Unfortunately, in many professions, some amount of public speaking is necessary. It might be that you need to present in a small meeting, give an update to the entire company, or present at a conference or other event. No matter what it is or how daunting you find it, there are steps you can take to prepare and improve your skills.
- Understand the Expectations and Learn the Details
- Know Your Audience
- Plan and Structure Your Speech
- Don’t Overload Your Slides
- Practice, Practice, Practice
- Get Feedback
- Memorize Your First and Last Lines
- Join a Club or Go to a Workshop
- Get in the Zone
- Don’t Bury Your Face in Notes
- Make Eye Contact
- Use Pauses
- Repeat Yourself
- Let Some Questions Go
- Keep Talking
- Remember the Audience Is on Your Side
- Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself
Before You Even Get Up There
So much of what goes into public speaking happens way before you step up to the front of the room. Preparation and practice are key. Here’s what you can do in advance to make the actual speaking part as smooth as possible.
1. Understand the Expectations and Learn the Details
“Gather all of the information regarding location, technical setup, time you’ll be speaking, dress, topics to include/avoid, type of presentation, etc.,” says Tara Goodfellow, a Muse career coach and owner of Athena Consultants. Having all of this information ahead of time will help you prepare a presentation that fits the occasion and resonates with your audience.
It’ll also help you avoid technical or logistical snafus that can add unnecessary stress, Goodfellow says: “You don’t want any surprises as in realizing you were supposed to bring a laptop or handouts.”
2. Know Your Audience
It’s as important to understand your audience as it is to understand the subject you’ll be discussing in front of them. “Make sure you understand the level of knowledge,” Goodfellow says, and tailor your presentation accordingly. “You don’t want to bore them with details they already know nor do you want to overwhelm them.”
Josephine Lee, third place winner in the 2016 Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking, emphasizes that even if she’s giving the same speech to two different audiences, she’ll take the time to customize it. She always asks herself, “What is the specific audience and why are they there?”
So, for example, the toast you’d give at an engagement party among all your college friends might be pretty different from the speech you give at the same friend’s wedding in front of the whole extended family.
Or in a professional context, imagine you’re giving a presentation about the future of your company. That would look really different depending on whether you’re talking to a group of executives from your own organization versus a room full of college students who are interested in getting into the industry. For one, you might dive into the nitty gritty of last quarter’s performance and share your insights about what changes your organization needs to make to remain competitive. For the other, you’d probably zoom out a bit more, give an intro to your industry, and sketch out what your company does and where it’s going.
3. Plan and Structure Your Speech
So often the focus of advice about public speaking is about how you’re saying the words in front of an audience. Those things are unequivocally important (which is why we go into detail about them below!) but before you get there, you have to think about what you’re saying.
“You can have great diction and you can have great presentation skills, but if your words and structure are all over the place then people are not going to remember what you said,” says Lee, who credits Toastmasters with teaching her how to write a speech. “It is 100% about simplicity, because when you’re giving a speech in front of a live audience it’s so fleeting that if you have multiple points and if you go off on tangents and if you don’t stay on one simple path then people won’t remember what you were speaking about.”
Lee always picks one central point when she’s preparing a talk—whether she’ll be speaking for five minutes or 45. She’ll present her central theme, give supporting evidence and examples, and keep circling back to that main message. “So even if the audience forgets 99% of your speech, which they will, they will go home with that 1%,” she says.
Rajiv Nathan, a Muse career coach and founder and CEO of Startup Hypeman, takes a similar approach with a slightly different formula. His go-to structure for a talk is “inward, outward, forward.” He starts with a story that explains why he’s talking about this topic in the first place, zooms out to evidence that others are thinking about it as well, and ends with solutions.
In a workplace setting, this might translate into laying out a challenge your team is facing, zooming out to examine how other teams and companies are thinking about and handling similar issues, and end by proposing next steps for your team.
4. Don’t Overload Your Slides
If you’re using slides to accompany your presentation, make sure you avoid overloading them with too much text. “Think about how you like to be presented to,” Goodfellow says. “Very few of us like an 80-slide presentation where the person just reads everything to us.”
Beyond the simple fact that people will be distracted squinting at that teeny tiny type, you might be tempted to start reading off the slides and you’ll end up sounding a little too much like Ferris Bueller’s economics teacher (i.e. droning on and on and on in a monotone).
5. Practice, Practice, Practice
Okay, pay attention, because if you absorb just one thing from this article it should be this: You have to practice. Not once or twice but over and over again.
“When you practice it enough you figure out the rhythm,” says Nathan, who estimates he practiced his TEDx talk about 100 times before he gave it. You’ll also feel more confident and comfortable speaking without reading off a piece of paper (or your slides) because the structure and progression will become so familiar.
6. Get Feedback
While practicing on your own is useful, it can be even better to do it in front of a live audience—even if that’s just your work bestie or your sister. The more you get used to speaking in front of actual humans the easier it’ll get.
Plus, you can get feedback from your trusted practice audience before you go out and do the real thing. Ask them if your words and points were clear, if there was anything that confused them, how your rhythm was, and if there was anything else they noticed.
You can also give yourself feedback. Use your phone (or whatever other device you have) to record audio or video of your practice sessions. When you play it back, you can become your own audience in a way and pick up on things you didn’t realize needed some attention.
“I have had clients astounded at their mannerisms and overuse of ‘um’ when we’ve played back video. Most of us have a nervous ‘go to’ sound or movement,” Goodfellow says. “Once you’re aware of it, you can work on it.”
7. Memorize Your First and Last Lines
You’ll want to have a pretty clear idea of what you’re going to say, of course. But you also don’t want to sound like a robot regurgitating a pile of words you wrote down.
By the time she was comfortable in front of an audience, Lee wasn’t reading her speeches or even memorizing an exact script. “If you memorize everything word for word, it’s not going to sound very natural,” she says. Instead, she plans the structure but keeps the words themselves a little loose with a couple of exceptions: “I generally try to memorize the opening sentence and the closing sentence.”
8. Join a Club or Go to a Workshop
If you’re committed to improving your public speaking skills, then not only should you practice each speech or presentation before you give it, but you should also try to get as many of the real thing under your belt as you can so that you become accustomed to it.
“It’s the most important to get as much stage time in front of an audience” as possible, Lee says. “That’s why Toastmasters was such a useful organization for me because it gave me the grounds to practice on in front of a live audience.”
Toastmasters is of course one of the more well-known options, with more than 16,000 clubs all over the world, but you can also check out meetups, classes, and workshops. If those options aren’t available in your area or don’t appeal to you, try gathering a group of friends and/or colleagues who want to practice their skills and give and get feedback on a regular basis as well.
During Your Speech
9. Get in the Zone
For about 10 minutes before he gets on stage to give a talk, Nathan becomes something of a recluse. He doesn’t talk to anyone, he drinks some water, he crouches down somewhere, he focuses on his breathing, and he repeats this phrase to himself: “Use expression to create possibility.”
Now, that’s a very specific set of actions that works for him, but he recommends everyone figure out their own “stage mantra” or routine. Ask yourself, he says, “What do you need to be repeating to yourself beforehand? What, action-wise, do you need to do beforehand to get yourself in the zone?”
It might take some time to find the things that help you in the lead-up, whether you do them the night before, the day of, or in the moments just before you begin. If you’re not sure where to start, think back to some other reference point in your life when you were preparing for an important event, Nathan says. What did you use to do before a baseball game or piano recital or big exam? See if those things help now and iterate until you find the right combination.
10. Don’t Bury Your Face in Notes
When Lee first started giving speeches, she’d just read the whole thing word for word off a piece of paper. “It was terrible,” she says, remembering the early days before she became the accomplished speaker she is today. “Notes are like a crutch. So you just start to rely on [them] more and more,” she’s realized. “It’s more important that you’re connecting with the audience, making eye contact with the audience, and [having] a true conversation with the audience.”
She no longer uses notes at all—she just memorizes the opening and closing lines, as mentioned—but reaching that comfort level takes practice. If you’re still working up to that and need your notes, she says, go with bullet points. They’ll help you stay on track without tempting you to read everything from the page.
Notes can also block your face or torso, or draw your eyes down as you’re reading, says Nathan. So if you plan to bring some, try folding your paper or using index cards with just those few bullet points to serve as a reference.
11. Make Eye Contact
You’ve surely heard it before, but eye contact is key in public speaking. It helps you connect with the audience, Lee says, and it’s most effective when you focus on one person at a time. “When you are giving a speech, you should always sound like you are delivering to a single individual rather than speaking to the masses,” she says. “Direct eye contact with one person then moving to another is an effective way to do that.”
12. Use Pauses
“A lot of times people speak really fast. Their mind is racing and they want to make a good impression,” says Jennifer Sukola, a Muse career coach and human resources professional. “People tend to want to rush through and get it over with,” especially when they’re nervous. It’s something you might get feedback about or pick up on if you record yourself.
One of Sukola’s biggest tips for public speaking—using pauses—can help with overall speed as well as pacing. You can use pauses strategically, inserting them right after important points to let them sink in or right before to allow you to gather your thoughts and get the audience’s attention for what you’re about to say.
Sukola likes to follow a structure where she makes a point, pauses, provides support for that point and recaps, pauses again, makes a related point, etc. “If you follow that outline and pause in conjunction with the points you’re making,” she says, “the audience has a chance to let that simmer, to let your points settle and think through [them].”
13. Repeat Yourself
Remember that the people listening to you talk live can’t rewind to catch that important thing you just said or flip back a few pages to find that crucial point you made earlier the way they could if they were watching a video or reading a book.
So help them out by repeating the thesis or main takeaway of your talk, says Nathan. In his own talks, he might repeat that take-home line six or eight times. The repetition ensures that everyone hears it, realizes it’s important, and can process it and let it sink in.
“It’s got to be short and punchy,” says Nathan, and you can accentuate it with pauses before or after you say it. If you have slides, you might also want to put it up there once or twice. It’s like the chorus of a song, Nathan explains. It’s catchy and it’s the first thing someone will be able to repeat back to you.
14. Let Some Questions Go
You can do a whole lot of planning, but the truth is that you can’t anticipate everything, including questions that might come up. Goodfellow stresses that it’s okay to say, “That’s a great question, let me get back to you on that.” In fact, that’s far better than stammering through and making something up.
15. Keep Talking
Lee may now be an award-winning speaker who travels all over the world to give talks and feels comfortable ditching the notes, but even she still freezes and forgets her speech sometimes. You have to just keep talking until you find your way back.
“Get away from that mentality that you have to be perfect. It’s okay if you forget,” she says. “You learn to start to fill in the gaps. Start to speak until you remember. No one in the audience knows you forgot your speech,” she adds. “What you are feeling inside is not as apparent as you think it is. If you keep that in mind and keep talking, eventually you’ll come back.”
16. Remember the Audience Is on Your Side
For many people, public speaking feels like one of the scariest things they could be called on to do, Lee says. They’re terrified of failing and think they’ll be humiliated and ostracized. But the people on the other side don’t want to see you mess up—they’re eager to hear what you have to say.
“If you remember that the audience wants you to do well, that they’re on your side, it’s a much easier process,” says Lee. Focus on what you’re giving to the audience—as if you were giving advice or telling a story to your best friend—rather than on yourself and how you appear.
17. Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself
Finally, remember that everyone gets nervous. Those executives many levels above you whose presence is making you sweat? They probably get nervous when they speak, too, Goodfellow points out. “Give yourself a little bit of grace,” she says, and do the best that you can.
Photo of person speaking in front of an audience courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author