How to be a Good Public Speaker

Many people, in fact most people, find the prospect of public speaking highly daunting. However, the tricky reality is that, like it or loathe it, public speaking is an important skill in almost all careers. Whether you need to be able to lead a meeting, or report your findings back in a presentation to the client, or indeed whether you're speaking on your specialist subject knowledge to a room filled with those less informed than you, being able to speak in public - clearly, confidently and compellingly - is a critical business, and life, skill. 

We have identified the top five things you need to do to perfect the art of speaking in public. Read on to find out more - and good luck!

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 are, what they want and what they need to know. These details will allow you to pitch your speech accordingly, focus on the 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 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 the key data points, or a roadmap outlining the next steps in the journey, or, in my case, a pair of ski gloves and a hockey stick.

2. Plan What You Are Going to Say

Even the most polished and professional public speakers plan what they are going to say in advance. And not just for the big speeches to rooms of hundreds of people, but for the smaller, more informal updates too. If you're the sort of person who is great at saying exactly what you need to, on the hoof, then congratulations and feel free to stop reading now. 

However, for most of us, planning what we are going to say in advance allows us to clarify in our own minds exactly what it is we 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 so that you recall your key points when you need to. Even the most practiced speakers can feel a tingle of nerves when asked to speak publically and this alone can be enough to lose the thread of what you wanted to cover. 

My personal preference is to write the entire speech (including optimistic instructions to 'pause for laughter') in advance. Even if, during the performance, I choose to digress from my planned text, I feel confident knowing that I have a plan I can return to, if needed. I know others who find their speech can feel stilted if they try to stick too closely to a script. They therefore prefer to have a clear view of the overarching structure but to not focus too much on the exact words, in advance. These methods are largely down to personal preference and so it is good to try a few methods out to see which feel most comfortable. Which segways rather nicely into our third tip... 

3. Practice

It sounds so obvious and yet one of the most important steps in delivering a great speech is practicing in advance. Whether in front of the mirror, your housemates, or your mum - just practicing saying the words clearly will help you to identify any problematic areas - moments where you can't find the right words or where you stumble around the point or where you speak too quickly. 

If you can, videoing yourself in advance of your speech is a great way to see where you excel and where you need more work. It can be a bit mortifying (I've hated my voice ever since I did this) but it will help you to spot tendencies or habits that you develop in speech when you're nervous. Typical traits include saying 'like' or 'kind of' too much, adding 'err' between each word or playing with your hands. 

Practice delivering your speech much more slowly than you normally speak - even comically slowly - in order to practice pulling the pace back and forcing yourself to control the speed. Similarly, practice 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 loose your thread without your prompts.  

4. Practice

Yes, it's so important we wrote it twice. 

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

5. Arm Yourself for Successful Delivery

Now you've done all 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 to hand to avoid drying up with nerves. 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 use. 

Many speakers use notes or prompts to assist their memory during a speech - either of which are a great idea if they work for you. If you chose to use them, make sure you have a spare copy available (nothing worse than having your vital notes lost and missing two minutes before you start) 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 are 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 friendly peers 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 choralling). 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!

Next: Need some advice for Face-to-Face Interviews?