David Cooper

Top tips for public speaking

There you are – staring out at the mass of spectators before you. An eager audience waiting with bated breath and ready to hang on every word. This may be your first time; it may be your 50th. Still, there you are, about to speak to…how many…50, 100, 300, 1000? Steady now. You’ve got this! Whether you find yourself here as content expert, event MC, motivational speaker, or general provocateur and whether you find yourself terrified, energised, reluctant, willing, fledgling, or an old hat at the prospect of speaking in front of a large group, lets explore some ways to exit stage left having won the hearts, minds, and appreciation of your audience. 

Be Yourself

This may sound simple and a bit trite, though I often see those readying themselves to take the stage forget the very strengths that serve them any other day. They convince themselves that they have to be a different person up there. Maybe someone they've seen deliver a great presentation or some ideal that they have created in their minds. Maybe it’s the anxiety, fear, excitement, or nervousness that often accompanies the proposition of engaging with a large audience – whatever it is, it can often allow us to forego our core strengths. So, remember what makes you great and leverage that greatness. Are you planned and structured? Be sure to lay yourself a clear pathway to deliver your message. Spontaneous and random? Build presentation elements that allow you to listen and react. Funny? Include appropriate humour. Detailed and logical? Show us your command of your material. Bring us your authentic self, not someone you think we may want to see.
 

Be Your Audience

You are your audience. Forget the clichés suggesting that you picture the audience naked or absent or in any other strange appropriation and focus instead on what I believe to be at the root of these recommendations and that is this - those people out there…they’re people, just like you. You have more in common than you think and they are rooting for you (probably – I mean, we’re not really talking political rallies or protests here). So make sure you remember that you are your audience. Reduce the gap, the divide that is created when we ignore this fact. Greet folks as they arrive if you can, be present and mingle where appropriate.  Even in the largest of groups be sure to make eye contact. Not passing glances, mind you – hold a gaze for a sentence or two.  Engage the audience with a question or a quick topical poll. Have them join you in a stretch or a nice stand and greet your neighbour before you begin. Use a plant if you know that it will be helpful – a trusted colleague or friend that you can have seated where a passing glance will always produce a big ‘you’re awesome’ grin. Be personal and a bit vulnerable and don’t be afraid to let the audience know it. Let them into your world and they’ll open theirs to you for a while.
 

Be Intentional

Speaking, acting, and engaging with intent is one of my top priorities when it comes to speaking to large groups. I find it invaluable to ensure my decisions have been well informed and executed in good faith towards my message and my audience. What do I mean? Anything you say, anything you do, anything you use – say, do, and use it with intent, for a reason that will serve you and your audience in some way. 
  • Speak with intent

Choose your language carefully. Is it better to use ‘and’ in place of ‘but’ for that sentence? Do you need to dilute that technical jargon and use layman’s terms? Are certain words, sayings and colloquialisms taboo for this group? Make every word count and be aware of opportunities to select words that will simply do a better job at helping your audience understand you and your message. 

  • Act with intent

Make your movement informed and directed. You’ve likely heard the advice to not pace or fidget – it can be very distracting for your audience. This doesn't mean you have to stand or even sit still. Move with intent. You may always move to a particular part of the stage to speak to and anchor a specific topic.  Speaking to or about the audience? Arms wide, hands out, and bring us in. If you are moving, ask yourself why? If the answer is because this will support the words coming out of my mouth and provide a visual to aid comprehension then go on and move! Remember to make those movements a bit larger than you may think necessary. In large groups you can be well away from the folks in the back and those larger more exaggerated movements will look quite normal for them. 

  • Engage with intent

Be equally intentional with your tone, inflection, volume, and pace. These should be used to help you articulate those words you’ve chosen. Looking to energize the group? Raise the volume. Driving a particularly important point home? Try lowering your voice and volume. Lean into the audience and make them lean into you. Know that silence is OK. Asking an important question you want your audience to consider? Let a good pause linger after asking. Give them the space to think about that question – let it sink in a bit. 

Apply the same principles to any props, visual aids, or technology you choose to use. Don’t use these for the sake of using them and don’t fail to use something that will help focus the audience on you and your message. A particular piece of music playing as people arrive or as you begin may be just the thing to set the tone or energy you are interested in. If you’re using video, Power Point, Keynote – have you done so with intent? Will whatever is on the screen detract from or support your words? Do your audience and message demand charts, facts, and figures or will some images and photos serve you better?

With this intent – intent directed at increasing understanding and participation and decreasing distractions - you’ll find a more engaged audience ready and willing to follow you on the adventure you have in store for them.

David Cooper is a Senior Consultant at Impact Americas.