great power:

John Adams said, “Let me have a country—a free country!” and it was so. Well, after convincing the other colonies that independence was right and just and necessary, and after a major war in which a ragtag army took down a king and the most powerful empire in the world at that time, then it was so. Now, John Adams knew well the power of practice in public speaking and the human need of it. He would write out his closing arguments and arguments to Congress, and let his wife Abigail read them and give her criticisms, many of which he took to heart. After those planning stages, he would practice and practice the speech out loud.

Henry Clay, who later became the great orator and politician of Kentucky, would practice speeches in the barn and in the woods as a young farm boy. They called Clay the “American Demosthenes.” Demosthenes was the great Greek orator of ancient times, who stuttered as a child. He overcame his stuttering by practicing speeches out loud in private every day. The spoken words of these speakers have changed their countries and the world forever in these instances.  We may be surprised at the many opportunities we ourselves have to change the world around us and help other people, if we practice our speech to make it more effective.

What causes do you care about in the world? You can make a difference with your speech. You can inspire colleagues, salesmen, volunteers and workers. You can get people to do the best job they can, or to make more sales, or to give the best services available in your field, or to donate money and goods to a worthy cause. You can help where no one else has. Whenever you have those opportunities, use them well. Remember the importance of your presentation. And practice beforehand.

Top Tip # 6: Relate to your audience.

This tip is really something that brings together many of the other principles in improving your public speaking. As you plan the speech, the needs of the audience play an important role in what you say. You want to gauge the level of your audience’s understanding, interests, education, and attitude at the beginning of planning your speech.

But this relating to your audience is the hard part–when you stand up to speak to an audience. Walk to the podium. Take a deep breath. Look at the people. Maintain your eye contact. Smile. Perhaps you have had an introduction of some sort. The first words out of your mouth should be to your host and to your audience. “Thank you for that kind introduction. And thanks to all of you for coming here today. I am very pleased to be here to speak to you about…(your topic).” Take another deep breath, and then start into your outline. By the time you get into your speech or presentation, the material takes over. If you have prepared the material well, your speech will go well.

Remember, too, that in almost every case, your audience is routing for you. They came to hear you speak. They came to get information, facts, tips, whatever your experience and expertise can help them with. They are rarely thinking directly about you. They are thinking about the next client or
customer or contract. They are wondering if you will deliver to them something helpful to them in their field or business. That is where you can relate to them best. Deliver what they came to get.

During your speech, respond to your audience. When you look at their faces, do they look confused or do they occasionally nod their heads and appear to be right with you? Even if you have a strict time limit, it may be appropriate to say, “I’ll come back to that at the end,” or “Remember if you have questions…,” or “Let me explain that a little more.” You cannot say everything you need to about a subject because in most cases, the subject is too broad, so that some follow up communication may be necessary.

Top Tip # 7: Relax and be yourself.

People get nervous about public speaking because most of us do not do it every day. Unless you have had the experience of being a teacher or a trial lawyer, or a judge, public speaking is probably not part of your daily or even weekly or monthly routine. That makes it hard for most people to speak in their normal way or use their normal gestures. You can get past this type of nervousness by remembering you were invited to speak and most of the
people in the room came to hear you speak. You! Not some fancy professor at an ivy league school, or some Academy Award-winning actor, or some celebrity. When you think about it, you can only be you, and that is the best thing you can be! Don’t put on last minute airs that don’t suit you.

Top Tip # 8: Remember: They are watching you!

I know you are asking yourself, “Well, how can I relax and be myself if I have to remember they are watching me?!” Good point, but you want to be your best public self while you are up there in the front of the room. When you are called upon to give a professional presentation to your colleagues or a marketing proposal to potential customers or referral sources, your best public self should be ready to perform.

Here are the details, some “do’s” and “don’ts”:

  • Stand tall with good posture.
  • Say a prayer.
  • Don’t scratch your nose unless it’s absolutely necessary.
  • Try not to fidget or shuffle papers.
  • If your knees shake, try squeezing your toes in your shoes.
  • Find a friendly, receptive face in the audience.
  • Try not to fuss with your hair (brush it back beforehand)
  • Stay focused on your topic.
  • Respond to cues from the audience.

Top Tip # 9: Use Humor Wisely.

Humor is good, but not everyone can pull it off. If you are good with telling a joke or have a quick wit, and humor fits in with your style and the topic of your speech, by all means, entertain. There are only extremely rare occasions when wit is completely not appropriate, and those should be obvious to you. However, there are also topics and types of humor that must be avoided always: nothing mean-spirited or that mocks or that causes discomfort or embarrassment
should ever be considered humor. Ask for someone’s opinion before putting humorous comments or stories in your public speaking. (As a substitute, find inspiring quotations to include.)

Top Tip # 10: Have Confidence.

Public speaking is really all about confidence—in yourself, in your purpose, and in your preparation. Very often, confidence grows with practice and with preparation. But even great orators and speakers who have been giving speeches for many years admit to feeling nervous before a speech.

You should have confidence in this fact: When you love the work that you do or the cause that you support or the mission that you have been called to do, that is your confidence. That is your true foundation. You should always remember that those invisible hands of fate have placed you in a particular room, on a particular day, with a particular audience for a particular reason.

Picture your success in your mind and you will have confidence. See yourself confidently presenting your speech. Hear the applause. Think positively about the outcome. Your dream of successful public speaking, with the proper preparation, will come true.
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