Everyone probably has some horrible memory of standing on stage as a kid, fudging the lines to some school production, and sneaking away completely embarrassed.
For the record, my bright and shining moment was when I was six. I had to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for (who knows why) a music show, and I only made it through the first half before I forgot what came after “Cracker Jacks.” Cut to me running off the stage.
While this recollection does bring back some old jitters, I am not scarred for life because of it. In fact, I only got better at public speaking after that (as long as I avoided old-time baseball songs). Because unlike my six-year-old self, I couldn’t just run away if I got scared or nervous.
Talking in front of crowds, or your managers, or a client, can be daunting, and you can feel like there’s no possible way you can do it. But I’m going to tell you that you’re wrong—you can learn to become a confident, commanding public speaker if you put your mind to it. And I’m here to help.
Whether you have a big presentation, an important conference, or are even the best man at a wedding, here’s your ultimate cheat sheet—from start to finish—to giving your best speech yet.
1. Watch Other People
The best way to perfect something is to learn from the best. So, before you even start thinking of what you’ll say, watch a few famous speeches (may we suggest TED talks?) and think about what kind of speaker you want to be? Funny? Inspiring? To the point? There’s no wrong answer, but knowing what direction you want to go in will help you when you sit down to start writing.
2. Gather Information
Find out who you’ll be speaking to, what you’ll be talking about, and how long the speech should be. Once you know what you’ll be covering, you’ll be able to figure out what your goal will be. Are you there to solve a problem? Answer a question? Sell an idea? This goal will be the focal point of your entire speech.
Not to mention, it’ll go hand-in-hand with preparing the right notes for your audience. If you’re coming in as the expert, you’re going to want to make complex topics easier to understand. But if you’re presenting to your company’s higher-ups, you’re going to want to find out what they’re looking for in this speech and address that.
3. Jot Down What You’d Like to Talk About
Next, write down everything you’d like to cover—anything at all, this is your brain dump.
4. Figure Out Your Important Points
Now, look at what you wrote down and note anything you 100% want to cover. These are your main points. (And if you want something to hit home, don’t be afraid to repeat it or rephrase it—after all, you want your audience to remember the good stuff.)
5. Write it Out
Figure out which ideas can be grouped together, which ones seem repetitive, and which ones seem irrelevant. Start to organize what you’d like to say when and how each idea will tie into the next. Muse writer Deborah Grayson Riegel offer a great general outline for any kind of speech:
An Attention-Getting Introduction: Start off with a quotation, an anecdote, a question, or a statistic to get the audience’s attention right away.
A Preview: Summarize your main topics in the beginning so your listeners know what to expect.
Points 1 Through 3: Make your case and include stories, statistics, examples, expert citations, and personal experiences to back up your claims.
A Recap: Restate what you talked about and why it was important.
A Q&A: Let your audience ask you any questions before you finish.
A Closer: Wrap up any loose ties, draw an inspiring conclusion, and then end with a memorable statement.
6. Add in Transitions
Once everything is in its rightful place, add in some conversational transition statements: “On this point, we can also talk about…” “Not only does it do this, but we’ve also found it does X.”
Unlike a school essay or corporate memo, these don’t have to be formal, nor do they have to be completely scripted. In fact, they’ll probably change when you actually give your speech so it’s best to make sure that they’re something you’d actually say.
7. Decide on Your Visuals
It’s useful to have a PowerPoint, Prezi, video clip, or any other sort of visual to enhance your presentation, but don’t go overboard. You should consider visuals an addition to your already-awesome speech, rather than a necessity—because there could be a time when technology fails you and your own voice is all you’ve got.
Don’t forget to check in and see what you’ll actually have access to when it comes to computers, projectors, and so on. And honestly, even if they say they have everything, it’s never a bad idea to bring your own computer with the files saved just in case.
8. Edit (and Then Edit Some More)
It’s a good idea to look over what you’ve written and fact check it before you start practicing it aloud. Make a note of anything you’re unsure of how to pronounce and ask someone who 100% knows. And if you have an accompanying visual, proofread that, too. It would suck to have a large typo on a PowerPoint distract from what you’re saying.
9. Find Out if You’ll Be Able to Bring Up Notes
More often than not, you’re allowed to bring notes up with you of some sort. Sometimes they’ll be on your computer, other times note cards. Knowing this will help you figure out exactly how to best rehearse.
10. Break it Down Into Sections
If you do have to know it by heart, remember this: No one eats a hamburger in one bite, so you don’t have to memorize the entire thing in one shot. In fact, you don’t need to 100% memorize it all. This isn’t a play and no one will know if you go off-script.
So, instead of trying to do that, start out by dividing your speech into bite-sized segments—introduction, point one, point two, point three, conclusion, and so on—and learn the general gist of each one.
11. Visualize It
One scientifically-proven way to memorize anything is to put an image to the concept. For example, if you want to say, “Traffic was low this week, but we did see an increase in young viewers,” you’ll probably picture an intern on the computer.
Or, you could try the “method of loci”—it’s an ancient method of using location to remember things. So, it could be helpful to rehearse your speech as you take a walk, giving each section a location marker—a mailbox, a tree, a stop sign.
12. Rewrite It
You don’t actually have to rewrite your entire speech, but reversing the process and putting your speech down in writing is a great way to solidify it into your memory. So grab a sheet of paper and rewrite everything you remember. Then, go back into your notes and see what you missed—is it really important stuff or a random study that’s not all that necessary? For the former, make a point to work on it; but for the latter, don’t stress.
13. Time It
Grab a timer and read it out loud. If you find yourself going over the allotted time, take a look at your speech and cut out anything that’s not directly related to your thesis. Fun facts, jokes, and anecdotes are great, but if they’re not tied to what you’re saying, cut them.
And if you beat the clock, there’s a possibility you’re talking too fast and aren’t pausing enough. Before you rehearse it again, jot down points where you should stop and let the audience take in what you’re saying.
Also, it’s OK if you’re only a few minutes short—people will often times have questions and this gives you a chance to answer them.
14. Say it in Front of a Mirror
I believe that watching yourself give a speech is one of the more terrifying thing you can do. But that’s why it’s so important—if you can see what you look like and how you present, you get a better idea of what others will see.
15. Record Yourself
Once you get comfortable reciting it, record the speech in full (there are free apps that make this easy!), keep going even if you mess up along the way. Then, go back and listen to the footage—which is awkward, but also just for your ears. You just might catch some things you didn’t notice earlier, and you’ll also realize that even what seem like the most horrific mistakes aren’t all that bad.
16. Practice in Front of a Friend
Performing in front of someone you trust is a great way to practice having an audience, as well as get some useful feedback for the future. Before you start, let him or her know the things you’re most worried about—from unclear points to speaking too fast to not using your visuals in a way that makes sense—so he or she knows what to look out for.
17. Think About Body Language
Are you flailing your arms left and right? Are you hugging your chest while you talk? Are you smiling? Your body speaks just as loud as your words, so make sure they are in sync. This means practicing your body language as much as the words themselves—stand tall, be mindful of how much you gesture, and understand when you should smile, frown, or act serious.
18. Think About Tone and Pace
It’d probably be a bust if you went in and shouted “Our sales are down by 20%!” in a super excited voice. But you know that just as much as I do. Practice not just what you say but how your language comes across, and know when sarcasm, or jokes, or mock frustration is appropriate.
Also, monitor your pace—because if you ramble too fast through a key point, youraudiencewontcatchit.
19. Consider Volume
How big is the room? Your volume will depend on the answer to this question, as well as if you’ll have a microphone or not.
20. Check Out the Space
Speaking of the space: If you have the chance, take a quick trip over to where you’re giving the speech—an auditorium, a conference room, an open office. This will help answer a lot of questions for you and get you feeling more comfortable.
Conquering the Fear
21. Imagine the Worst
Take a second to write down the worst possible outcomes of the speech. You stutter? You faint in the middle of it? You go through the whole thing with a giant lipstick smear on your face?
Now realize that none of these are the end of the world. Plus, now you know what you’re most afraid of, so you know how to prevent it. As Muse writer Caris Thetford says, “No matter how well or how poorly your speech goes, you are probably not going to die…Once you start to give some perspective to your fear, it stops being quite so scary.”
22. Remember That It’s Not About You
No one in the audience is there to watch you—and only you. They’re all there to hear what you have to say.
If you take the focus off of yourself and onto what it is you’re talking about, you concentrate more on teaching the audience rather than what people think of you.
23. Remember That You’re Not Alone
24. Get to Know Your Fear
You know best what fear feels like to you. Do you get all sweaty and shaky? Do you talk really fast? Get comfortable with the feeling before you hit the stage. If you know what to expect, it not only becomes familiar and less terrifying, but you know what to expect and then how to conquer it. A study on arachnophobia revealed that when you’re exposed to the thing you’re afraid of (spiders and public speaking alike), the part of the brain that reacts in fear becomes dormant. So expose yourself to fear now so it won’t happen later!
25. Know That it Won’t Go the Way You Expect it To
This is a big one—no speech will ever turn out the way you want it to. Before you let this freak you out, know that this isn’t a bad thing! Regardless of how much you prepare, you’ll probably run into a situations in which you’ll have to improvise, or re-word something, or go on stage without any working tech. And these are the moments that’ll make your speech truly authentic.
Getting Up There
Cheesy, I know, but I guarantee a deep breath before you start will help calm your nerves and concentrate. And as you go, whenever you begin to feel jittery, it’s totally OK to take a pause and inhale. In fact, it makes a great dramatic pause.
27. Work Your Power Pose
But even more than that, standing tall projects a respectable presence and makes people believe what you’re saying. Yup, it’s that powerful.
28. Find a Focal Point
When you first enter the room, it can be a bit intimidating to see the crowd with all eyes on you. So instead, pick a focal point above people’s heads, whether it’s the back wall or a clock straight ahead, and use it as a way to clear your head and calm your nerves.
29. But Also Make Eye Contact
Then, once you’re settled, it’s key to make eye contact with your audience—all of your audience, so practice scanning the crowd and find new faces to direct your attention to.
30. Create Silence
What makes President Obama such an engaging speaker is his ability to pause. He does this for several reasons—to help listeners catch up, to let the words sink in, and to let viewers reflect on what was said. Pausing creates positive tension that makes an audience perk up and listen. It also slows down the information load so that it’s easier for people to digest.
31. Be Your (Slightly Better) Self
Even though you may be giving a speech about a topic you just learned about, or to an audience you’re terrified to be in front of, this doesn’t mean you have to pretend to be someone you’re not. Your personality will be what makes your speech unique. And if you try to be someone else, people will notice—because chances are you’re not a great actor.
That being said, your public speaking self won’t be fully who you normally are. Think of your public speaking self like your interview self—you, but a touch more professional.
After you get through this first one, you’ll feel a lot more ready for the next. But if you want to get more practice in between and become even better, there are plenty of opportunities out there, including online courses, improv classes, and joining organizations like Toastmasters.
And remember: Be brave and say yes whenever the situation presents itself. While you may never look forward to it, it will eventually become something you don’t fear, but rather accept as part of being a professional in 2016.
Photo of man speaking courtesy of Tom Merton/Getty Images.