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How to be a good public speaker

Book open Reading time: 5 mins

Many people find the prospect of public speaking highly daunting. However, the reality is that, like it or loathe it, public speaking is a critical business and life skill. We've identified the top five things you need to do in order to become a good public speaker. 

how to be a good public speaker

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1. Know your audience

The key to all successful public speeches is knowing your audience. This doesn't mean having met everyone in the room. It means knowing at a high level who the audience is, what they want and what they need to know. These details will allow you to pitch your speech accordingly, focus on relevant content and ensure you go into the right level of detail. 

For example, is the audience made up of your peers who are looking for an informal update on your work? Are they more senior colleagues who will want a summary of the key information and a view of planned next steps? Are they a set of investors who need to be convinced of the reasons to put up more cash? Are they a sports team looking for a morale boost and pre-match encouragement? Is it a set of merry wedding guests who want to have a few chuckles before being reminded of the poignancy of the occasion? Clearly, each of these audiences would solicit a very different tone and style of speech.

In particular, knowing your audience allows you to determine what is relevant, what content and what type of content you need to include (data points vs examples vs inspirational stories vs comic references) and enables you to prepare accordingly. Sometimes this might mean having the relevant props or supporting items ready too - whether it be a couple of slides showing key data points or a roadmap outlining the next steps in the journey.

Read: Public speaking tips from the Head of TED

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2. A good public speaker plans what they're going to say

Even the most polished and professional public speakers plan what they're going to say in advance. And not just for big speeches, but for smaller, more informal updates too. Planning what you're going to say in advance allows you to clarify exactly what it is you want to cover. For some, this will include identifying the exact words and phrases you want to use - even where you might pause or change the slide. For others, it is enough to just identify the two to three key points you want to be sure to include. Even the most experienced speakers can feel a tingle of nerves when asked to speak publicly and this alone can be enough to make you lose the structure of your speech.

Some swear by outlining their entire speech in advance. Even if, during your presentation, you choose to digress from your planned text, you can feel confident knowing that you have a plan to return to if needed. Others prefer to have a clear view of the overarching structure but to not focus too much on the exact words in advance. The method you choose is largely down to personal preference and so it's good to try a few methods out to see which feels most comfortable.

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3. Practise

One of the most important steps in delivering a great speech is practising in advance. Even the head of TED emphasises the importance of rehearsing when concocting a speech. Whether in front of the mirror, your housemates, or your mum - just practising saying the words clearly will help you identify any problematic areas - moments where you can't find the right words or where you stumble around the point or speak too quickly. 

If you can, record yourself in advance. This is a great way to see where you excel and where you need more work. It can be a bit mortifying but it will help you spot tendencies or habits that you develop in speech when you're nervous. Typical traits include saying 'like' or 'kind of' too much, adding 'um' between each word or playing with your hands. 

Practise delivering your speech slower than you normally speak - this will help you learn how to pull back the pace and force yourself to control your talking speed. Similarly, practise with and without your notes - both to ensure you are able to look up from your prompts to build eye contact from time to time, and to spot where you lose your thread.

4. Practise some more

As well as practising a particular speech in advance of your big day, practising the art of public speaking by stepping up for other opportunities is a great way to build your confidence and develop your skills. By nominating yourself to provide the team update in your weekly meeting or present the Christmas sports team awards or deliver a few words on your Aunt's birthday - these are all fantastic chances to put your skills to the test.

5 tips for perfecting your presentation.

5. Arm yourself for successful delivery

Now you've done the hard work, the final part is about ensuring you and the room are ready for your speech. Make sure you have a glass of water handy. If you're required to use a microphone be sure to check how it works beforehand including whether or not you need to turn it on before using it.

Many speakers use notes or prompts to assist their memory during a speech. If you chose to use them, make sure you have a spare copy available and that you have printed the notes in a big enough font to allow you to hold them away from your face. 

Speak slowly and take pauses between sentences to allow your audience the chance to digest what you're saying. Remember - no one ever complains that a speaker spoke too slowly, but a common complaint is that a speech was delivered at breakneck speed. Even if it feels slow, it probably isn't! 

If you can, try to ask friends or colleagues to sit in key places in the audience and smile at you throughout. Seeing their friendly faces will help you to feel relaxed during your performance. Make eye contact throughout the speech and in particular with any key individuals in the room (for example, the lead investor or the particularly rebellious team members that needs the most corralling). If you feel comfortable doing so, use your hands to add emphasis to your words.

Finally, relax, take a deep breath and imagine they're all naked. Good luck!

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