5 tips for better public speaking

Recently, I’ve had a stream of people messaging about my TEDx talk. Half want to talk about the content and half want to talk about the process of speaking and speech writing.

The question I most commonly get is “How do I get chosen for a TEDx talk?” which I might tackle in a future article. For now, I want to focus the second most common question – “How do I improve my public speaking?” Here’s my 5 tips:

1 Ask “Do I need to speak well?”

A lot of people say “I wish I was good at public speaking” – but why?

Some people argue court cases, some sell life insurance on the phone, and some preach to sinners on a Sunday morning. Those people have to speak well. Otherwise, plenty of other folks live rich lives through more modest, even silent, forms of communication. A friend of mine was so nervous at speaking at his sister’s wedding that he wrote her a letter instead. She read it at the reception and welled up with tears, saying it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever said to her. What more could you want?

If you don’t need it, don’t sweat it.

2 Rehearse the most important part

If you’re convinced that you do need it, let’s look at how to rehearse the big speech. Chances are you won’t have infinite time or patience to practice a single speech a million times, so where to focus?

When I was young, my parents took me on exhibition ride called The Gravitron. I didn’t like it. It was a glittery, UFO disk where the force of the spin would shoot you up its inner walls, totally disorientating you. Still to this day, stepping on stage and starting a speech sometimes feels like that – body disorientated and memory wiped.

That’s why my number one tip for speech preparation is to rehearse the start – a lot. Rehearse it ten times more the rest. Even if your mind blanks when you walk on stage, your muscle memory will push you through the fear and anxiety. Before you know it, you’re settled into the groove of the audience and the space.

3 Nail the peaks

Then after you’ve been speaking for about 3 minutes, people will start switching off. Sorry! Even brilliant speakers usually have less than 10 minutes of total audience attention. Worse, if your topic is a new inventory management system or changes to an accounting standard, even diligent minds will wander.

We should accept the audience as they are rather than bemoan their brittle attention spans. We just need sharper tools to cut through. And we already have those tools. While writing your speech, you no doubt came up with genius anecdotes, clever puns, and dramatic twists. They are the “peaks” of your speech – the things that are (i) critically important; (ii) emotionally engaging; or (iii) just bloody well written if you don’t say so yourself!

In the valleys, you can forget your place, meander through irrelevant detail, and even try improvising to the audience temperature, but the peaks are a clear, powerful, rehearsed climaxes. They demand attention and they stay with your audience long after you stop speaking.

4 Get negative feedback

Once you have finished presenting, next comes the most lovely, least helpful part of any speech – feedback.

Recognising speaking is difficult, most people give you great feedback whether they were engaged, confused, or checking their phone. Worse, if people see that you’ve really struggled, they become even kinder the name of reassurance and encouragement.

To be sure, this type of feedback is beautiful and generous. If we rarely present and aren’t trying to improve (see Tip 1), it’s perfectly polite to receive little white lies. Otherwise, we should know that our tie was crooked, our slides were illegible, and we went five minutes too long.

I once chatted with a speaker after he gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. He thanked me for the praise but pressed me for three things he could do better. When I spoke with him while writing this article, he said “I always like it when people are compassionate and honest, but if I can just have one, I’d rather the latter.”

Asking for criticism is hard. Not asking for it has a price. At worst, that price is a lifetime of crooked ties, dud slides, and rambling anecdotes.

5 Do it again

Here comes the bad part: to get any good, you have to give pretty much a thousand speeches. Worse, some of them will be shockers. You’ll have the speech where your jokes failed and even offended a few people. The one where you left your notes in the cab. The one that made no sense. The one where you looked like you might cry or throw up or both. And every now and then, you’ll have the one where people laughed on cue, cried with you, and applauded with genuine fervour.

Then another flop, then another triumph, and the strength to deal with both and keep going. And if you have a message worth sharing, someone else out there needs you to keep going as well.

Hi! I’m a dispute resolution lawyer and the former CEO of Out for Australia, an Australian LGBTIQ+ student mentoring non-profit. Feel free to add me on LinkedIn with a message about who you are.

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