How to nail public speaking

You’ve been asked to deliver a speech. Brilliant!  It’s an amazing opportunity so why do you feel like you could puke in a bucket? Most of us have been there, some of us have felt so terrified we’ve declined the opportunity, some plucky others have seized the opportunity with both hands and nail it. I was the former, but now I am the latter.

Here are a few simple tips that might help you go from puker to performer:

Get inspiration.

It might appear that being adept at public speaking is simply something you are born with, or those that seem to be ‘naturals’ have a secret. Actually, it is usually the result of professional coaching and a lot of practice.


Barack Obama is a great orator. When on the campaign trail and in office he knew his audience and always spoke to them in a way that delivered a clear message.  There are numerous examples online, but his ‘fired up, ready to go’ speech puts a fire in my belly every single time.


“One voice can change a room.

If a voice can change a room, it can change a city,

If it can change a city, it can change a state,

If it can change a state, it can change a nation,

And if it can change a nation, it can change the world.

Are you Fired Up?  Are you Ready to Go?”


Obama always seems to have his audience eating out of the palm of his hand. From fellow world leaders to school children, he uses language they can relate to and his clear message embraces those that hear it.


Practice and again and again

I’ve worked with the brilliant Thor Holt on presentation skills training. He suggests a minimum of five rehearsals.  This way you are familiar with the content of your speech and comfortable with the words and any tricky pronunciations


It’s beneficial to practice with another person (ideally a communications manager, but a partner, colleague or parents would do!). It’s also a good idea to sense check any “comedy” to make sure your remarks are appropriate and not-offensive to those that are involved.  There is nothing that strikes more fear into the heart of a communications manager than hearing a speech for the first time when delivered on stage!


If you don’t have any real people to practice with, use what you have: mirrors, the voice recorder on your phone, the video on your iPad etc.  This way you’ll become less self-conscious and you can be aware of any little habits: ‘ums’ and ahs’, pacing the floor, rolling on the balls of your feet like a tree swaying in the wind!  My son has an annoying habit of saying ‘like’ at the end his sentences, and my mum has always overused the saying ‘at the end of the day’ when making her point.  We all do it, and it’s not a big deal when not on stage, but are we aware of it?


Practicing this does not mean learning every word verbatim. Work out what you want to say and distill that into bullet points. This will keep you on message but you will not be an over-rehearsed robot.


Tell a story

What’s the one thing most TED talks have in common?  They tell a personal story.  All stories have a start, a middle and an end, and if you can include a bit of drama, comedy or intrigue then all the better.


My last blog ‘Why Storytelling Works’ looked at the power of a story and reflected on a book I had read by Peter Wohlleben’s.  His book about trees was not a typical scientific research paper as he used emotional storytelling techniques. His trees cry out with thirst, they panic and gamble and mourn. They talk, suckle and make mischief. His use of descriptive language brings the forest alive and had me hooked to his book.  Using a storytelling approach can bring your speech to life.  Can you describe taste, look, smell or sound? If your audience can picture what you’re talking about, they are more likely to remember it.


During a recent Board meeting, I brought my presentation about a new brand to life by offering Board members chocolate.  These meetings usually involve a lot of paperwork, so to sharing chocolates rather than a Board Packs was a different (and somewhat risky) approach. Comparing a high street chocolate with a high-end chocolatier was a visual representation of the how the rebrand would position the company. The experience of opening the chocolate box was the start of this journey, and the luxurious feel, colours, and taste enhanced their experience further.  This would not have been possible with images on a PowerPoint, so don’t be afraid to think outside of the box (or chocolate box in my case!)



Don’t waffle

I’m as guilty as the next person for talking too much.  I’ve become more aware of this over recent months and it takes a lot of self-discipline to stop talking.  When preparing a speech, or during a public speaking situation, ensuring that you all of your key messages are relevant during your practice sessions will lessen the waffle and keep your presentation on track.   Including personal stories is important, but this should only be around a minute or two of your speech.  If you take a look at your favourite TED talks, you will find that most of them follow this format.


Find your voice

It’s not just what you say, but how you say it. Your cadence – how varied you sound – adds impact. A flat monotonous tone can send your audience to sleep before you even get to your personal story.  Likewise, a sing-songy voice can be quite annoying.  Finding the tone that is right for you is the only way to make your speech authentic and impactful. This is the benefit of practice, practice and practice again!


Calm down

You’ve practiced in front of the mirror, you’ve videoed yourself and have treated your nearest and dearest to a dress rehearsal.  So why are your palms sweating and you think you could be sick into a bucket.   It’s just nerves, or is it excitement?


If you were to ask a group of athletes how they felt about before an important race they would most likely say they are excited.  If you ask a boxer how he feels before entering a ring, he is unlikely to say nervous.


It’s a natural response from caveman ancestors who had to choose to ‘fight or flight’ a perceived threat. Your audience is not a saber-toothed tiger, and public speaking will not kill you.  The first step is preparation and the next step is believing in yourself.


Here’s a simple breathing exercise might help you to take control of the situation and rationalise your thoughts: Breathe in through your nose to your stomach (not your chest), hold it for 3 seconds, and breathe out through your mouth for five seconds. Repeat this until your breathing has calmed and your head had cleared.


And slow down!

You just want it to be over. You race through your speech as you don’t want to take up any more of the audience’s time and you want to get back to your seat. Big mistake. Mrs Obama is just as wonderful as her husband when it comes to taking to the stage. Look at her clips online and you will see that she takes her time and allows for her point to land, before carrying on.  Not only is she giving her audience time for her message to sink in, she’s allowing time to find the right pace and tone for maximum impact.


A good way to practice this is to pretend you are saying a phone number or a spelling a name for someone to recall – as Mrs ‘S.l.u.p.i.n.s.k.i.’ I’ve had a lot of practice on this one.  It really does make you slow down and speak with clarity.


Look up

You’ve spent ages getting ready for this moment.  You have practiced, practiced and practiced again.  You’ve included a personal story, the message is concise so that you don’t waffle, and your tone and speed is clear so your audience will have the time for your message to sink in. Enjoy your moment.   Don’t waste all of this effort by looking at your shoes or burying your head in some notes. Three people or three hundred, make eye contact with them and speak directly to them. If your stage is too big to make eye contact, angle your body in different ways to make sure everyone feels included.  If looking into their eyes creeps you out, then look at their eyebrows as it is interpreted in the same way.   Fill the space, you’re are not doing the YMCA or signaling an aircraft, but hand gestures and movement keeps your audience interested and shows your passion for this subject you have chosen to share with them.


Review and repeat

If you have the opportunity to record your presentation to review at a later date, please do so. It’s a great opportunity for self-assessment to make it all the better next time.  Above all, remember that nerves and excitement are the same physical experience, it is up to you how you chose to use it.


Go get ‘em!


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