7 Steps to Improving Your Public Speaking Skills

16 Jul

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What do people claim to fear more than death? Every time? Public speaking. We’ve all had bad experiences with it. At my first “big” interview for the FFA officer team at my high school, I had one hand on my hip and one hand on the podium the whole interview. I stuttered through my responses, lost myself in the explanation, and lacked the skills to create a professional but enjoyable atmosphere. Throughout the rest of my freshman year, I found myself in more and more situations where public speaking was necessary whether it was in the classroom or through extracurricular responsibilities. I blushed when I was nervous, swayed like a birch-tree in a thunderstorm, and used my hands so much the judge’s review cards would flap in the breeze. Four years later, I find myself in love with speaking and excelling at it. So what happened?

Practice, patience, perseverance, sure. But more so, I had guidance and instruction. Public speaking isn’t something you’re just magically good at. Sure, some people have “a good voice” or “a way with words.” Without knowing what to do with those gifts, those people are just as lost as the rest of us.

These are some tips and tid-bits that I’ve found helpful throughout my public speaking career; this is by no means a complete list or a one-stop-shop to making you the next Martin Luther King, Jr., but it may be a good starting point if you aren’t sure where to begin on honing those fabulous talents you have tucked away behind your ear.

  1. Decide to have a conversation. We’ve all heard, at some point, to imagine the audience in their underwear, but that’s never really helped me. I mean, if everyone else is in their underwear, we’ve got a hot mess of an audience who are for sure not going to be listening to what you have to say. Now, that may seem like a good thing, but I can tell you from experience there is nothing better than an actively engaged audience. An engaged audience may nod along to what you say, murmur an “amen” or “preach it” or “yes, ma’am!” as you speak, laugh when you tell jokes, cry when you drop that fantastic story on them, clap at the conclusion of your speech. So how do you get that kind of audience? Decide to have a conversation. Just like you’re having a chat with your bestie, talk to the audience like you would talk to a group of friends–like you know each person individually. If you are nervous, they will be nervous for you. If you are cold, they will return your coldness. If you open yourself up to having a conversation with them (albeit, you’ll be doing most of the talking), they’ll respond with a conversation. Communication is a two-way street; in order for you to have an interactive audience, you have to invite them to the party. That way, when you mess up, it won’t be a big deal because it’s just a conversation with friends.
  2. Master that nonverbal communication. I cannot stress this enough. We all have our nervous ticks: rhythm master, reflex tester, swaying tree, rocking chair, the stanky leg where you do that awkward, twisty thing with your foot, practicing arithmetic on your hands, etc. . All of these things along with your poise and presentation make up what is called nonverbal communication. This is where all of your hand-motions, movements, and voice inflections play into your speech. Make a dramatic pause here. Get teary-eyed as you share a moving story. Curl your hand into a fist when you’re angry– all these things make up what you are communicating without words. All those nervous ticks that I mentioned before convey just that– nervousness, fear, worry. Master that nonverbal communication by executing purposeful movements, inflections, and pauses. Use your hands to illustrate an easily recognizable action or the size of something; lean forward if you say, “I’ll let you in on a little secret;” change the volume and pitch of your voice depending on which part of the speech you are at. All of these things communicate expertise and understanding of the topic at hand beyond the words that you are sharing. It’s okay to let the little actor inside of you out and put on a little show for your audience! Professional, yes. But also enjoyable. A great balance between those two things is the addition of positive nonverbal communication. And if you find that your nerves are getting to you, a cool trick you can also take advantage of is to bring a water bottle. When you feel that you’re becoming overwhelmed, lose your train of thought, or simply need to take a breath, take a sip of the water. It’s an understandable, purposed nonverbal communication that you needed a breather and some water, and no one can critique you for that! When you create a presentation such as a power point to go along with your speech, make it appealing and interesting to look at. If it’s a stock, plain-jane theme then you communicate disinterest in the topic or a rushed presentation. Remember, the way you present the information is just as important as what you say in the presentation. All of these things can make or break your speech, so pay attention to them. Mastering nonverbal communication is half the battle; if you can do that, the rest of public speaking will be a cinch.
  3. Make a move. This point builds off nonverbal communication. Don’t stay in the same place the whole time you’re speaking; work the room to your advantage. Not only will this help you to translate and remember where those pesky paragraph breaks are in real life but it also helps your audience recognize the speech’s progression. Starting and ending standing in the same place is a great way to give closure to your speech. Give points one, two, and three each at different places across the front of the room. That way when you hit your audience with each new topic sentence, it’ll be easier to remember because you changed places. By associating a motor function with an idea or a piece of the speech, you’ll be better grounded in your memorization and your audience can process the information by placement. It almost works like Sherlock’s mind-palace; each different idea gets a different room or spot on the stage. Movement also allows you to involve everyone– not just front and center folks. If everyone feels included, then everyone is that much more willing to be engaged, and remember– an actively engaged audience is our goal.
  4. Look ’em in the eyes. Remind them you’re not a robot staring at that one fly on the wall in the back. Again, it’s all about connecting with the audience. The best way I’ve found to accomplish this is to work from side to side of the room. Mix it up; the more random your contact the better. But if you need a pattern, work in a figure eight through the room: left back, middle center, right front, right back, middle center, left front. If you look ’em in the eyes, you’re reminding them and yourself that these are real, normal people too and that you and they aren’t so different after all. They don’t feel like you’re standing on some untouchable pedestal, and you don’t feel like they’re all out to get you. More than likely everyone in the audience has had some experience– good, bad, or ugly– with public speaking, and really they’re rooting for you. But you won’t see all that silent encouragement if you don’t make eye contact, so do the thing!
  5. Establish mile-makers. We’ve all been there: stage fright with an iron wall in between us and that thing we would have sworn up and down the minute before we knew by heart. It works the same with playing an instrument. By establishing mile-markers, your autopilot not only has land marks to go by but also if you lose your place, you’ll have somewhere to either go back to or to jump forward to. The best mile-markers for me are usually those nice phrases you’re really proud of that just work or a big word that you just enjoying having in there. Just like land marks stick out to us on the road because they are different or easily spotted whilst in transit, mile-markers in your speech should be unique, easy to spot words, phrases, or sentences. That way, when you’re booking it through your speech because good lord there are a lot more people in the crowd than they said there would be, you have a well established road to follow even when your composure is running in a million different directions away from you.
  6. Harness the speech’s momentum. Get into it, ladies and gents. A lot of times this will stem off your style and voice. As your speech builds, allow yourself to go along with it. Don’t bust the mic, obviously, but as you approach the climax, get a little rowdy– get excited. Get loud. When you harness the momentum of the speech and use it to your advantage through your body language and presentation, it feels like you are approaching the climax of a good movie. Be passionate, be excited, be involved in what you’re saying and the audience will be too.
  7. Believe what you are saying. This one is pretty self explanatory. Be passionate about what you’re talking about, and those around you will be excited because of your passion. If you really want an engaged audience, be passionate, and they won’t be able to help themselves but to get swept up in it. Believe in yourself, believe in what you are saying, and they will too.
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One Response to “7 Steps to Improving Your Public Speaking Skills”

  1. Jessie July 16, 2015 at 11:29 AM #

    Ah, Sarah, this helps so much!!

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