3 simple ways to improve your public speaking

for the purpose of illustration only.  "Real" public speakers don't use podiums.

photo credit: rick

1.  Organize your Speech

The fastest way to embarrass yourself in front of a group is to stand up and “wing it.”  You may hear experienced public speakers say that’s what they do.  They are lying .  They actually organize speeches in their heads very, very fast–possibly as they walk up to the the front of the room.  Don’t try this your first time out.  I promise you it will end badly.  Well organized speeches include the following elements.

2-3 main points
If you have 10 points you want to make to an audience, a speech is not the way to do it.   By point 4 most of your audience will have drifted into daydreams and one guy in the back will be writing his grocery list.   It’s ok to have sub-points under each main topic but again, no more than 2-3.  More than that and your audience will be lost.

A beginning, middle and end
A beginning (or introduction where you preview your points), middle (area where you make your main points) and end (where you re-cap your points and make your final argument) helps the audience follow your train of thought remember what you’ve said.  In public speaking circles this advice is expressed as “tell ’em what you are going to tell them, tell ’em, tell ’em what you told them.”  It may seem like over kill, but I promise you it’s not.

Write it down
As you get more speeches under your belt, you may be able to organize your thoughts without the help of a pen and paper, but to begin you will want to make notes, even if you don’t refer to them when you are actually speaking.  For most situations, you won’t want to write out the entire speech.  Make a notes on how you will open (usually a catchy story that illustrates your main point), what your three main points are and the pieces of evidence/stories you will use to back each of them up, your summary and your final point.  Don’t remember the outlining skills you learned in 7th grade?  Check out this guide on how to outline a speech.

2. Be Interesting

This is really key.  Humans have a short attention span so if you don’t capture them at the beginning and then continually pull them back in, they will be lost in their own thoughts before you know it.  There are two main ways to accomplish this goal.

Be Funny (but not too funny)
Humor draws people in and makes them want to like you–which makes them want to listen to you; so if you can get your audience to laugh or smile, you’ll be ahead of the game.  That having been said, this technique can backfire  if you over do it (it hurts your credibility), if you are too mean–even if aimed at yourself (people get uncomfortable and  tune out) or if it’s comes across as fake (hurts your credibility and makes people uncomfortable) so be sure to use a form of humor that is natural to you and not offensive to anyone.

Use stories
Stories are not just for kids.  Stories are the vehicle humans use to make sense of the world.  You’ll never change anyone’s mind about a subject until you change the story they tell themselves about it.  Annette Simmons wrote a whole book about it.  By using stories to illustrate your points, you provide your audience a way to consider the world from a new point of view.  Stories also engage the imagination of the audience–which helps to keep them focused on you and your message.

3. Practice

Like most things, public speaking gets easier the more times you do it, and every speech you give counts.  Don’t just run though your speech in your head; giving it out loud, even just in the bathroom mirror, helps you get used to hearing your voice and to find the spots where you need to do more work.  After you’ve conquered the mirror give the speech to 2-3 friends.  This will help you get used to talking to real people, looking them in the eye and shifting your focus between audience members.  DO NOT look over the top of your audience to the back wall–this trick fools no one, besides, by looking at your audience you will know when what you are saying is making sense, and when you need to explain yourself another way.  It’s being able to use this feedback that helps good public speakers grow into great ones.

Finally, relax and have fun.  Speaking in front of a group may be scary at first, but like all scary things the rush you get from doing it well is worth the effort!

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