The secret to great public speaking, credit Kane ReinholdtsenPhoto by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

What is the secret to great public speaking? Tips and thoughts on how to succeed in public speaking

Mention public speaking and many people panic. In fact, the fear of public speaking is America's biggest phobia. According to a 2014 Washington Post article about fears, 25.3 percent of people surveyed said they fear speaking in front of a crowd. However, if you are one of those 25.3 percent, or if you just want to improve how you present and speak, I may have some help for you.

In this post I will answer various questions about speaking, along with some dos and don’ts, so that when you are called on to speak or present you can communicate clearly and hold your audience’s attention.

How do you give an effective speech?: The seven secrets to giving a killer speech

If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack.

—Winston Churchill

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once joked that some people fear speaking in public so much that they’d rather be the person in the coffin than the one giving the eulogy. For some, speaking in public is a challenge, but as a business professional and an entrepreneur you will sometimes be required to speak or present. With that in mind, here are seven solid tips to improve your speaking and calm your nerves:

So, what are the seven elements of a good speech?

Lots of speeches and talks are given, but not all of them are good. This brief article gives you the following seven elements—secrets—to giving a good speech.

Tip 1: Be prepared

When you have a speech or presentation to give, prepare ahead: don’t wing it! Write down your ideas, do any necessary research, and construct a basic outline. And rather than memorizing your speech word for word, memorize a key transitional phrase from each section of your speech instead. And to rehearse, just walk around your house or neighborhood as you talk through your speech. Remember, the more you practice, the better you’ll do.

Tip 2: Start strong. Start soon.

So, how do you start a great speech? First remember this. When you begin a speech, you have something precious: everyone’s attention. Until you open your mouth, your audience has no idea if you’re a good speaker or a terrible speaker. They are waiting to hear what you have to say. So, use these few precious moments. I recommend even pausing briefly, just for a beat, and then starting.

And when you start, never do what most people do. Don’t ramble on and give us the usual nonsense that so many do before speaking. My old LDS mission president called it hamburger helper (no offense to the food, which is actually decent-tasting), by which he meant the kind of glad-handing, half-apologies for not being a good speaker, for not being as prepared as you’d like, or for not liking to speak, whatever. Don’t thank the event, the venue, or the person who introduced you (and if you must thank someone, do so quickly and get going). Just launch into your speech. Doing this one thing will put you in the minority of speakers and will set you apart. Starting your speech without any distractions almost guarantees a great beginning. And if you do the rest of what I advise, you can keep it that way and even build on it.

Tip 3: Tell stories

You may be tempted to throw a mass of facts and figures at people, but stories always work best to engage your audience. In fact, a great speaking formula is, tell a story, make a point, tell a story, make a point, etc. Most people respond best to stories, which engage them, touch their emotions, and make the complex simple.

Tip 4: Know your audience

You wouldn’t give the same speech to a group of high schoolers as you would to a room full of seasoned business executives, so tailor your speech to your listeners. At the same time, each of us has a young child inside who loves stories (see Tip #3), so remember to keep all your speeches simple and moving.

Tip 5: Have a pre-game warm up

Before you speak, have a quick pre-game warm up where you either listen to music, stretch, give yourself a pep talk, or close your eyes and visualize, whatever. Just do something that relaxes and focuses you.

Tip 6: Slow down

People generally talk more quickly when they speak in public than in daily conversation, so remember to slow down a little when you speak. Also, know that a well-placed pause or even a moment of silence can drive home your point better than words.

Tip 7: Tell your story

When you speak in public, tell your story or your perspective and don’t hold back. People want to hear what you think and have to say. And if someone asks you a question after you present, answer honestly, and if you can’t answer their question, tell them you’ll try to find out later.

Bonus tip: Have fun!

Most of all, have fun. Look at every speaking opportunity as just that, an opportunity to conquer a challenging situation and make an impression. If you’re enjoying yourself, your listeners will more likely enjoy themselves, too.

These tips are just the beginning, so find a good book about speaking and/or visit a speaking club and get some practice. And above all, have fun!

What makes a great speech? Here’s one example

The best speech I ever heard happened at my high school commencement.

I’m from the Washington, DC area, and our high school held its commencement at DAR Constitution Hall in downtown Washington, DC., and our school chose a local sportscaster, Glen Brenner, of our local CBS affiliate to speak. Frankly, when we heard that Brenner would be speaking, my dad and I weren’t impressed. Brenner was a highly entertaining and hilarious sportscaster who joked around a lot on air, but would his antics be fit for a commencement speech?

His speech, however, surprised us.

He didn’t joke; rather, he told how his dream growing up was to play baseball in the Major Leagues. He made it into the minors as a pitcher, but an injury and not quite enough talent tanked his dream, so he left baseball and eventually got into broadcasting, where he became the DC area’s highest paid sportscaster.

His point was this: he had failed to make it into the Major Leagues, but at least he had tried. And that was his message to us: You can’t fail; you can only fail to try.

This is why his speech was one of the greatest I’ve ever heard. Because he shared a life-changing, major truth, and he used personal stories to do it. He didn’t brag or talk himself up. No, he was open about his failures as he shared with us this major life lesson.

To date, this is still the best speech I’ve ever heard because it was the best advice I’ve ever heard. Not only does great delivery matter to making a great speech, you need to give your listeners great content, something they can hang on to.

Tragically, Brenner died of cancer ten years later, but I will always remember his awesome speech.

Again, you can’t fail; you can only fail to try.

What two tips can help me give a great speech?

Often, there is one tip or technique that can make the difference between success and failure in an endeavor. Public speaking is no different. Here then are two tips to speaking better in public.

Tip one: Practice

Many years ago, a tourist in downtown New York City was on his way to a concert but had gotten lost. He turned to a friendly stranger for help: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” he asked.

“Practice, practice, practice,” replied the stranger.

What was true then is still true today. If you want to succeed in any kind of performance art, like speaking, you must practice, practice, practice. And keep practicing.

The author Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers found that to master a skill one needs to devote 10,000 hours of practice.

One example of practicing? Comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld writes and rewrites comic material every day and has done so for years. In a recent Netflix special, he paved an entire New York City street for one block with sheets of paper filled with over thirty years of his daily comedic writing.

Seinfeld also spoke of how an up-and-coming comic once bragged to him that he didn’t need to plan his comic sets but could just wing it instead. “I’ll see you at your restaurant, waiting tables,” Seinfeld quipped.

So, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice

Tip two: Tell stories

The other speaking tip? Tell a story.

Now, it’s not news that most of us love a good story, but many speeches and presentations fail to use even a single story.

See, we humans love hearing—and telling—stories, and stories are one of the best, if not the best, way to move people and make your point. So, in speaking (and in writing!) tell a story, make a point. Repeat.

That’s it!

Why stories? Because stories are humankind’s oldest and most enduring way to pass on knowledge. Most of us were told stories when we were very young, making stories probably the first way we were taught and entertained. Just hearing the phrase, “Once upon a time, . . .” or “Let me tell you a story,” gets our attention.

Now, you may be thinking, “But I’m just an accountant (or software developer, or banker, or whatever). I don’t have any stories to tell.” Nonsense.

First, you have had interesting stuff happen to you that you can mine for stories.

Second, you can also use others’ stories, whether from history or from those you know. All it takes is a little effort.

So, if you want to hold your audience’s attention and not let go, tell good story. Or two.

How can I make my speech strong? The one secret that will set you apart as a speaker

So, how can you make your speech strong—almost instantly? Just this: Start immediately and start strong.

In other words, when you get up to speak, get going right away and do it with something strong. See, the first rule in speaking should be to launch your speech or presentation without delay, and launch it with an attention-getter (skipping all that hamburger helper that infests so many speeches).

For example, don’t apologize for not being more prepared or ramble on about how you don’t like speaking. Yawn. Instead, just start talking about your topic. Because when you do, you will actually surprise your audience and set yourself apart from most amateurs (and maybe even a few pros).

So, how do you make your speech strong by starting strong? Simple. Start with a startling fact, a quick story, or a bold pronouncement, but start. Heck, you can even sing a few bars of a song.

Starting strong lets your audience know that you’re in control. Because when you speak, you are, for a brief moment in your life, in charge, the boss of that moment.

Start strong, your grateful listeners will thank you, and more importantly, they’ll listen. Do it. Because the world needs better speeches and presentations.

How not to give a great speech: The Seven Deadly Sins of Speechmaking

To answer the question, how not to give a speech, I present what I call the seven deadly sins of public speaking or speechmaking. These are errors that too many people commit when giving a speech. With that in mind, please avoid doing any of the following when you give a speech:

Sin #1: Failure to prepare

Some people are born with the gift of the gab, and sometimes they get cocky and think that they needn’t write their speech out or at least jot down some notes they want to speak from. I prefer to write my speech out and then more or less memorize it and then bring a notecard or two with a few key words on it that can help me cover the main points in my speech. If you are a demon at memorizing, then great, do that. And if you are so comfortable with yourself that you needn’t write out your speech first, please do us all a favor and at least write an outline and practice speaking to those points. You will still improve your speech and you will decrease, if not eliminate, the hems and haws and ums and ya knows. Listening to a speaker who is overconfident but who just rambles on is a tragedy. What could have been a good speech—given the speaker’s abilities—is instead a rambling mess.

Sin #2: Starting too slow (too much hamburger helper before you start speaking)

You might ask, how not to start a speech? Well, when I say hamburger helper, I’m not talking about the stuff that comes in a box at the grocery store that you can use to prop up a pound of ground beef. No, I mean the mealy-mouthed talk and blather that so many speakers engage in before they speak. “I’d like to thank everyone for coming out tonight,”. . . “I don’t really like speaking and was astonished when I was given this opportunity,” . . . “I got a call last week from the director asking me to speak, and I wished I hadn’t picked up the phone.” Perhaps these kinds of statements occur more during speeches given at my church, but many speakers in a professional capacity or at least in business and commerce and government still don’t know how to begin a speech. I say, begin the speech. If you feel that you have to thank everyone for allowing you to speak, then fine, but don’t ramble on about how bad a speaker you are or how great everyone there is or how honored and humbled you are to speak, just speak. Get started and take advantage of our short attention spans while you still have them. Take too long to get going and we’ll tune out. It’s as simple as that.

Sin #3: Not knowing or ignoring your audience

While this sin is one of the deadliest to make in speechmaking, fortunately, it is less common than some of the others. Still, if you write or give a speech that does not consider your audience’s makeup (their educational level, age, sex, interests, prejudices, etc.), then you are making a grave mistake. I think most of us have had a teacher in school who talked to us like we were scientists (or literature professors, or whatever), rather than the young, bored kids that we were. Consider your audience when you choose the vocabulary, tone, and content of your speech.

Sin #4: Never using stories to make your points

This really isn’t so much a deadly sin as forgetting one of the main rules of good speechmaking. And that is this, the best speeches (and nonfiction books for that matter), use one main technique over and over, and it is this: tell a story, make a point, tell another story, make another point, and so on. If you want to illustrate your points, engage your audience, and have them remember a little of what you told them, use a story to illustrate each point. I’m sure that my little article here could benefit from a neat little story or two.

Sin #5: Never making eye contact while you speak

Making at least some eye contact when you speak is pretty basic, but you’d be surprised how many speakers fail to do this. Instead, they keep their head buried in their notes, only to glance up occasionally. Making good eye contact is mainly a matter of practice. The more you speak, the better you’ll get at making eye contact, but you must make a conscious effort to make eye contact for your practice to yield good results.

Sin #6: Too many jokes, dumb jokes, or off-color jokes

Enough with the dumb jokes already. One of the worst things I hear in some speeches and talks is a dumb joke told at the beginning. And again, in the middle, and again, and again. Humor can be a good way to underscore a point, get your audience’s attention, and even get them to like you. But if you overuse it or don’t use it well, it will hurt your speech more than help it. And 99% of the time, off-color humor is not appropriate in most public speaking situations. Unless you’re engaged in standup comedy at a club or venue where the people there are expecting you to give them risqué humor, don’t. Do I really need to explain this? Use humor, but do it sparingly and make sure the joke relates to the topic at hand.

Sin #7: Running over time

And last but not least, stay within your time when you speak. No one likes listening to someone who thinks that what they have to say is so important that they can step on everyone else’s—especially the next speaker’s—time. Want to lose the respect, tolerance, and good will of your audience? Then run over time and appear to speak on and on with no end in sight. It will work every time.

That’s it for now. Those are some deadly sins that can sink your public speaking but are relatively easy to prevent. Now go and sin no more!

Extra advice

Here are a few extra tips about speechmaking you may find handy.

How can I be less nervous when presenting?

Again, before you give a speech or a presentation, go through a quick pre-game warm up. You can stretch, listen to music, stretch, give yourself a pep talk, or close your eyes and visualize giving a killer speech. Whatever works for you, just do something that helps you realize that you’re taking care of yourself, and do something that relaxes you and helps you focus on the task at hand rather than on our stage fright.

Recap: a quick list of ten tips giving a killer speech every time

  • Start strong so that you take control!
  • Tell a story, make a point. Repeat. And use statistics sparingly—stories are better.
  • Have somewhere to go, a point to make (Don’t ramble!) and make sure to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
  • Don’t make too many points. Make one, maybe two.
  • Know your audience and speak to their needs and interests.
  • Always run a minute short—never go over.
  • Only use visual aids if you must. And if you do, make sure beforehand that they work
  • Say something that helps your listeners—teach them!
  • Practice, practice, practice!
  • Have fun!

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