Public Speaking

When I changed jobs from being a semiconductor engineer to an information technology analyst, I realized immediately that success or failure in my future career would rest upon my then undeveloped public speaking ability.  More by chance than design, I stumbled upon a local Toastmasters International club.  This non-profit educational organization helps members develop their public speaking skills in a zero risk, feedback rich environment.  I owe everything I have learned about presenting to this organization and its members.  The only way to become a stellar public speaker is to practice, practice, practice.  Consequently, the best advice that I can offer is for you to join a local Toastmasters club so that you can apply the detailed tips provided here.

As you develop your public speaking aptitude, focus on improving one presentation skill at a time.  In my experience, the most common challenges that neophyte speakers have are eliminating filler words such as “um” or “ah”, controlling nervous energy, and figuring out what to do with their arms.  If, for example, you are on a mission to eliminate filler words from your speaking, then find a safe environment and focus solely on that for a while.  Do not worry about content, style, or any other aspects of delivery.  When you reach a sufficient level of competency (remember that mastery is asymptotic), move on to the next critical skill.

Control your environment

Public speaking is a performance that you are giving for your audience.  Just as stage directors ensure that everything is ready before the curtain comes up on a play, great presenters take control of their environment.  You must arrive early so that you have adequate time to assimilate or modify the technology and physical space.

If you are using technology, leave no stone unturned.  Test your microphone.  Run through your slides in presentation mode to ensure the computer is functioning and that graphics are displaying as expected.  It is easy to fall into complacency.  Once, I inserted a graphic for an innocent enough stop sign into a presentation and did not perform a dry run.  To my shock and horror, the stop sign began flashing obnoxiously in a presentation before the senior leadership of my company.  Fortunately, they had a sense of humor, but I learned that you can never be too careful.

Understanding and even changing your environment is just as important as testing the technology.  Regardless of whether or not you can alter your environment, you should take the time to plan how you will use the physical space.  For example, if you have the freedom to move around while speaking, you can determine where to stand and which pathways to take.  If you can alter the environment, you might choose to reconfigure chairs and tables, add or remove a podium, or reposition a moveable whiteboard.

Arriving early to gain control of the environment will give you confidence that will carry over into your presentation.  However, there is yet another compelling benefit.  Once you have mastered the technology and the physical space, arriving early gives you a golden opportunity to build rapport with your audience before you speak.  By listening carefully, you will create allies and be able to draw their insights and stories into your speech.

Develop your personal speaking style

As you gain comfort with presenting, your personal speaking style will begin to shine through.  For most presenters, their speaking style is a magnified version of their day-to-day personality.  Though you can develop a presentation persona that is different from who you are, the best advice in speaking is the same advice that applies to courtship – be yourself.

In a corporate environment, the most respected speaking persona is the ‘passionate presenter’ who radiates confidence and enthusiasm.  This style will allow you to shine in most situations including selling your ideas and motivating the troops.  There are plenty of good presenters with this style.  The great presenters are able to pair passion with sincerity so they rise above being viewed as merely silver tongued.  The key is to not let style overwhelm substance.

There are of course other styles besides the ‘passionate presenter’.  Personas run the gamut from witty to humorous to angry to dramatic.  Such styles are rare in the corporate environment since they are outside the norm and can be inappropriate in common situations.  For example, while being witty is pleasant, if you use humor excessively then you will not be taken seriously; avoid opening your presentation with a joke unless you are performing in a comedy club.  Likewise, it is never appropriate to insult yourself or your audience.

Seasoned speakers know that they, not their slides, are the presenters.  They possess the agility to weave stories in such a way that the slides become parenthetical (albeit supportive).  One of the tactical ways to make this magic happen is to never expose the guts of the performance.  The audience does not care how many hours you spent preparing or that you were up all night.  More subtly, you should avoid references to the slides themselves such as “in the next slide, we will see that…”  Again, always remember that you, not your props, are the attraction.

Another critical stylistic tip to bear in mind is that you are on stage any time your audience can see you.  Your manner of dress, grooming, and comportment should be consistent with your message.  In addition to the rapport building that you do before the presentation, your performance includes everything you do from the moment you stand up from your chair to the time you sit down.  Walk tall when coming and going, and if the situation warrants, smile liberally.

Regardless of which style you choose, you owe it to your audience to be prepared.  Many of those I have coached who are new to public speaking interpret this as a call to fully draft their speech, some even going so far as to read their speeches aloud.  Your audience did not come to listen to you read, nor did they come to hear you mechanically deliver your words.  They came to be inspired, to learn, to make a personal connection that transforms them in large or small ways.  Prepare and rehearse, but do not read your presentation or memorize it.  Instead, memorize only your opening and your closing, and simply keep a mental outline of what lies between.

When people finish their prepared remarks, they often let down their guard for the question and answer period.  However, it is critical that you develop a style for this portion of your speech as well.  You are still very much on stage.  When answering questions, you communicate respect to your audience by repeating the question.  After you answer, you should seek confirmation by asking “Did I answer your question?” and then looking carefully at the body language of the person that asked the question as well as at that of the rest of the audience.

During a question and answer period, generally strive to maintain the same tone – typically confident and passionate – that you used in your speech.  Continuity of tone coupled with repetition and reinforcement of important points will cement your overall message.  Note that confidence does not imply that you need to answer every question.  You need to know when you do not know.  You are a far more credible speaker when you say “Great question.  I do not have the answer right now but would be happy to take your contact information during the break so I can get back to you.”

A final stylistic point is that you should leave enough time at the end of the question and answer period for a prepared close.  This practice reflects utmost professionalism and allows you take back control of the stage.  To close, provide a summary of your main points or a call to action.

Architect your content

The key to crafting compelling content is to consider your material from the perspective of your audience:  how does it benefit them?  Your mission is to determine a single (and I mean single) purpose, key take away, or call to action.  This anchor message should be used as the beginning and the ending of your presentation.  For example, if I were giving a presentation on speech-craft, I might begin with the following:  “At the end of the next ten minutes, you are going to walk away with three valuable techniques that will transform your public speaking ability from good to great.”  That is the kind of beginning that makes most people, except for the most jaded, lean forward in their chairs.

Keep it simple.  Simplicity begins with crafting only one purpose, key take away, or call-to-action.  As you build a story around that anchor message, stick to a limited number of messages.

Keeping your primary message straightforward and the number and complexity of supporting messages to a minimum is half the battle in ensuring that you get through to your audience.  The second half is structuring the content in a way that makes it effortless to process.  When you are speaking, even if only for a few minutes, your audience will drift in and out of focusing on you.  One moment they fully comprehend the social ramifications of textile bartering in pre-Colonial America and the next moment they are remembering to pick up a gallon of milk from the store on their way home.  Regardless of how enthralling the speech or speaker is, unbroken focus cannot be sustained.

There are two excellent ways to deliver content so that your audience will be able to follow along in spite of human deficits in attention. The first approach is to use a structured content framework.  The second is to work your content into a story.

Though there are an infinite number of structured content frameworks, the key to using any one of them for delivering content is to expose the framework itself.  One of the most effective frameworks is: Tell them what you are going to tell them.  Tell them.  Then, tell them what you just told them.  This structure forces you to employ one of the most effective and sadly underused speaking techniques – repetition.

Another sound structural approach is to use the situation-complication-resolution-next steps framework.  The situation lays bare the facts at hand.  The complication piece details the set of issues or problems that are in play.  In the resolution section, you detail a number of possible solutions and highlight the one that you recommend.  Last, next steps provides your audience with an inspiring call to action.

Though it takes more preparation and skill than using a structured framework, telling a story is the single best method to cement your message in the subconscious of your audience.  People have a remarkable ability to fill gaps in stories and to apply stories to their personal situations and values.  Moreover, stories have layers and layers of meaning that a litany of facts can never convey.  One of my favorite quotes of all time is the following: “Tell me a fact and I will learn.  Tell me the truth and I will believe. Tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”  Before you think that storytelling is not applicable in a corporate environment, think again.  You can inject miniature stories within broader presentations to add truth and impact.  Or, you can weave a story of the future of your company or product and inspire your audience to dream with you.

Practice thoughtful slide use and design

With ubiquitous software, printing and display technology, slides have infiltrated human existence.  In most developed countries, the indoctrination begins in the classroom for children still in their single digits.  By the time people are well into their professional lives, slides become both a primary means of capturing completed work and of sharing messages.

The main problem with slides in the context of public speaking is the irreconcilable tension that exists between using slides as an information repository and using slides for storytelling.  Most slides begin their existence as the former integrating tables of data, complex graphics, and most typically page after page of bulleted lists.  Most people then take these original slides, clean them up a bit, and use them in a presentation. The slides serve the convenient role of a safety net and the worst offenders simply read bullets off the slide with a few verbal flourishes.

This does not mean that the best presentations eschew slides altogether.  The best analogy I can offer is that great presentations are like great movies.  There are a few singular movies with no music such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and David Lynch’s more avant-garde “Eraserhead.”  Similarly, there are a few exquisite films with no dialogue at all including Sylvain Chomet’s “The Triplets of Belleville.”  However, the vast majority of great movies combine stunning imagery and compelling dialogue with a subtle, emotion-eliciting soundtrack.  In a presentation, you are the imagery, your content is the dialogue, and the slides are the background music.  Poorly constructed slides can ruin a presentation just as fast as a bad score can ruin a movie.

As you set out to prepare slides that you will use for a public presentation, throw away your information dense research slides, or at least put them on the other side of the room.  Grab pen and paper, sticky notes, or a whiteboard, and start to draw out the story you wish to tell.  There is no need for you to be a trained graphic designer or artist.  Many gifted presenters follow the mantra “say it, then show it.”  To achieve this, imagine that each slide you draw is the accompanying exclamation point on the part of the story you are sharing.

As you shift from analog to digital, keep your slides nearly as simple as your drawings.  Second, make your titles strong enough that they provide the “so-what” in such a way that they alone could tell the story.  Third, do not provide handouts before your presentation unless absolutely necessary.  At best, your audience will be mildly distracted reading along.  At worst, they will scan your entire presentation end to end during the crucial opening minutes of your presentation and then conclude that they have learned everything you have to offer.

Perhaps one in a thousand people that prepare and deliver presentations even have a rudimentary understanding of graphic design.  Knowing just a few basic rules governing the use of text and images will give you an incredible edge.  (If you run into a snobby graphic designer just remember to say things like “Rules are meant to be broken” and “Helvetica is so jejune.”)

The most critical rule of graphic design that applies to slide building is “less is more.”  Strive for individual slides to be simple and elegant and for the entire deck to form one harmonious whole.  For starters, use the minimum possible number of words or directly relevant graphics that you need to get your point across.  Again, your voice will be the soundtrack providing additional detail.  Minimalism extends to limiting the number of fonts, colors, and images used.

Most designers will employ just a single font in a design.  Since many slides have titles or short key headline style messages, your best choice is a variant of Helvetica, including its cousin Ariel.  (try to ignore the Helvetica Holy War that has raged for decades in the graphic design community).  Every font carries an emotional context and you should strive to match the typeface to your message.  For Helvetica, the mood is neutral yet authoritative – hence a good choice for corporate presentations.  Nearly every sign you see and company logo you come across is constructed with this font.

If you want or need to use multiple fonts, the best advice is to stay within the same family.  Beyond size, fonts vary in thickness (light, regular, and bold), as well as other attributes such as italics.  All of these variations, in addition to sparing use of a different font color, will provide contrast.  However, you are bound to run into a rare special circumstance where you need something even more starkly different.  In that case, you need to dive just a little into the technical details of fonts.

Helvetica is a sans-serif font, meaning that the ends of the characters do not have little semi-decorative lines.  If you wish to mix Helvetica with another family, it is best to do so with a serif font or a script font to make the contrast look intentional and not accidental.  While sans-serif fonts like Helvetica are great for headlines, a serif font such as Times New Roman is more commonly used for longer passages of text since the little details help quickly guide the eye.  Consequently, if you look closely at most advertisements, you will see Helvetica for titles and Times New Roman for body text.  Maybe it is not clever or creative, but it is everywhere because it works and is an excellent choice for the rest of us.  The mood for Times New Roman is credible and classic.  If you need bold contrast, then you can (again very judiciously) use a script font.  I recommend Lucilda Calligraphy which conveys the air of elegant handwriting.

The “less is more” rule also applies to the use of color.  Choose a limited palette of at most five colors.  To maintain consistency between images, fonts, and backgrounds, an excellent practice is to draw the colors from an image or set of images in the presentation.  Many of the most effective palettes are actually monochromic where the color (hue) stays the same, but the lightness/darkness (tone or value) and brightness/dullness (saturation) vary.  Alternatively, you can go for subtle but clear contrast with an analogous color scheme which is one in which colors are adjacent on a color wheel.  For bold contrast, to be used sparingly, go for complementary colors that sit on opposite sides of the color wheel.

In addition to the colors contained in fonts and images, you should also be thoughtful about the colors used in slide backgrounds and foreground.  As a general rule, use cool colors such as blue, green, or silver for backgrounds and warm colors like red, yellow, and orange for foregrounds.  Neutral colors like black and white may also be suitable for backgrounds.

In addition to the “less is more” philosophy, another set of principles worth internalizing regards attentive placement of text and images.  Again, this is the stuff of design community battles, but the basics rule in the end, via the Rule of Thirds, to be exact.  Just divide a slide into a three-by-three grid of nine equal sized boxes, using this grid to align both text and images.  It is perfectly acceptable and accepted for elements to span multiple boxes but do so with awareness and intention.  For example, imagine that you consumed an entire slide with a single outdoor photograph.  In that case, you would align the horizon with one of the two horizontal grid lines.  If the sky is dull, align it with the top one.  If dramatic, then align the horizon with the bottom grid line.  Additionally, the grid is your guide to where the focal points are on the slide.  There are five of them.  The first four are at the intersections of the grid lines and make excellent places to place an image. The fifth one is more subtle and is at the visual center of the slide just up and to the right of true center.

As for using images, the sky is the limit.  Just remember to use only images that are relevant to the message.  Avoid pictures that provide mere decoration, including most generic clipart.  Oh, and one more helpful tip.  Where possible, consider bleeding images off the page; this stimulates people to use their imagination to compete the picture.

Manage your physical delivery

When I first started to develop my public speaking ability, my greatest weakness was that I did not know what to do with my hands.  When I consulted reference materials, I either heard useless generalizations (do what comes naturally) or read lists of what not to do.  I yearned for something or someone to tell me what ideal physical delivery looks like.

To be comfortable with what do with your arms, just do what you do when you are having a standing conversation with somebody you trust.  When people speak to one another, their rest position is to have their hands comfortably down at their sides.  This is the most effective base position in public speaking.  Next, you want to make natural gestures above the waist, but below the neck.  For about half the population, hand gestures are a natural part of the way they converse.   If you fit into that group, just keep doing what you are doing.  If you are in the other half like me, then you are going to have to force yourself to make hand gestures lest you stand uncomfortably fixed like a soldier.  It is going to feel awkward initially, but I promise your discomfort will disappear in no time.  The only difference between what you do with your arms in normal conversation versus what you do in public speaking is that you should make your hand gestures somewhat larger.  The bigger your audience, the more dramatic your gestures need to be for people to see them.

Rather than hands down comfortably at their sides with elbows slight bent, many people believe that the correct base position is to keep their hands above the waist at all times.  Some people put their hands together, some people keep them apart.  You can most certainly be a good speaker if you do this, but you will not be great.  Imagine walking around all day, every day like this.  It would be neither comfortable nor confident.  Remember, you would never have a conversation with a person whom you care about with your hands up the entire time, because it creates a barrier.  Even at a distance, you will be creating the same barrier with your audience.

Now that I have shared with you what you should do with your arms while speaking, it is worth knowing what not to do.  Do not hold your hands in any of the following positions:

  • Fig leaf: Holding your arms down but with your hands coupled in front suggests that you are timid.
  • Pockets: Hands in pockets makes you appear passive or disinterested.
  • Parade rest: Holding your arms down but with your hands coupled in back suggests that you are hiding something.
  • Hips:  Hands on hips makes you appear defiant.
  • Crossed arms: Crossing your arms is a negative, challenging position.

Effective use of your arms is just one component of physical delivery.  Another is transmitting positive body language.  For starters, you should shower your audience with a genuine smile.  Smiles not only communicate calm confidence but also build trust between you and your audience.  Though there are many aspects to positive body language, the most important factor beyond your smile is your ability to keep your body square and balanced.  Face your audience, keep your shoulders square, and plant your feet on the floor shoulder width apart.

Once you master your smile and your stance, you must develop your eye-contact skills.  The key to being expert at eye-contact is to make direct eye contact with specific individuals in the audience.  Rather than scanning the audience (or worse, the ceiling or the floor), aim to make direct eye-contact with one person at a time, with that contact lasting the duration of a thought.  This literally means holding eye contact for a minimum of a dozen or so seconds while you make it through a sentence or two.

Once you have mastered the physical delivery skills of hand gestures and body language, you can transform yourself into a true professional through the use of effective movement.  Your goal is to make your movement fluid and natural while still retaining discipline.  Making this concrete, I recommend that you move on transitions.  Remain in one spot with your body square to your audience as you make a point.  Then pause and move.  Once you have stopped, begin speaking again.  Rather than being awkward, this pause gives your audience time to process your last point and to prepare for your next one.  Of course there are times when you may wish to travel a longer distance.  In those instances, you can speak while moving.  However, when you get to your new position make sure to stop and square up your body so that you do not appear to be wandering or pacing.

Master your verbal delivery

To become an excellent public speaker, you must master your verbal delivery.  Fortunately, you have fertile opportunities to practice, as public speaking is generally an amplified version of your everyday conversations.  This is of course a double edged sword. The imperfections that exist in your regular speech will be magnified during presentations.  However, with a small amount of practice you can transform your verbal delivery both on and off stage.

If you are like most people, then your speech has become infected with filler words.  People use filler words because they are uncomfortable with silence.  The most common are “um” and “ah”, but the more evolved have masked these with “so”, “actually” and even the occasional lip smack.  More insidious, though in the same category, are the words and phrases “like”, “you know”, “sort of” and “kind of” since they express uncertainty, not to mention immaturity, in what you are saying.

Fortunately, the cure for using filler words is simple.  Just pause.  The pause not only replaces filler words, but also gives you an aura of self-control. A brief silence provides time to collect and structure your next thoughts.  Beyond the personal benefits, the pause gives your audience the time they need to process what you are saying.  Longer pauses add dramatic emphasis like a subtle yet powerful exclamation point.   They grab your audience’s attention.  The pause is a gift that keeps giving.

One you have eliminated most filler words by mastering the art of the pause, you must add vocal variety to make your speech interesting.  Start by modulating your volume.  If you speak softer, you will actually cause people to lean forward in their seats and take notice.  If louder, then you command attention.  Either way, take full, deep breaths and project so that people in the last row can hear you.  Next vary the speed.  For example, you can gradually increase the speed and shorten sentences to add excitement.  Though some dramatic speakers vary pitch (high and low) and cadence (rhythmic rise and fall of voice inflection), these vocal traits can come across as artificial in a corporate setting.

Your verbal delivery extends beyond speech mechanics into the words that you use.  To enhance your audience’s interest, you should make liberal use of vivid, descriptive, sensory detail.  Sights, sounds, and smells are the easiest to incorporate.  In some situations, you may even be able to weave in taste and touch.  The small penalty you pay in being verbose is more than made up for by the impact you have of allowing your audience to form a mental picture.


Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become a polished public speaker:

  • Control your environment
  • Develop your personal speaking style
  • Architect your content
  • Practice thoughtful slide use and design
  • Manage your physical delivery
  • Master your verbal delivery

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