9 Tips for Becoming a Great Public Speaker

When I was in 6th grade, I was picked to read a poem I had written aloud at the front of my English classes.

My poem was about a kid that got sent to the principal’s office, and I remember myself wishing that I’d get sent to the principal’s office myself so I wouldn’t have to read it.

My hands were shaking visibly as I opened my notebook, and my voice was probably shakier still as I read it. But then… something funny happened.

I didn’t die.

People didn’t even throw fruit at me. It went fine – and I realized it was actually kind of fun.

Fast forward to this year:

  • Last month, I flew to a conference in Charlotte, South Carolina called FinCon, where I gave a 40-minute workshop on building YouTube channels.
  • Two weeks from now (as I write this), I’ll be flying to a college in Vermont to do my first paid speaking engagement.

Over the years, I’ve either volunteered or have been given the opportunity to speak publicly on many occasions. Through that practice, I’ve been able to calm the anxiety I felt about getting on stage, and I’ve also become an all-around better speaker.

With this video/article, I’ll share some of what I learned through that experience.

We’ll start with 9 specific tips that’ll help you improve your skills as a speaker; afterwards, I’ll show you some of my old speeches (one is absolutely terrible) and also point you to some additional resources.

If you’re unable to see the video above, you can view it on YouTube.

How to become a better public speaker: Tips on body language, eye contact, practice methods, and more!

1. Slow Down

Most inexperienced speakers talk faster on stage than they realize – and it’s completely understandable.

When you’re giving your talk, you’re nervous, anxious, and you’re trying to hold all the information you need to present in your head. All you want to do is get through your speech so you can get off the stage and go someplace where people can’t judge you.

Unfortunately, this can cause you to rush through your speech far too quickly, which make the information you’re presenting hard to understand.

So here’s a rule of thumb:

Speak slowly enough that you feel a little uncomfortable doing it.

Some people will say, “Speak half as fast as you think you need to,” – either way, just be conscious that you probably need to slow down.

I like to study the work of great speakers, and one of my favorite examples of a great speaking rate can be found in this fake TED talk that came out as part of the marketing campaign for the movie Prometheus:

If you slow down the video, type a letter in TextEdit each time he says a word, and then paste the resulting text into a character-counting program, you get 104 words in the first minute of the talk.

Yep, I actually did that.

For comparison, most audiobooks are read at 150-160 words per minute. A public address benefits from a much slower rate.

There’s one other thing I’d like you to note about Guy Pearce’s performance in that fake TED talk before we move on, and is the strategic pauses. 

Notice how he completely stops speaking at certain points, letting the silence punctuate what he just said. Use these in your own speeches; when you want to make an impact or give people time to consider an important point, simply stop talking for a couple seconds.

Taking the time to make these pauses can also help you eliminate the use of verbal pauses in your speech – words including um, er, like, you know, kind of, etc. When you become used to pausing deliberately for effect, you start becoming able to do so when you simply need to think.

2. Pay Attention to Your Body Language

If you paid close attention to that fake TED talk, you probably also noticed that Guy Pearce’s character employs excellent body language during his speech.

Body language is important for a couple of reasons:

  1. Non-verbal communication – of which your body language is a large part – compliments verbal communication. Your posture, the way you hold yourself, the way you move your hands… all these facets of body language can help to refine and reinforce what you’re talking about.
  2. Body language that you’re not aware of can hurt you. Most of us have little nervous tics that we do without noticing; mine was putting my hand in and out of my pocket over and over. I’d also pace around the room too much.

For reference, here’s a list of some common nervous tics you can watch out for:

  • Pacing back and forth or “wandering the stage”
  • Tapping your feet
  • Touching your face or playing with your hair
  • Fidgeting with your fingers
  • Playing with your pockets or other parts of your clothes or jewelry
  • Rubbing the back of your neck
  • Looking back at your slides too often
  • Swinging your arms back and forth

If you can pinpoint and eliminate the nervous tics you do unconsciously and learn to utilize intentional gestures for dramatic effect, you’ll be able to hold the audience’s attention much more effectively.

3. Make Eye Contact

When you’re speaking on stage, you’re addressing everyone in the room – each person sitting in a seat (and maybe standing if you’re really popular) is part of the audience.

Unfortunately, many inexperienced speakers get nervous and fixate on one section of the audience during their entire presentation. Don’t do this.

Instead, regularly move your gaze to different parts of the audience, making sure you move over the entire audience during your talk. Try to make eye contact with people all throughout the room.

Now, I know this can be scary. You’re already nervous enough that you’re on stage – making direct eye contact with people can add more anxiety to the equation!

If you feel this way, you can employ a classic speaker’s trick:

Fix your gaze just above the heads of the people in the back row.

These people are far back enough that they probably can’t tell if you’re making direct eye contact or not, and you can still comfortably move your head and focus on different parts of the audience.

However, even though this trick works well, I challenge you to try to make eye contact with at least a few people during your next talk. Doing this gets easier and easier with practice, and it makes you seem more human when you’re speaking.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice… Ad Infinitum

…well, maybe not that much. But you should practice your material an awful lot before stepping on stage.

When it comes to practice, you goal is not to do it until you get your speech right; your goal should be to practice until you can’t get it wrong. 

Anxiety can block your brain from making connections, but mastering your material will help you avoid that adverse effect. Additionally, mastery will help you cut down on a lot of anxiety in the first place. If you know exactly what you’re going to say, you’ll feel much more confident in front of the audience.

Now, you might be saying:

“My speech teacher told me not to memorize my speech!”

I think there’s a distinction to be made when it comes to this piece of advice. To be sure, you shouldn’t write your entire speech out and try to memorize it word-for-word. Doing that will make you sound like you’re reading.

However, I do think you should be able to get up on stage and deliver your speech without note cards. The way I achieve this is by writing my speech out in bullet points. 

Each main point, clarification, and important fact will get a bullet point in my outline. The first few times I practice, I’ll have the whole outline in my hands so I can reference it.

After a few runs, though, the general outline and most of the details start to form a concrete picture in my head. At that point, I’ll practice without the outline.

Eventually, I’ll know all the details of my speech cold. When it comes time to present, I might not say all the exact words I said in previous practice runs, but I’ll still deliver all the information in a confident, practiced manner.

Now practice doesn’t just help with the individual speech you’re working on at the moment. In general, if you want to become an all-around better speaker, practice is once again the answer.

If you’re looking for a great environment to practice your speaking skills, see if there’s a local Toastmasters group in your area. I also high recommend taking a speech class if you’re in college.

5. Film Yourself

Here’s a way to practice more efficiently: Bring a video camera with you and film your practice runs.

For every speech I had to give in college, I did this. I’d venture out onto campus at night, find an empty classroom where no one could hear me, and practice my speech over and over again.

I wouldn’t film the first few runs; during those ones, I was just trying to learn all the material. After I’d done that, though, I’d start filming each run and reviewing it immediately afterward.

By doing this, I was able to pinpoint things I didn’t even notice I was doing – looking back at the slides, pacing too much, speaking too quickly, etc.

6. Realize How Your Audience Views You

I believe each of the people in your audience falls into one of two different categories:

  1. Supporters – people who care about you, are invested in your topic, and want see you succeed.
  2. Bored people – those who would rather be elsewhere. Their minds are in the clouds, and whatever you do probably won’t affect them much.

Notice that neither of these categories includes people who will hate you, throw rotten food at you, or summon the spirit of Hades himself and curse your family for all eternity.

There’s a key realization you should have here. Your supporters are cheering you on through the good and bad; they’ll forgive your mistakes. The bored people are… bored. That means their opinions of you don’t matter.

Don’t let the potential reactions of bored people cause you unnecessary anxiety during your speech.

After the speech is over, you can take any constructive criticism into account for future performances.

7. Focus on Your Topic, Not Your Performance

When you’re developing your speech, try to get invested in the topic and focus on the transformation you want it to have on your audience. It’s amazing just how much less scary a talk is once you focus on your audience and figure out exactly what you want to deliver to them.

Once you do that, you’re no longer thinking so much about the technical aspects of your performance – your eye contact, body language, whether or not your fly is down, etc. When you’re really invested in your topic, your speech becomes almost as easy as simply explaining something to a friend in a casual setting.

8. Don’t Have a Stupid Haircut

Ok, the real tip here is to make a good first impression, but I’ve titled it this way because of this:

Stupid Haircut

Yep, that’s me giving a speech to several hundred students back when I was in high school. I’m not sure if I thought I was a Beatle or something… either way, that haircut was awful.

Before you step on stage, you should make an effort to dress well, to not have a stupid haircut, and to exude an aura of confidence. This is important because people form split-second first impressions upon seeing or meeting someone, and those impressions strongly influence all the future judgments they make about that person.

Daniel Kahneman illustrated this well in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“When the handsome and confident speaker bounds onto the stage, you can anticipate that the audience will judge his comments more favorably than he deserves.”

This is known as the Halo Effect; if you’d like to read more about it, here’s an article I wrote detailing it.

9. You Don’t Have to be Perfect

…so don’t try to be. Nobody delivers a perfect speech; even if you think someone did, that person can probably point out five things they feel like they screwed up on.

Perfectionism will only cause anxiety and paralyze your progress, so realize right now that your speech won’t be perfect… and that’s ok.

There’s a great quote by the author and speaker Scott Berkun that has always resonated with me:

“I don’t want to be perfect. I want to be useful, I want to be good, and I want to sound like myself.”

These are the qualities you should strive to achieve with your speaking – and with anything you do! So take a breath, calm your mind, and forget about perfectionism. Get out there, be yourself, and own the room 🙂

What’s Coming Next

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades - Thomas Frank

There are some bonus resources below, but before going over them I just wanted to let you know that next week we’ll be following up on this video with one on crafting great presentations. 

If you’d like to get notified about that video and other future content, you can sign up for the CIG newsletter. When you do, you’ll also get a free download of my 100+ page book called 10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less).

The book covers topics like:

  • Defeating procrastination
  • Getting more out of your classes
  • Taking great notes
  • Reading your textbooks more efficiently

…and several more. It also has a lot of recommendations for tools and other resources that can make your studying easier.

If you’d like to subscribe and get a copy of the book, sign up right here (it’s easy to unsubscribe if you decide it’s not for you):

Bonus Resources and Speaking Videos

As promised, I’ve got a bunch of extra resources you can use to improve your speaking game. First up, here’s a playlist of great speeches I’ve been building for the past few years:

Whenever I need to make a speech, I study a couple of these to look for things I can improve in my own speaking.

Also, in case you:

  • Want to see how my skills as a speaker have progressed over time
  • Need a good laugh

…here are a couple videos of speeches I’ve given in the past.

First up, here’s a pretty terrible presentation I gave in my sophomore speech class:

Contrast that with a talk I gave in August 2016 at Luther College:

Hopefully these videos will convince you to just get out there and practice! The more you do, the better you’ll become.

To round this post out, here are couple of additional resources you might find helpful:

If you liked this video, subscribe on YouTube to stay updated and get notified when new ones are out!

Images: playhouse, theatre

Thomas Frank is the geek behind College Info Geek. After paying off $14K in student loans before graduating, landing jobs and internships, starting a successful business, and travelling the globe, he's now on a mission to help you build a remarkable college experience as well. Get the Newsletter | Twitter | Instagram

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9 Comments on "9 Tips for Becoming a Great Public Speaker"

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Alan Walsh

Hi Thomas,

Great article – and you’re right about people focusing too much on trying to get a perfect speech. This is particularly damaging for beginning speakers, as what they actually need is lots of preparation and LOTS of practice!

And around the anxiety of blanking on stage, cue my favourite public speaking quote: “The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public”

It’s all about memorizing and working off key points of speeches, in order to try to internalize them, rather than learning off the full speeches. I’ve just written a big article on using your visual memory to do this quickly, which might be of benefit to some readers: http://www.publicspeakingmemory.com/tutorials/how-to-memorize-speeches-ultimate-guide

Alan

Craig Hadden (@RemotePoss)

Great tips! (I’ve never heard the one about counting letters to work out the speaking rate – I’ll have to try it!)

Slowing down is key. I use a “1-2-3” rule of thumb: Pause for 1 second whenever there’s a comma in your transcript, 2 seconds at the end of a sentence, and 3 seconds at the end of a paragraph.

I so agree about the need to film yourself, as well. There’s no better way to get feedback!
Anyway, thanks for the post.

Craig Hadden (@RemotePoss)

By the way, you might also like this critique of a TED-style talk on body language. The talk’s great, and presents some neat tips. (In the critique, I suggest things like tightening the call-to-action, too.)

Trevor

Some great tips – body language is a biggie. It’s probably why most bigger events have podiums because it gives the speakers a bit of “protection” and stops them fidgeting as much because they can always grip the podium and hope the audience doesn’t spot their knuckles turning white.

Slowing down is something that takes practice but is well worth doing. There’s nothing worse than listening to a speaker who sounds like they recorded their speech on an old fashioned tape player and then replayed it at the wrong speed trying to do an impression of the Chipmunks.

Arham Jain

Hey Thomas!
I like that you are branching out in your newer post, and not just being focused on college. This is a real skill, which many people, including myself, lack. I really liked the tip to slow down. I never noticed that I spoke quickly until I actually saw myself on a recording. Also, the tip of where to look in your audience is very useful as well. I always stare at the back wall, or skim my eyes over my peers. Several of my classmates tend to “talk” to the instructor instead of actually speaking to the class. You mentioned in your post that you have time to prepare and practice your speech. What do you do if you only have one day? An assignment my teacher gave consists of writing our speech one day, and presenting the next. What would you recommend one to focus on out of these tips?

Shantal

Thank you so much Thomas!!!!! I’ve been waiting for this. I’m an introvert and I get really anxious when I speak in front of a class. I also speak too fast. Hopefully these tips will help me improve my skills as a speaker. Thanks again! 🙂

Nikki

Hey! You were in BPA too? Super cool. What events did you do? And might I assume you were in the state/national presidency, judging by the shmancy blue jacket?

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