Research public speaking and two things very quickly become evident. First, few people actively enjoy it and, although not that many are genuinely terrified, around 75% experience some degree of anxiety about public speaking. Second, it’s an important skill: 70% of employees think presentation skills are vital to succeeding at work.
Not only can becoming a better speaker help you bag a job or advance in one, but it also helps boost your confidence and improve your general communication skills, both at work and in daily life. However, like any skill, most of us need to work hard to improve. Take a look at our top tips on how to go about it.
First things first, make sure you know exactly what your presentation or speech should be about, and what you’re aiming to achieve through it. This might involve coming up with a great idea yourself, or it may be that you’ve been asked to present on a particular topic. But whether it’s a sales pitch meant to bring in new clients, a report on a project, or a speech meant to amuse or inspire, you need to have your objective in mind.
You should also adapt your tone and content to what will resonate best with your audience. It’s not as simple as young people like jokes and senior board members want cold hard facts; use what you know about the audience, and if necessary do some research, so you can best judge what will go down well.
Finally, make sure you know your facts and figures, and double check that they’re correct. Making a mistake involving the data you use can be embarrassing and look sloppy.
Whatever the purpose of your speech, it’s important to organise your points in a way that effectively conveys information and engages your audience. People are 40% more likely to retain information that’s presented in a structured way.
The most basic (but still effective) structure to use is the classic ‘Introduction – Points – Conclusion’. Grabbing your audience’s attention at the start makes the introduction particularly important. Humans love stories, and many great speakers choose to start with one. Just make sure the anecdote you tell is interesting and appropriate for the occasion.
Drawing a common theme through all your points, or thinking of the entire speech as a story that needs to hang together, can also help you write a more powerful speech.
The conclusion is about drawing all of the speech together. Quickly recap your points and refer back to your introduction. If you started with an anecdote, mention it again; if you posed a question, answer it. And end strongly, with a memorable sentence or a call to action, and then thank your audience.
If you want to make an effective speech, just reading out what you’ve written isn’t enough; you need to give an engaging performance. Being really familiar with your material and keeping your note cards to a minimum is part of this.
Try speaking through what you’re written a couple of times to check that it flows well. Then you can try focussing on sections of the speech one at a time; it’s more efficient and less tricky than trying to learn it all from start to finish at once. Practise the transitions between each section as well, so that these moments don’t trip you up.
Being able to recite what you wrote words for word isn’t necessary – in fact, as you run through it, you might find that you naturally alter some sections to make them easier to say. What’s most important is remembering the points you want to make and the structure of your speech; no one but you will know if you’re ad-libbing the words.
When you feel comfortable with what you’re saying, try practising the speech in front of your mirror to get a sense of what you look like delivering it. You might notice you’ve added in some weird gestures without realising it, or that you look entirely unenthusiastic.
Then try it out on a friend, or a colleague if appropriate. Getting another opinion and feedback on what works and what doesn’t (especially if you’ve included jokes) will help you improve, and the process will also make you feel more comfortable.
It’s how you say it. In its own way, speaking is a physical activity; your body language, expression, and tone matter. When you’re practising, as well on the big day, make sure you vary the pace and emphasis of your delivery. Don’t force yourself to add in something that feels unnatural, but gesturing along with what you say can help you engage your audience.
Making eye contact with your listeners is also important. At the very least remember to look out and project at the audience, rather than mumbling into your notes.
Think carefully about what visual aids or tech you want to support your presentation. A Powerpoint or a printed handout can be great if used to illustrate data or highlight key points, but not if they’re too text-heavy; don’t have your entire speech written up on the screen behind you. Visual information – like pictures or graphs – will be more effective.
Always check in advance whether your tech is compatible with the venue where you’re presenting. Turning up to find that you’re saved the wrong version of your slideshow, or that their projector is broken can really throw you off.
Your speech is something you’re entirely in control of – unlike the questions people ask in response. Have a think beforehand about what questions people might have. If there’s something you’re really hoping no one will ask, assume that they will, and make sure you have an answer ready so you don’t panic in the moment.
However, you can only prepare so much for questions, which is another reason why knowing your material so well is important. If you learn a speech by rote rather than really thinking about what you’re saying, you won’t be as ready to put that information to use answering people.
It’s easier said than done, but staying calm beforehand will have a good impact on your delivery. It’s not about pretending you’re not anxious, but about looking after yourself and doing what you can to keep nerves under control. Try to stick to a normal eating and sleeping pattern in the run-up to the big day so your physical health doesn’t take a hit.
When the time comes, get to the venue early so that you aren’t in a rush, and can familiarise yourself with it. Then sneak off to the bathroom and try pulling a power pose.
Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy’s research has shown that power posing – a pose in which your body language is open and confident, like Wonder Woman hands-on-hips stance – for two minutes can increase testosterone and decrease your levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Doing this before a speech can therefore have a positive impact on your confidence and performance.
Finally, when you get up to speak, give yourself a moment to settle; arrange your notes, have a sip of water, and take a deep breath. People often launch into a speech straight away because they’re nervous, and so get off to a shaky start. By pausing, you tell your audience that you feel calm and in command – and that’s half the battle.
Claire Kilroy is a content writer for the UK’s leading graduate recruitment agency, Inspiring Interns. Check out their website for listing of internships and graduate jobs London, or head to their blog for more graduate careers advice.
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