Creative LeadershipCreativity

My Top Ten Secrets To Improve Your Public Speaking

If you’re going very far as a leader or creative professional, sooner or later you’ll need to speak to audiences. Whether it’s a conference keynote, workshop, or you just need to inspire your team at the office or studio, I believe every leader should be comfortable speaking in front of a group. However, there are plenty of speakers, preachers, and teachers who simply aren’t capable of captivating an audience. That’s why I created these top 10 secrets that will take your public speaking to a new level. Conquer this list and you’re on your way:

1) Stop using “fill in” words like “um,” “ah,” “like,” or “aaah.”  In today’s noisy and cluttered world, speakers feel like they need to fill the empty spaces in their talk. But in that noisy and cluttered world, we actually value silence. So don’t be afraid to pause. When you don’t know what to say, don’t insert nonsensical “fill in” words – simply pause and think. Better yet, know your talk so well that you won’t stumble. In my opinion, few things make a speaker look more amateur than constantly saying “ah,” “um,” “like,” or “you know,” so cut it out if you’re serious about speaking.

2) Don’t get obsessed with your notes. Occasionally checking your notes is fine, but referring to your notes too often is the best way to tell your audience you’re not prepared. If you need to read your talk, then print it out and pass it around because I’d rather read a message myself then have a speaker do it. Practice, learn your talk, get comfortable with it, and stop constantly looking down and checking your notes.

3) Don’t let unexpected things throw you off balance.  I’ve spoken to live audiences hundreds of times, and problems happen more often than you think. The sound goes out, lighting glitches happen, microphones cut out, there’s a crazy person in the audience, or more often there’s a technical problem using PowerPoint or Keynote. At one event a set piece fell over on the stage during my talk. Always expect the unexpected and don’t let it ruffle you or throw you off. Make a joke about it and move on.

4) Be very careful about using PowerPoint.  Read the book “Give Your Speech, Change the World: How To Move Your Audience to Action.” It begins with a simple premise: become a good speaker first, and then add PowerPoint if necessary. Too many inexperienced speakers go straight to using presentation software, and it hurts the presentation. They end up spending all their preparation time looking for slides, writing the text, and getting the order right – when they should be using that time practicing their speech. Hold off on using PowerPoint or Keynote, and focus your time on becoming a great speaker first.

5) Make eye contact with the audience.  I attended a church recently where the pastor never looked at the audience. It was very curious, but more speakers than you think avoid eye contact with the people in the seats. They look at their notes, stare at the floor, or lock in on the wall behind the audience. I understand it because it took me awhile to overcome being distracted by the facial expressions of audience members. But if you’re going to connect with the message, you need to connect with your eyes. Look at the audience just as if you were talking to a friend. Without that relationship, you won’t make an impact.

6) Make sure your “speaking voice” is the same as your normal talking voice.  I have a friend who has a very nice voice, but the minute he begins speaking to an audience, he switches to the deep promotional sound of the classic “radio voice.” Other people speak with a monotone and exhibit very little emotion. This comes with practice, and sometimes you do have to project your voice, but as much as possible, make sure it’s YOUR voice, not some made up voice that you think sounds dramatic or important.

7) Don’t get stuck behind the podium.  Too many speakers look like they’re bolted to the floor. Great speakers move, use expressions, and speak “physically” as well as vocally.

8) Make Sure You Connect with the audience. Although there will always be audience members who fall asleep, look disinterested or bored, be on the lookout for large numbers mentally checking out. This is really about knowing your audience and understanding their expectations. I always do my best to find out ahead of the event who’s in the audience, what their interests are, and why they came. Certainly you want to give them more than they expect, but start with meeting their expectations.

9) Don’t lose your place in your presentation or in your notes. There are numerous ways to avoid this, and the best is simply to know your presentation. But if you’re developing something new and need your notes, think about printing them in a large font that’s easy to read. You should also abbreviate or outline so you’re not wrestling with many pages – in fact, some speakers experiment with colorful circles, arrows, and other indicators. As you practice, look away from time to time and then back to see if you can easily find your place again in your notes. Getting lost is a strong signal that you’re not prepared, and you’ll quickly lose credibility.

10) If the audience looks bored or people start leaving early, you’re in trouble. Of course, this is your worst nightmare, and if it happens in big numbers there’s no real fix because it’s simply too late. Either you’ve missed their expectations or not been interesting or professional enough for them to stick with you to the end. My advice is more practice. Go back to the beginning of this list and start over before your next talk. (And another reason to limit the length of your talk.)

Bonus:  I have to admit that even after speaking at hundreds of keynotes, workshops, and other sessions, I still don’t fully understand audiences. Sometimes I’ll see people who look absolutely bored (even angry), but after the talk they’ll come up in tears telling me how my message changed their life. Others who are on the edge of their seat during my talk, quickly walk out the door as soon as it’s over. So understand there will always be outliers that you won’t figure out. However, it’s the larger group that should be your focus. Do your jokes get a laugh? Is the audience attentive during your serious moments? Are they taking notes?

If you can win the greater group, and do it with consistency, then you know you’re on the right track.

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22 Comments

  1. I think you have over simplified ‘PowerPoint’ (which I loathe). I think it was Steve Jobs who coined the 27 word rule. 27 words total in your ‘slide show’. Most people use hundreds. And that is hundreds too many!

    Remember not everyone is an aural learner. I fall asleep in talks without visuals. So the visuals are not ‘add ons’ but a critical part of the communication. Visuals… not textuals!

    Alongside this the sequential slide based motif of PowerPoint or Keynote have a tendency to show the disconnectedness of information rather the connectedness. On white boards we often link things together. Other visual systems, like Prezi, (if used well; if used badly it just leaves you feeling giddy and sick) can help.

    The thing I think you most missed though is telling stories. Jesus told stories. Stories communicate. People remembered and discussed these stories. Leave your audience with something to discuss, don’t leave them with all the answers otherwise they talk about the quality of your talk not the content!

  2. Excellent advice. I never use PowerPoint, it’s boring and another element of the clicker or machine not working. I use notes, but spend a ton of time memorizing it so I don’t spend anytime behind the podium. I believe in the power of engagement. Bring something to the lecture to get their attention, such as questions to ask themselves or did you know type stuff. I love public speaking and your list is now in my file to help me to continue to improve! Thanks Phil!

  3. After 25 years plus of public speaking, your tips are spot on! Truly, an excellent checklist. Have read several books by Nick Morgan, the author of the book you recommended, and have also done in person coaching with him; he is an excellent coach. Thank you Phil.

  4. I’m a fairly novice public speaker – I try and avoid it if I can – but sometimes the job requires it. I love all of your suggestions and will take them to my next presentation. One fun game I play (without the audience knowing) is to watch them as I’m speaking and find my “champions” – they are the ones who want you to do well and show it on their face. They are looking at you, sometimes smiling, sometimes nodding along but you know who they are because when you make eye contact, they make eye contact. In a room of say 40 people, there are at least 5 or 6 ‘champions’ and I make a point of pretending that I’m having a private conversation with those people, and as my confidence builds I start to add more champions. Plus being a good audience ‘champion’ is a great way to network! If at the end of the presentation, you want to connect with the speaker, and maybe get them to speak at your event or you want to work with them – then impress them first by being a responsive, attentive audience member! I feel it goes both ways.

  5. You practice what you preach Phil! Saw your presentation a couple years ago at the Dunham conference. It was evident you knew your material and how to engage us. And the way you used your powerpoint (with videos, slide and graphics) was both entertaining and informational. Kept things moving at a fast pace and avoided boredom. Love your summary of top 10 secrets. Thanks!

  6. Excellent points! I struggle with your point about not looking at the notes too much due to some excellent speakers, like David Jeremiah and Bob Russell, who read from their notes and still connect magnificently with their audiences. I’m still quite dependent on my notes, but am seeking to get better. Craig Valentine offers 52 fantastic speaking tips for free at https://craigvalentine.com/.

    1. Hey Nathan – Stop promoting other bloggers… 🙂
      Actually, I totally get your challenge, and my opinion about some of these popular speakers who still read their notes is that their content is so compelling, people will still watch. However, I still default to not being tied to notes. I do think it’s far more engaging for the audience.
      (And I’m downloading Craig’s tips as well.) Thanks for the comment!

  7. I think you have over simplified ‘PowerPoint’ (which I loathe). I think it was Steve Jobs who coined the 27 word rule. 27 words total in your ‘slide show’. Most people use hundreds. And that is hundreds too many!

    Remember not everyone is an aural learner. I fall asleep in talks without visuals. So the visuals are not ‘add ons’ but a critical part of the communication. Visuals… not textuals!

    Alongside this the sequential slide based motif of PowerPoint or Keynote have a tendency to show the disconnectedness of information rather the connectedness. On white boards we often link things together. Other visual systems, like Prezi, (if used well; if used badly it just leaves you feeling giddy and sick) can help.

    The thing I think you most missed though is telling stories. Jesus told stories. Stories communicate. People remembered and discussed these stories. Leave your audience with something to discuss, don’t leave them with all the answers otherwise they talk about the quality of your talk not the content!

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