10 ways to improve your public speaking

by ianmckenzie on March 8, 2012

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According to The Book of Lists, the fear of public speaking ranks number one in the minds of the majority of people. Far above the fear of death and disease comes the fear of standing in front of a crowd. I was a member of Toastmasters for a number of years. I enjoyed the applause and after effects of successful speeches, but I hated the nerves and stress that went with the delivery.

It goes without saying, great content can be ruined by poor delivery. (Okay, I said it.) It is equally true that no amount of great technique will rescue bad content. You need to develop both skill-sets to deliver strong presentations.

Here are some simple tips that can improve your delivery:

  1. Develop a deeper voice – Listen to a news anchor and practice speaking in the same way. A deeper voice carries more authority. Find some exercises to lower the pitch of your voice. A quick solution: take three of four deep breathes before standing to speak. It will relax your vocal cords and your voice will be deeper.
  2. Slow down – We tend to speak quickly when we are nervous. If you speak too quickly, people will see you as nervous and perhaps even unsure of the topic. Find a comfortable pace and practice. Be careful that you’re not too slow.
  3. Give your voice some life –  gave us the definitive monotone presentation style in . You want to avoid that example. Speak louder and softer; speak higher and lower; speed up and slow down. None of these need to be carried to extremes, but variety helps you hold the listener’s attention.
  4. Speak clearly, don’t mumble. When speaking in public, you need to exaggerate the way you enunciate words. What sounds clear to your ears, is muddy 30 feet into the room.
  5. Use appropriate volume – Match your volume to the setting. You will need less volume when speaking to a small group in a boardroom and more volume when speaking to a large group in an auditorium.
  6. Pronounce your words correctly – If you aren’t sure how to say a word, don’t use it. Be especially careful with proper nouns. You’ll turn off the audience quickly if you mispronounce the name of their town in your introduction.
  7. Use the correct words – There’s nothing that destroys your credibility as a speaker like a misused vocabulary. If you’re unsure of the meaning of a word, look it up. If you can’t look it up, leave it out.
  8. Look at people – I’ve seen speakers stare at their notes, at the back wall, at the floor, anywhere but at those sitting in the room. Make eye contact with your listeners. Don’t stare at one person, but let your eyes work the room. Make eye contact for one point, then move on to another person for the next point. You’ll look like you’re trying to connect with the audience.
  9. Gesture – with your arms, your face and perhaps your whole body. Unlock your iron grip on the lectern and move your hands and arms to emphasize what you’re saying. Let your face get into the speech: smile, frown, open your eyes wide. You’ll do a better job of communicating your passion for the topic.
  10. Step away from the lectern – or, if you’re well prepared and don’t need notes, get rid of it altogether. The lectern can be a large barrier between you and your audience. If you need it for your notes, step from side to side periodically. (Not so much that the listeners get sea sick.) The best presentation you can give is the one you know so well, you don’t need any props to hold you up. It’s just you and the audience.

In one sense these are all instant fixes. You could start using these techniques in a speech you have to give ten minutes from now. However, they’re not quick fixes. Any presenter gets better through practice. Make these tips part of your preparation process and people are going to want to listen to you speak.

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