I attend a lot of events each year. Big events. Small events. Events in an auditorium. Events in a classroom setting. Events with a keynote during a meal. And I’ve seen a lot of masters of ceremonies, moderators, panelists, and speakers. All with different speaking styles and public-speaking skills.
Nothing drives me crazier than speakers who are ill-prepared. And I don’t mean just scrambling to get their speech together at the last minute. I’m talking about people who know they have to give a speech and yet do not put in the work to learn anything about public speaking.
You know the signs. Mumbling. Speaking softly. Monotonous. Rushing through things. A lot of “ums.” Reading the notes instead of speaking. Not making eye contact with the audience. Using jargon not familiar to the audience.
Not doing your homework about your audience, not practicing beforehand, or just plain ol’ not learning how to publicly speak before your speech: To me that is an ill-prepared speaker.
I would like to offer what I’ve learned over the years, as both a trained speaker and a member of the audience, on how to get the most bang for your buck at your next speaking opportunity.
Nail down the time
Pro tip: It’s never “as long as you want,” even if that’s what they tell you. Ask the organizer differently: “What’s the optimum amount of time? Five minutes? Fifteen minutes? How long did your best speaker ever talk?”
Know your audience
Get clear on your topic and who the audience will be. Are they C-level executives? What is their job function: buying, selling, HR? Is it a mixed group? Maybe you’re there to speak as a sponsor of the event. If you talk about your new product, does that even apply to your audience? Is anyone present the decision maker on buying your product?
Practice, practice, practice!
First, outline what you are going to talk about, then fill in the blanks. Time yourself while saying it out loud, preferably in front of a mirror, multiple times. If you are given 15 minutes, don’t ramble on for 20 minutes. Edit your remarks until you are a little under your time limit.
You can use your notes while you practice. I type out every single one of my speeches, no matter how short it may be. I use at least a 14-point type, triple spaced, and I number the pages. These steps make it much easier to rehearse and give my speech. When you have that down, practice in front of a few people and get their feedback.
Slow down, pause, and breathe
Speak more slowly than your normal speed. You may think you’re not going that fast, but in public speaking, you probably are. Slow it down so your audience can absorb what you are talking about.
Also, pauses are not a bad thing. Don’t feel the need to fill the silence. Take a beat at the end of sentences and breathe. Not only does it calm your nerves, but it gives the audience a moment to catch up and pay attention as well.
Don’t skip the sound check
Get to the venue early to do sound and technical checks before guests start arriving. That’s when you stand at the podium you are going to be presenting from and adjust the microphone so you can be heard. Get the host or a coworker to stand in the back of the room to verify that you are loud and clear. If you’re using a PowerPoint presentation, make sure you run through every slide.
Smile and stick to your script
Give the presentation or remarks that you rehearsed. Don’t ad lib! You got this.
Take a few deep breaths before you begin, find someone in the audience to make eye contact with, and smile. Smiling at your audience will make the audience smile back at you, and you can connect with them that much more.
Follow these steps, and you’ll get compliments on your presentation, and reduce the number of people texting or reading their emails during it!
I didn’t make up all these pointers on my own. Early in my career, I met the late Judith Learner, a former newscaster from Milwaukee and a professional speaking coach. I hired her to work with me for over a year. She videotaped me multiple times while giving presentations and I had to watch myself during the playback. Nothing breaks you of bad habits—flipping your hair, adjusting your shoulders, filling the silence with “ums”—better than seeing yourself on camera! Plus, I had a professional right there pointing out every one of my flaws and opportunities to be more polished.
I used to get so nervous before I gave a speech. Now, I actually look forward to it, thanks to Judith for having been a great teacher and mentor.
I hope that my pointers can help you the way Judith helped me. I’d love to hear whether these suggestions help you with your next speech. Good luck!