The Art of Public Speaking

You can speak well if your tongue can deliver the message of your heart.
John Ford

I was recently asking a retired elementary teacher about her recommendation on the best extracurricular activities for children (yes, I am a helicopter mom). She said in all her years of teaching, the best training for kids is anything that makes them more comfortable expressing themselves clearly and confidently in front of others. She believed that many kids who struggled with public speaking would grow to be adults that struggled with this at a larger scale with much more on the line. Isn’t this true?

I know accomplished professionals who take every opportunity to avoid public speaking, many times agonizing days over such affairs. Personally, I have my highs and lows with it. Sometimes I look forward to making a presentation and other times, I stress over it for days. If you’re one of those people who isn’t naturally inclined to want to be the center of attention, then perhaps these recommendations can at, least, help you improve and maybe one day even look forward to it.

Learn by Imitation (Listen, Watch and Learn From Others) 

The best way to learn is to learn from others. I keep a journal of presentation styles or presentations that I like, including what I specifically liked about them. My gauge for a strong presentation is when I don’t feel compelled to check my email. If I’ve sat through a presentation completely engaged without resorting to peaking or playing with my Smartphone (my current addiction), I would rate that as a strong presentation. I encourage you to keep such a diary. I particularly like TED Talks not only because of the subjects they cover, but the presenters are good storytellers. They use (or don’t use props) very effectively. You can start by evaluating every presentation based on what you think worked or didn’t work with it. There’s a lot you can learn about presentations that don’t keep you engaged, as well. The goal is not to get you to present like someone else (see next point), but to start to assess what works well and what doesn’t.

Be Yourself

Although, you should study what works with presentations and presenters, I wouldn’t recommend making the goal to actually present exactly like them. Instead, be yourself. Really! If you’re comfortable, then your audience will be comfortable from the getgo (which is half the battle). Your style – like your personality – may not work for everyone, but it’ll work for most people who matter. I admit, I tend to be quirky and make silly jokes (including ones aimed at myself … or at my husband’s expense), but that’s just me. I’m naturally wired that way and it helps me deal with presentation butterflies. So, learn from others, but be yourself.

Take Risks

Presenting is a courageous act. Communication at its core is a vulnerable act. Good presenters accept the risk and put themselves out there. They probably take more risks in life, in general. I’m not saying you need to jump out of an airplane, but become someone who is open to risk, vulnerability and, even, failing, because sometimes you will.

Get Into the Material

Good presenters are into their material. The beauty of TED Talks is that the speakers can be talking about the simplest thing, but in the most interesting way (or the most interesting thing in the simplest way). If you’re not naturally interested in the material, (not sure why you’re presenting it then?) find a way to get into it and to own it.

Tell a Good Story

It’s all about the storytelling. Get your audience interested, take them through the journey with a payoff; leave them with something better than before you started. If you’re not naturally a good storyteller, read some children’s books. Simple stories with good lessons told quickly.

Always Ask Yourself, What One Thing Do I Need This Audience to Take Away From the Presentation?

Before you write or say one word, ask yourself, “What one thing do I need this audience to take away from the presentation?” Focus on that one thing and make sure you deliver against it. If you’re not sure you accomplished your goal, you can ask your audience either by blending it into the presentation or in follow-up questionnaires. Most of the time, you’ll know if you succeeded based on the outcome of the presentation or feedback readily given.

Look for Opportunities

And, finally, even though you may not want to, find opportunities to speak in public. It’s the only way you will see improvement. You will have bad days and bad presentations, but as long as you’re taking the risk, connecting with people, learning from it and growing, you will be alright.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.