Eleven tips for public speaking

Rachel Morgan-Trimmer at Upfront Conference 2019

If you want to get into public speaking, or you want to improve your talks, here are ten tips to help you.

1. Get proper training

I cannot emphasise this enough. If I had my way, it would be illegal to present without training.

There are so many things that presentation training gives you. I’ll list them below but the first and by far the most important thing is that it gives you confidence. It takes away some of those worries we have, it helps you craft a decent, coherent presentation, and all of that means you’re more confident in your delivery. Which makes for a better presentation. It’s a positive feedback loop.

Here are some of the other things proper public speaking training will teach you:

  • How to present without notes
  • How to present without slides (you can still use them but it teaches you not to rely on them)
  • How not to fiddle with your hair, jewellery or jacket
  • How to avoid saying “um”
  • To do a strong opening
  • To do a strong close
  • To do a presentation without preparation (you may never need to do this but I can tell you that it’s a really useful experience!)

Just a caveat here – make sure the person doing your training is actually good! I’ve seen people who’ve been trained and they still make loads of mistakes that they should have been trained out of. Don’t waste your money.

2. Know your audience

This is pretty important- but it’s not always possible.

I’ve presented to lots of different kinds of people over the years and the audience makes such a difference.

Your audience will be warmer if people know each other. I’ve found that it’s easier to speak later on in the day, or at the second day of a 2-day event, when audience members have already had a chance to interact.

Cold audiences aren’t impossible, but they are harder work. I’ve spoken at travel events where no-one knows each other, and the space is open so people walk in and walk out all the time. This makes engagement more difficult, but there is always some keen person near the front, and if you look at them frequently, they will normally buoy you along.

Knowing who you’re going to speak to helps you prepare, and that can take the edge off your nerves.

3. Have a mate in the crowd

Or two, or three.

Having someone you know, who’s going to support you no matter what, can help with your confidence. Your friend can also act as a coach – I sometimes plant people in the audience to give me hand gestures for when I need to speak up, and when I need to slow down (I tend to talk too fast when I’m nervous).

Someone in the audience can also photograph you or film you when you’re giving your talk. If you want to progress as a public speaker, you will absolutely need footage of you speaking at an event.

A supportive friend or colleague in the audience can also give you honest feedback. Which brings me to my next point…

4. Get feedback from both friends and strangers

Honest feedback is the only way you will improve. And you need to source feedback from friends and strangers alike.

Your friends will be encouraging and tell you all the best bits about your talk. But it’s good to have an honest friend or colleague whom you trust to give you constructive criticism. I have had colleagues come to my talks and tell me what I need to improve – whether that’s the content, where the flow hasn’t been quite right, or if I needed to modulate my voice more. Without exception, these have been things that I hadn’t been aware of, and addressing them has improved my talks.

Strangers will only give honest feedback if it’s anonymous. You can do this by allowing people to fill in feedback forms after your event and even then, they’ll probably be nicer about you than you deserve. Apart from trolls, who get a kick out of being nasty, most people tend to be more positive on a form if they know it’s going to be read by the person they’re talking about. So while they might have suggestions for you, they are unlikely to tell you if you suck.

What will tell you if you suck is if you get no feedback at all. Or if you get very little. If people like your talk, they will waste no time in coming up afterwards to tell you that. But if you suck, they won’t say anything at all, or, if cornered, might say something very bland, like “I enjoyed your talk” without mentioning specifics.

So if you get no feedback, take it as a hint that you need to improve.

5. Interact with the audience (but do it properly)

Audience interaction keeps people awake and engaged. It’s hard to drop off if people are laughing, answering questions or talking back to the speaker.

It also sexes up your facts a bit, especially if you’ve got some that are surprising. Instead of showing a number on a screen, or a graph, asking people to guess at the percentage, or how many times something has happened, is a more interesting and engaging way of sharing the information.

By far the easiest way of interacting with your audience though, is to make eye contact. It makes such a difference – I’ve been in audiences where I’ve really felt the speaker was connecting with me because they were looking directly at me. It helps you as a speaker as well, if you’re looking at individuals, especially if they nod or smile.

You need to assess what kind of audience you have and what kind of interaction is going to work best. I’ve got this wrong a few times!

If you have a large audience, or a cold one, asking for a show of hands works much better than asking people to shout out answers. A show of hands allows people to share their feedback without having to do very much. Other ways are simply asking a question and seeing if people nod their response; that’s a very low-energy way of people engaging with you. You can also ask people to stand up and sit down, if you’re confident that everyone is able to do that (I’ve never done the standing and sitting thing myself but I’ve seen other people do it well).

If your audience is small and/or warm, asking people to shout out answers can work really well. Not only does it keep everyone awake, it also sometimes brings a bit of humour in and it encourages people to interact in other ways, such as asking a question before you’ve finished, or nodding agreement at another point. I’ve even had people murmur and whistle at surprising things I’ve presented and I have to tell you, as a speaker, that really helps the whole vibe of a talk.

The only thing you need to be aware of about asking people to shout answers or guesses is that you don’t know what they’re going to say! I unexpectedly had someone guess the right percentage at a talk recently, which took out some of the shock element, but I still had to work with it.

At another talk, I had someone shout out the same percentage for every answer, which actually turned out really well because it became a running joke. (I found out who it was later and sent him a thank you email, because it really boosted my confidence to have a joker in the audience and he helped warm up the rest of them for me!).

6. Emulate aspects of speakers you like

When you watch someone else speaking, work out what it is you like about their talk.

Is it the way it’s structured? Do they have a nice, even speaking voice? Perhaps they are funny. Maybe their slides look really good.

When starting out, it’s a good idea to copy those elements of a talk you really enjoyed and adapt them to your own talk. My autistic spectrum slide that everyone loves so much was inspired by another talk where someone was showing a process going wrong.

As an autistic, I’ve been told that my speaking voice could do with a bit more modulation – I have a tendency sometimes to speak in a rather flat tone. I was aware of this but didn’t really know how to improve it – until I saw a speaker who was really expressive. I brought some of that into my most recent talk and I definitely felt that my delivery was a lot better.

7. Work out what your natural style is, and stick to it

In copying other people, it’s important to remember that you need to develop your own, unique style.

For example, if you’re not naturally funny, don’t attempt jokes. A joke that falls flat is worse than no joke at all. There are other ways you can engage people – I’ve seen people who aren’t funny at all hold an audience captive because they are natural story-tellers.

If you’re not very good at jokes or stories, your strong point might be doing “how to” types of presentations. These work better without all the extra fluff, in my opinion, because they allow people to focus on exactly what they need to do.

If you don’t know what your natural style is, it’s something you can develop through practice. It’s also something you can take from your personal life and bring into your public speaking career.

What role do you take in your family or friends group, and what aspects of that can you bring to a talk? For example, are you the joker in your group of friends? Or are you the quiet one who doesn’t say much but whenever you do, it’s something useful? Perhaps you are very emotional, and wear your heart on your sleeve? Or maybe you would rather talk about facts than feelings?

Whatever your natural style is, working with the strengths and characteristics that you already possess will turn you into a good public speaker.

8. Look good

If you do a talk, people are going to be looking at you. And if you’re not comfortable with the way you look, it’s going to show.

OK, fine, some of us will never be truly comfortable with the way we look, but when you do a presentation, it’s important to make yourself look the best you can. And by that I mean, what works for you, not what someone else tells you looks good.

I always wear something simple when I present – jewellery is kept to an absolute minimum and I never wear patterns because I think they are distracting. I also make the effort to dress a bit smarter than I do in real life (which is not difficult as I normally look like a tramp).

I’ve seen great speakers present in jeans and a horrible jumper, and in expensive suits and shiny shoes. Each time, it hasn’t been the actual clothes that matter, it’s how comfortable the person feels in them.

If you’re a natural fiddler (a fidgeter, not a violin player), don’t wear anything that you know you will fiddle with. Some people never wear a jacket to present because they know they will flap it about. Also, make sure your hair is going to stay in the right place – there’s nothing more distracting than a speaker who keeps pushing their hair out of their eyes.

9. Don’t worry about forgetting stuff

This is one of the most important things I learnt in public speaking training.

You are literally the only person who knows what you’re going to say. No-one is going to notice if you forget something. So it doesn’t matter too much.

Also, if you forget something and remember it later, you can usually slot it in without too much trouble.

I think I’ve forgotten at least one thing in every single talk that I’ve done. I use a lot of mnemonics (memory tricks) but I don’t like to overdo it, so I usually end up missing out something. It’s never anything that’s actually vital to the talk. And that’s the other point – if you do forget something, it is very unlikely to be something crucial.

10. Speak clearly and loudly and slowly

It doesn’t matter how good your talk is if no-one can hear you.

I try to speak as clearly as I can when I do a presentation (the “posh voice” that some people have commented on). It’s easier to hear and understand if the speaker enunciates (pronounces their words clearly).

Speaking loudly isn’t such a big deal if you have a mic – but if you don’t, you need to make sure you can be heard at the back of the room. Practice your loud voice at home, and if the neighbours complain, you know you’re doing it right! Also, remember that if you do questions at the end, the rest of the audience won’t usually be able to hear the question, so it’s a good idea to repeat it before answering it.

Your public speaking pace should be slower than your normal speech. Your audience is trying to learn from you, so you need to give them time to absorb the information. Allowing yourself pauses also gives you time to remember your next bit.

You can pause for a surprisingly long time in public speaking. The beauty of it is that no-one will interrupt you, so you don’t need to rush. Speaking slowly makes you appear calm and confident – and it’s considerate to your audience if they don’t have to struggle to keep up.

11. Practice, practice, practice

The most important thing. You’re never going to get better unless you practice.

You should practice each talk several times in private before you give it in public. By that I mean several times on your own and at least once in front of a friend or colleague who can be trusted to give you useful feedback.

They can tell you what they thought was good, and what needs improvement. They can tell you what they thought of your slides. And they can also tell you which bits they didn’t understand which is really important, because it means that you have a chance to clarify those bits before putting them in front of a live audience.

And every talk that you do in public can be treated as practice as well. You’ll learn which bits work and which ones don’t – and that this can vary depending on your audience! You’ll start to gauge your audiences and learn what’s going to work well for each one. And you’ll learn to manage your nerves and become a confident and competent speaker.

I have been told that I’m a good public speaker, and I’ve got quite a lot of experience, but I also think there’s always room for improvement. I hope that these tips help you to become a better public speaker too.

If you’re speaking at an event, or you’d like me to speak at your event, tell me about it on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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