Tips and Clips to Become a Great Public Speaker

Let’s be honest-- public speaking is terrifying. Most people rank a fear of public speaking right up there with a fear of spiders and death. That’s serious stuff! What’s more, most of us are likely to be put in a position of public speaking at some point in our professional lives. It’s not all bad news though; there are some things you can do to make this process easier on yourself. Next Thursday is our signature Talent Expo. In honor of our courageous and amazing students who will be taking the stage for 90 seconds to pitch their stories, I have compiled some tips and clips for great public speaking.

I can’t promise to make speaking in public less scary, but I can help prepare you to face your fear head-on.[bctt tweet="Tips + clips from @monique_lees to face #publicspeaking fears head-on"]

Seeing is believing:

Instead of launching into an extensive list of do’s and don’ts I want to direct you to the TED Talk YouTube channel. When it comes to public speaking, TED Talks are a great place to start for two reasons:

  1. The content in many of these talks is compelling, often inspiring.
  2. Many of the talks are delivered by people with exceptional presentation skills.

The best public speakers will discuss content that is relevant to their audience, and deliver their presentation in a captivating manner. Let's use these 3 most-viewed TED Talks as a starting point:

Tony Robbins: Why We Do What We Do


Tony is a master of hand gestures -- he's constantly using his hands and arms to animate his speech. Skip to 4:00 minutes and just watch how his gestures support his talk. Notice they don't look awkward or rehearsed; instead they give him an aurora of confidence and comfort on the stage.

Sir Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Sir Ken does a great job of threading humor through his speech, to vary the tone of his talk and keep the audience engaged. Skip to 3:00 minutes and notice how his use humor makes him seem relaxed and confident on stage, whilst also giving him a chance to gather his thoughts to hammer home his next point.

Amy Cuddy:

Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are

Jump to 00:28 and notice what Amy does to engage her listeners. This is a great way to refocus the audience and get them interested in what she's going to say.

Now, let's look at the titles:

  • Why We Do What We Do
  • Do Schools Kill Creativity?
  • Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are

It’s easy to see that the content of these talks is completely unrelated. If you watch even a small section of each video, you’ll notice that the speakers are from vastly different fields, and their delivery styles are quite different. But, each of these videos is an example of great public speaking. That’s because of one thing they do have in common-- the people delivering them know their stuff! And that’s the first step: if you want to be a great public speaker, you've got to know what you’re talking about![bctt tweet="#Delivery styles vary, but a great speaker always knows their stuff, @monique_lees"]

Preparing for a presentation:

You probably wouldn’t compete in a professional sporting match without training, so why would you speak in front of people, as a professional, without preparing what you’re going to say?

Think about the purpose of the speech and the audience you will be addressing. What are you offering them, and why should they listen to you?

There are a few things every great public speaker should know when planning content:

1) People love a good story!

Stories are a great way to capture your audience’s attention. By providing a reference point, you can also help your audience remember the information you are trying to get across.

2) Contrast makes your idea look awesome.

Contrast is a great way to present your ideas as the ‘best of both worlds’ option, by offering two extremes and placing your idea in the middle as the rational alternative. A great demonstration of this is in President Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, where he says:

Tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America. There is not a black America, a white America, a Latino American, and Asian America; there is the United States of America.

3) Repetition aids memory.

When you listen to a new song, what is the section you’re most likely to remember? An individual verse, or the chorus that was repeated 3 times? The same logic applies when a person is listening to a speech. Repetition is a great way to emphasize key ideas and help your audience remember them.

4) Rhetorical questions engage your audience.

Asking your audience rhetorical questions gets them thinking about the contents of your speech and how it relates to their own opinions. This helps to keep them engaged and interested in what you have to say.

5) Humor makes you relatable.

Humor is a tricky one. The last thing you want when you’re nervous is to make a joke and have it fall flat. However, humor is much easier to pull off if it is relevant to the rest of your speech, and relatable to your audience. Do your research - are there any pain points specific to your audience that you could comment on? How about current events? By relating to your audience through humor, they are more likely to be interested in what you have to say for the rest of your speech.[bctt tweet="Relating to your audience through humor is a great way to keep them engaged in your speech"]

Delivering your speech:

Being a great public speaker doesn’t mean learning the content of your speech by heart; it’s more important to know the order of your points, rather than the order of your words.

The best way to get your delivery down is to practice. Mix it up and deliver the content in different ways by varying order, speed, and pauses. Pauses are a great way to give audience members some time to mull over important information. They also allow you to gather your thoughts before proceeding with your talk.

Remember, how you’re presenting your information is just as important as what you’re saying. Have energy! Practice in front of the mirror (or a friend!) using hand gestures, animated facial expressions and varying vocal tones. Ask yourself, does it look natural? If not, then you just need to practice some more.

Finally, I wanted to provide an example of what a poor speech delivery looks like. This is a video of an American politician, trying to rally support from his audience. Notice that his delivery style is aggressive and that he doesn't know the content of his speech very well. If he had stood still, softened his voice and used less forceful hand gestures, it’s likely this would have been a more effective delivery.[bctt tweet="Practice your talk & ask for feedback. It may be the difference between a good & bad speech"]

You've got this!

If you've prepared what you're going to say, and practiced it over and over again, you've already done most of the hard work. For great tips on managing your mindset to make the most out of speaking opportunities, check out Startup Institute Chicago pitch instructor Siôn Owen's post on How to Turn Public Speaking from a Chore to an Opportunity, or read his new book The War on Boring: How to Kill Mind-Numbing Presentations Before They Kill Us.

Now take a deep breath, and go forth to win your standing ovation!

Photo credit: Steve Jurvetson via Flickrcc