27 tips to be a better public speaker

For many, public speaking is right up there with dying on the list of things people hate or fear most. But at some point in your professional life, chances are good you’ll have to stand in front of a room full of people and lead a meeting or give a speech.

Chances are even better that if you prepare both yourself and your speech instead of winging it, you might stand a chance of doing a great job instead of just a meh one. But how can you get past the dread and anxiety that comes with public speaking?

The good news is that “all speakers need to have a little bit of anxiety before they go live,” according to marketing expert and author Lorrie Thomas Ross. She also says her stress about public speaking lifted when she “learned about optimal anxiety — meaning that you had a little bit of butterflies and that means you care enough about wanting to do your best.”

Ross also reminds us that “speaking is a means to deliver a message — plain and simple,” so it might help to change your outlook because “when you are in the mindset of serving your audience, it takes the pressure off and helps you focus on what you are there for.”

Besides, Ross says, “Knowing that even the best speakers have anxiety before they go live also helps you move through the natural initial butterflies and get onto delivery!”

A good reminder. Here are some tips to make you a better public speaker:

Topher Morrison, who literally wrote The Book on Public Speaking has been a professional speaker and speech coach for more than 30 years. He highlights the potential nuances you should pay attention to. For instance, listen for different cadences for different countries, and even time constraints; he says “some locations may tolerate a longer presentation than others.”

Morrison also says “due to online interaction, we are wise to use global norms over local norms unless the presentation is specifically written for a specific audience.” He cites TED Talks 18 minute length as a prime example since “according to their research, this is the maximum amount of time an adult can pay attention before losing interest.”

“And if you need to convey two hours of material in only one, don’t talk twice as fast,” he adds, “just eliminate the parts that are ‘nice but unnecessary’ and then provide additional reading material for the self-initiated to read at a later moment in time.”

And while you’re at it, Morrison suggests you should:

1. Pique your listeners’ interest with a fascinating story: Craft your presentations in a manner that arouses their attention and pulls them into your narrative.

2. Avoid stand-up routines: Don’t dabble with humor unless you’re are a natural-born comedian. The best jokes are about timing and need to be tailored to each specific audience. If your joke is not a guaranteed laugh, opt for fascinating anecdotes with which the audience can relate.

3. Don’t ramble: Don’t carry on too long when you open the talk. Rambling with too much backstory can easily lose the audience’s interest.

4. Set your intentions for the room before you start: Develop your introduction, complete with your credentials and instructions for applause, and make sure to give this to the organizers. This circumvents the possibility of awkwardness and silence ushering you onto the stage. This shift allows you to take the power of the room and harness the audiences’ attention. A cold open is tough to overcome.

5. Educate through entertainment: Professional speakers are paid more if they can simultaneously teach the audience while entertaining them. The more the information resonates with the listener, the more they learn from the presentation. So make it fun and educational.

6. Your energy level determines how the audience receives you: Balance confidence with enthusiasm to capture your listeners. Gauge your energy to match and balance the room. Intimately discuss with the front row, while you simultaneously engage the back of the room. Engage your audience from every angle to foster stronger connections.

7. Use the stage to sell yourself: Sometimes you’re selling an item, sometimes you’re selling yourself- but it’s important to think past the immediate sale. Create value for your brand by instilling trust with your audience. Building a strong foundation of trust with your audience helps create a strong reputation, and can foster sales in the future.

8. Originality matters: Even if you admire particular professional speakers, do not copy their act. Instead, take the tried-and-true techniques of your idols and put your own creative spin on it.

James Goodnow from Fennemore Craig, P.C., was personally affected by kidney disease and went on to found the Kidney Challenge; he’s won numerous public speaking contests for his work with the organization. Some of his tips include:

9. Tell stories: Goodnow says, “There is nothing more powerful in connecting with an audience, including those in your organization, than a personal story that drives home the point. People are accustomed to taking in information through stories that are memorable and applicable to their lives.

10. Find a point of impact: Audience members will always ask themselves how this talk will impact them. Focus on the needs of the audience and on concrete examples of how the information you are offering can impact their life or career.

11. Don’t leave out emotion: One of the biggest mistakes any speaker, including CEOs, make is failing to realize the power of emotions. Powerful speakers understand and remind us that, although logic rules the minds, ultimate acceptance of your ideas will still hinge on emotional acceptance and support for concepts.

12. Hit pause: People need time to process data. It’s essential that you give the audience time to reflect on key points. The problem is that silence can feel uncomfortable for the speaker. Just remember, that although the silence may feel awkward for you, it’s giving the audience time to digest and consider points you just made. Use pauses before and after key points and best communicate your message.

13. Move and use gestures: People learn by hearing and visually by seeing. Utilize gestures to paint a picture and move to demonstrate your points and bring them to life for your audience.

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several national and international best-selling books. He reminds us to:

14. Prepare and practice: Confidence in front of a group is borne of preparation and practice. If you know your topic cold, you can focus on how you are going to say what you say, not what you are going to say. Preparation means studying your topic enough to be an authority, not just enough to get a speech. Practice means giving your speech in front of a mirror over and over. You might want to enlist friends to listen and offer your feedback and suggestions. Don’t let the first time you deliver your speech be in front of your audience. And when you’re done- prepare and practice some more.

15. Understand your audience and tailor to their interests: The more you know your audience, the better you can give examples they will appreciate and relate to. Bell usually interviews three or four people who will be in the audience. He asks for their examples and stories (and often weaves them into his talk). If you know the challenges and issues your audience deals with related to your topic, you can address them in what you say.

16. Arrive early and greet your attendees: It will quiet your nerves. Even professional speakers can get a bit nervous before getting in front of a group. If you arrive early, you have time to get accustomed to the room and head off any hiccups in the making. It also enables you to set up before anyone arrives, giving you a chance to greet your attendees as they arrive. That way you are speaking to friends you have met not strangers you do not know.

17. Don’t memorize; present from what you know, not what you remember: Many speakers think they are supposed to memorize their speech.  You are not an actor; you are a person delivering a message. Speak from knowledge, not from memory. You can use notes as you speak — your audience is going to be fine with you having notes. Or, you can have slides that prompt your points. Just remember your audience also expects you to make eye contact. Again, preparation and practice are vital to delivering a confident speech. If you memorize and forget your lines, it will shake your confidence as you try to recover.

18. Be real. Be authentic:  If you are a bit nervous, be honest about it. Don’t be an orator; be a conversationalist. Just talk with your audience, not at them. Let your personality come through. Just let go and have fun with your topic. If your audience sees you having fun, they will as well. Let go and just talk, don’t preach or pontificate.

19. Start on time; participants expect it: Starting on time tells your audience you respect their time. Why punish the folks who came on time by making them wait for the people who opted to arrive late?

20. Describe your objectives up front: it lets your audience be better prepared. After your opening (thanks for having me; I am honored to get to present), let your audience know your goals for the speech and briefly what you plan to cover. It gets your audience ready to hear your points and they will more likely remember your key points.

21. Let attendees know how you prefer to handle questions: Some speakers like the audience to interrupt them should they have questions. Others prefer to hold questions until the end. Either way is fine; just let your audience know what you prefer. If questions are expected at the end, leave a few minutes of your allotted time for their questions.

22. Don’t take yourself too seriously: If you have a great time, so will your audience. Take your subject seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously. No one likes an arrogant, pompous speaker who reminds the audience of how smart they are. If you decide to use humor, make sure it’s your natural humor.

23. Avoid distracting body language: Watch out for distractions. Remove the change from your pocket beforehand. Keep your hands out of your pockets as well. Avoid verbal ticks like “you know” and “uh” as well as overused clichés or jargon some of the attendees might not know or understand.  Use great eye contact. Move a lot, but don’t pace like a lion in a cage. Get out from behind the lectern so there is no barrier between you and your audience. Smile a lot.

And a few tips from me. I lecture frequently on both the graduate and undergraduate levels and create corporate seminars and keynote on a variety of topics, so I really enjoyed and appreciated the above tips but wanted to add a few of my own:

24. Make your notes as easy to read as possible: I type out my notes in an extra large font and then cut out each sheet and paste on index cards, colored by section. That way, I know what I’m about to say, and when I’m at the end of a topic.

25. Take notes when others speak: If I’m the final speaker or on a panel, I’ll often take notes when others are speaking. In that way, I’m both an active listener and engaged speaker since I can automatically update my speech as I go.

26. Cut it out: No matter how much research I do and find fascinating, there are times the audience just won’t be into it. Feel free to speed through certain slides, or cut down on your speech at any point if you sense the audience growing restless.

27. Stick around to talk: You may feel incredibly relieved after your speech and want to disappear, but stick around for potential kudos and networking opportunities. You never know who was just in your audience.