Public Speaking: What You Need to Succeed (Part I)

Person making a presentation

Recently, I talked to Authority magazine about the five things you need to know to be a highly effective public speaker. Does that make me an authority? I don’t know, but I do know that I was once not comfortable speaking in public, and that I have done a lot of it over the years. What’s more, I am now able to feel comfortable at the front of the lecture hall, or on stage, or in the dreaded conference room, which I think goes a long way towards being effective.

I provided a lot of context in the Authority interview, and if you are generally interested in public speaking as well as learning about a few of my misadventures, I encourage you to read it. Here, I would like to provide more context for, and discussion about, some of the points I discussed there.

So how do you become an effective speaker? Being authentically interested in your topic is the best starting place. Which raises the question: what are you talking about? Probably an area of expertise or passion. So you naturally have a stake in the subject. Don’t be afraid to let that show. Maintaining the enthusiasm that got you interested in whatever it is you’re talking about will do a lot when you are in front of a crowd. First, it makes you more interesting: think of how much more engaging someone is when they really care. Second, your genuine enthusiasm will make your topic more interesting to everyone listening. Third, your audience will themselves feel more interesting, since you are taking the time to share this important information with them. And when they feel interesting, they feel respected, and are more likely to listen.

Next, before even thinking about the words you will use, think about your goal. Whether you want to raise awareness, become more popular, or sell something, look at your talk as the vehicle that will get you to that goal. This means cutting out everything that detracts from the purpose, no matter how enamored you are of it. For example, you might have a great, funny opening line that never fails to put the crowd at ease. Delivering a eulogy, though, you might want to skip it. You might have some super-informative information about a product, but if the purpose of your talk is to introduce yourself to potential new clients, it might come across as a hard sell.

Probably the keystone to any successful talk is respecting your audience. It’s possible that you know a bit more about this one topic than they do, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t intelligent. Quite the contrary: the fact that they’ve taken the time to listen to you suggests that they are a discerning crowd. Nothing makes a group bristle quite as quickly as being talked down to. This is natural because, imposter syndrome notwithstanding, most people consider themselves smart. So when someone else shows up who luxuriates in their own perceived intellectual superiority, the immediate visceral reaction is to dismiss them. Then check their phone or find an interesting ceiling tile to stare at.

You’re not doing them a favor by speaking to them; they are doing you the favor by listening. Keep this in mind, and you will be in a respectful mindset.

So now that you know why you want to share something that you are keenly interested in, and you know how to approach it, what exactly will you say? At this stage, things can fall apart, not because of a lack of subject knowledge or pure charisma, but due to analysis paralysis. Your talk, as important as it is to you, won’t be perfect. And that’s not a bad thing. Quite the opposite. Because agonizing over whether you will be perfect is a great way to ramp up anxiety and derail any modicum of self-confidence you might have. 

I, for one, acknowledge to myself that I am going to make at least one and possibly several mistakes, but choose to live in a world where I make mistakes and have a good time speaking, rather than one where I mess up and am miserable. That’s the key to being relaxed. When your audience sees that you are relaxed, they will relax, making them much more receptive to what you are saying. 

Finally, it’s always wise to under promise and overdeliver. Humans seem naturally skeptical of grandiose claims, particularly when they intrude on our own sense of expertise—“I doubt there’s anything you can teach me about this. I’ve seen it all!” Rather, it helps to couch your talk in terms that, far from challenging their expertise, validate it: “Since you’re all experienced managers who like to keep up with the best tools for their team, here are some ways that this approach can be helpful.” Instead of promising that your talk will revolutionize how they see the world, simply suggest that it will impart a few helpful tips.

Of course, the real secret to speaking well is, simply, to listen well. 

First, listen to other speakers, not just to their words, but to their tone and cadence. The more compelling ones keep you on the edge of your seat by mixing things up. No matter how interesting the subject, monotony will lose the crowd. Whether someone is speaking about a serious topic or a light-hearted one, you’ll notice a certain swing to their speech that is just slightly unpredictable. That keeps the audience guessing, which keeps them listening.

Second, listen to the audience. On the surface, this is glaringly obvious: if they laugh at your jokes, you know that you are in. But you can also listen with your eyes. What’s their body language? Who is on their phone? Do they look like they are counting the seconds until you stop? Then you know you have to switch things up. But if you see a relaxed engagement out there, odds are you are on the right path.

Like anything else, the best way to learn how to speak better is by speaking more. Keep tabs on what works and what doesn’t. And before long, you’ll be the one sharing tips on how to make it work. 

By: David G. Schwartz, Ombuds at University of Nevada-Las Vegas, PhD, CO-OP®

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