Perfecting public speaking

Perfecting public speaking
The return to offices, colleges and schools means more presentations, so it’s a good idea to practice public speaking, writes Jason Osborne

Whether it’s in front of a large audience or before a small team of colleagues, most of us have to speak before groups of people at some time or other. The pandemic mitigated this by offering the less-daunting prospect of Zoom meetings and other similar online forums, but the recent return to workplaces, colleges and schools means many are going to have to face down public speaking once again.

This is no small thing – public speaking consistently featuring in lists of fears and phobias. Being social creatures, we’re intensely conscious of making fools of ourselves in front of others and seek to reduce the risk of doing so as often as possible. Standing before a crowd or group puts the spotlight firmly on us, and in our minds, magnifies every mistake we make.

It need not be so, though. Our ability to speak publicly is fortunately something that is in our control. Countless books and presentations have been given on the topic to just that end; helping people to improve their public speaking skills. Having been on the debating team in secondary school and having had a job a number of years ago that was constructed around delivering presentations to large groups, I’ve been fortunate enough to pick up some tricks of the trade, reducing a once nerve-wracking experience to a routine one.

You don’t look as nervous as you feel

The first thing to say, and one of the most useful pieces of advice that I received, is that you don’t look as nervous as you feel. When standing up to speak in front of a group, you’re always far more aware of your sweating palms, your racing heart, your muddled thoughts, than the crowd is. They simply see you standing before them.

It’s very important then, that you learn to dissociate these feelings from the idea that you’re doing poorly or making a fool of yourself. Understanding that nervousness and excitement are two sides of the same coin helps to harness the adrenaline rush you experience before doing something scary – which in turn helps you to be more alert and ready to give a commanding performance.

Prepare beforehand

Preparation is also the best way to overcome pre-presentation nerves. Going over your speech or notes multiple times in advance of the occasion familiarises you with the material and the topic, making it a routine rather than a once-off event.

Another good piece of advice I received in this regard is to either practice giving the presentation or speech in front of a mirror, or videotape it. Both will help you to see yourself perform, and identify the ways in which you can do better. It’s helpful to bring a friend in on these occasions if you feel comfortable doing so, as they can offer gentle critiques to help you improve.

A key part of preparation is knowing your audience. Knowing who they are will help you deliver your message in a way well suited to them. It’s important to remember that your speech is about them, not you. This will help you to choose your words, phrases and the general thrust of your presentation more aptly.

Use (minimal) notes

When you’re nervous about giving a speech there can be a tendency to write it out word for word so that you can always refer to it if you forget what comes next. However, while this may get the entire speech down on paper, it compromises on all of the other important aspects of public speaking: eye contact and gestures foremost among them. If you’ve ever watched or listened to a speech or presentation read off a sheet, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a sure way to lose the audience’s attention.

On the topic of the speaking itself, avoid at all costs the “ums” and “ahs” that we automatically fill our speech with”

Instead, try minimal notes, using prompts and talking points instead of lengthy paragraphs. This should help you keep your place without resulting in a poorer experience for the audience.

Personalise your speech

Personal connection is very effective when it comes to public speaking. While it’s true, as I said, that the speech or presentation isn’t about you but your audience, it’s also true that giving them personal anecdotes, stories and a sense of your personality is more likely to help them connect with you and your message.

It’s a cliché at this stage, but it’s often the case that people don’t remember everything you say, but they surely remember how you made them feel. Scripture itself alludes to this, when the resurrected Christ appears to the pair travelling on the road to Emmaus. After he vanishes, they turn to each other and ask, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”

Avoid fillers, embrace pauses

On the topic of the speaking itself, avoid at all costs the “ums” and “ahs” that we automatically fill our speech with. We generally do this in order to avoid awkward silences as we gather our thoughts, but those silences aren’t as awkward as we’re inclined to think.

A well-timed break in speaking can emphasise or strengthen a point, letting the audience mull over it before moving on.

They say that when in doubt, keep it brief (or briefer, at least). Often when we’re speaking or giving a presentation, we’re given a certain amount of time in which to do so. Less is sometimes more, as the saying goes, but going over on your time is likely to turn a structured presentation into a wandering, ponderous discussion that loses its point somewhere along the way.

Going over on your time reveals a lack of preparation, and is poor etiquette if your presentation or speech is part of a larger event, as it deprives others of their time.

With this in mind, it’s also not ideal to rush through your talk. A sure sign of nervousness and a lack of preparedness is to rush through your talk, barely pausing to take a breath. You need to give your audience the opportunity to connect by slowing down and making sure they hear what you’re saying.

The key to balancing your speech’s pace just right is practice, of course. Practicing in advance ensures you won’t go over your time, without rushing through all of your material.

Body language

A final flourish to put on your performance is practiced body language and tone. The way things are communicated has an enormous, unconscious effect on your audience, and delivers the feelings you intend to convey. Good delivery and movement doesn’t distract, rather, it emphasises the points you’re making.

These few tips are simply to get you started as you head back into the public forum”

This stands in stark contrast to an inward, hunched over, nervous speech or presentation. Your message doesn’t carry as well, and you make your audience work to engage with you. When practicing, simply begin by standing up straight with your shoulders back, resisting the urge to make yourself smaller. Then you can start adding in gestures and movement.

As mentioned, there have been many books written and speeches given on ‘the art of public speaking’. These few tips are simply to get you started as you head back into the public forum.