While you might not have opportunities to speak to crowds of hundreds or thousands, your public speaking skills affect your ability to:

This is why it’s so importantto use these practical ways to improve your public speaking, no matter what level of skill (or anxiety) you start from and no matter who you’re talking to, whether it's vendors, peers or clients.

1. Start at the beginning: better introductions

People decide in the first thirty to sixty seconds of a presentation whether to listen or check their email, so you need to practise getting off to a strong start when you speak. Dr. Michelle Mazur says a couple of the best ways to begin a speech include:

  • Telling a story or using a quote to capture your audience
  • Stating the importance of the topic

While the quickest way to turn off an audience is to:

  • Give a dictionary definition
  • Tell a joke (a weak or untested one)
  • Talk about yourself
  • Give a fact (stories are stronger)

You want to practise creating and testing different introductions, which help your audience connect with the topic you plan to address.

2. Work on content and structure

After you hook your audience, you need to show them a sense of purpose. Sarah Lloyd-Hughes of Ginger Training & Method teaches:

The Golden String Method

  • Find the thread. Any talk should have one purpose and every piece of the presentation should be connected to it.
  • Edit your content. You should be able to identify what to cut from your talk by what does not link back to your main thread.
  • Add key moments. Lloyd-Hughes refers to these as ‘beads.’ These are the stories and examples that give power to your purpose through illustration.
  • Connect it. She recommends joining the content of your presentations by connecting the beads. So, instead of writing it out line by line, work section to section, story to story.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is said to walk out of meetings if the presentation is not purposeful and well-organised. Your goal is to keep people in their seats, both mentally and physically, from start to finish so ensure your content is concise and purposeful.

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3. Work music theory into your delivery

You enjoy particular songs because of the pauses, the tempo or the melody. Musical elements like these are also affect whether or not people enjoy listening to you speak.

Sheet music with coloured lights, used in blog 7 practical ways to improve your public speaking

Peter Jeff writes about the 8 speechwriting lessons you can learn from songwriters, detailing the musical elements you can apply to your speech:

  • Triad
  • Refrain
  • Cadence
  • Harmony
  • Rhythm
  • Rhyme
  • Echo
  • Sound effects

Jeff gives examples from various speeches to illustrate how you can work musical elements into your delivery. Practise putting the different elements to work in the way you speak. Your audience won’t realise what's happening, but they will enjoy how you deliver your message.

4. Work on incorporating non-verbal communication

A much-cited study completed at UCLA indicates that 93 percent of all communication is non-verbal. If that's true, then if you don’t understand and manage your gestures, facial expressions and movement, only seven percent of your presentation will get through.

You want to:

  • Remember to stand or sit up straight
  • Use gestures that are spontaneous and demonstrate what you’re talking about
  • Use the space you have to move around
  • Match your facial expressions to the mood of what you are saying
  • Make eye contact with members of the audience

However, you want to make sure you don’t:

  • Repeat the same gesture over and over again
  • Move around too fast or too much
  • Forget to look at your audience or look past their heads to the back wall

Practice incorporating non-verbal communication which emphasises your point and makes you interesting to watch.

5. Learn to control panic

The fear of public speaking is common, but it shouldn't prevent you from seizing the opportunity to speak in a meeting or present to a group. Countless articles on public speaking cover how to get over the fear of public speaking, but there are two main ideas you should focus on in order to improve.

  1. Expand your comfort zone

Till H. Gross, in his TEDx talk on How to become more confident, recounts how he issued himself challenges (like lying in the middle of a busy street) to push the boundaries of his comfort zone.

Issue your own challenges. Different people will have different boundaries to push. You might invite someone new to lunch, take a class or strike up a conversation with a stranger in a coffee shop.

  1. Confront your particular brand of anxiety

Panic can happen no matter what group you’re in front of or how much planning you’ve done.

It’s important that you:

There’s no magic cure for anxiety, but learning to manage it will ensure you can deliver the speech you actually prepared and it can make you more effective in front of any audience, planned or impromptu.

6. Learn to anticipate and manage your audience

Image of an audience and stage, used in blog 7 practical ways to improve your public speaking

A big part of learning to improve your public speaking is learning to turn your attention away from yourself and towards your audience, who make up the judge and jury of a successful presentation.

To practise:

  • Use the right language, examples and stories for the audience. Every word, example or story should be tailored to what your audience knows in order to keep what you say relevant and engaging.
  • Practice for distractions by making a list of things that could go wrong. Come up with a few go-to phrases or methods to handle a cell phone ringing, people talking and texting or technology failing so it doesn’t derail you.
  • Make a list of potential audience questions that may be brought up after you speak. This helps you give calm, collected responses.
  • Don’t be the distraction. If your clothes, the fonts or colours on your PowerPoint, verbal repetition or gestures distract, it might be difficult to regain audience attention to your message.

7. Use audio and video to make conscious changes and monitor progress

Musicians and athletes use video to identify bad habits and poor technique. They continue to monitor their performances to ensure they are improving.

Record yourself when you practise, present or even run through a meeting agenda. Look for ways to improve all of the items we discussed:

  • Introductions and content
  • Delivery
  • Movement and gestures
  • Comfort level
  • Audience engagement

Besides video or audio of yourself, you can also watch seasoned speakers like:

  • Talk show hosts for the way they conduct conversation and interviews
  • Comedians for their delivery and timing
  • TED or keynote speakers for their intros and content
  • YouTube personalities for their comfort on camera and gestures

Watching videos or listening to audio of yourself as well as others will help you identify both good and bad habits and in turn you can adapt your skills to improve your public speaking.

Improve your public speaking and be heard

These are practical steps you can take to improve your public speaking. At some point, we all end up speaking to an audience, whether it be a few people or hundreds. When that time comes, it’s important you are prepared to not just speak, but also to be heard.

(Hat tip to Paul Hudson, Tanakawho, Roger Reuver for the photos)

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