Watching a great public speaker can feel like watching a magic trick – how do they do it? Some people just seem to have been born to address a crowd and appear completely at ease on a big stage. For most people, however, public speaking isn’t so easy, and it can be a major source of anxiety.
The important thing to remember is that public speaking is a skill like any other, and this means that with the right guidance and a bit of practice, anyone can deliver a knockout speech. The five key skills we’ll talk about today are:
- Knowing your audience
- Tone and timing
- Body language
- Dealing with nerves
If you can master these skills, you’ll be well on the way to becoming a dynamic and engaging public speaker who can hold their own with even the biggest of crowds.
1) Knowing your audience
Some of the most important skills for public speaking comes into play before you even step on stage. While how you speak and stand are crucial to being a successful public speaker, as we’ll find out, before anything else you need to know who you’re speaking to and how to tailor your speech to them.
Indeed, many of the parts of public speaking discussed here will need to be modified in different situations, and one size doesn’t fit all – this goes for both the content of a speech and the way you actually deliver it. For example, if you are addressing the audience in a debate, your words and tone of voice will be different than if you’re making a speech at a wedding or birthday party.
It is always a good idea to ask yourself the following when questions:
- Who is your audience? This could be colleagues, employees or even friends and family.
- What do they know? This affects what information you include and how you present it.
- What is the tone of the event? In some situations, a light, friendly tone is best, while in others more seriousness is required.
Knowing your audience and planning accordingly helps you to give a better speech and also to have more confidence – if you know who you’re talking to and what they expect, you’re on firmer ground.
2) Tone and timing
It goes without saying that how quickly you speak and what tone of voice you use are important for public speaking, but we don’t normally control these things consciously in our everyday lives. This means that thinking about them as we speak isn’t always easy.
When it comes to how quickly you speak, the advice often boils down to one thing: s p e a k m o r e s l o w l y . When people get nervous, they tend to talk more quickly and gabble their words without even thinking about it. Needless to say, public speaking can be a nerve-wracking situation, and so to counter that we need to consciously control the speed of our speech. Inc.com offers some helpful advice on how to slow your words down.
Of course, this doesn’t just mean talking very slowly all the time, but also moderating your speed. If a point is really important, make sure you emphasize it by slowing down and leaving enough time for it to sink in – after all, sometimes the silences are as important as the sounds. If your speech is funny in any way, don’t forget to give the audience a chance to laugh.
Even if your words are perfectly timed, they’ll still sound dull in a consistent monotone. As you speak, make sure that you also vary the tone of your voice as well so that the meaning of each sentence comes across clearly and strongly. Remember that speaking to a crowd is not like speaking to an individual, and you may need to exaggerate a little depending on the size of the room to make sure that what you’re saying comes across.
3) Body language
Talking about exaggerating things for a big audience, body language comes into play here too. Remember that people aren’t just listening to you when you speak in public, they’re looking at you too. That might sound scary, but actually using your body is one of the best ways to engage your audience and deliver a great speech.
The most important thing to remember is that you’re an individual communicating with a large number of people. This means that you’ll have to open up your body language to engage with everyone in the room and match their energy. Here are some tips:
- Eye contact – You may or may not be able to see your audience’s faces, but make sure you look at different sections of the audience throughout the speech. This not only keeps everyone engaged but also stops your head from getting buried in your notes.
- Posture – Stand up straight. This is good advice for life in general, but especially in public speaking as it makes you look like you’re in control and inspires confidence in your listeners. If you’re sitting down, then sit up straight.
- Hand gestures – In order to make yourself register in front of a crowd, a few hand gestures to emphasise your points can be a real help. That doesn’t mean waving your arms around for every sentence, but using subtle gestures to help make the message clearer.
Forbes also offers some great general tips for body language success. As you become more confident as a public speaker, you may want to experiment with moving around during a speech, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with standing still if you have good posture, make regular eye contact and use gestures to draw the audience in.
4) Dealing with nerves
Everybody gets nervous from time to time, and public speaking induces anxiety in a large proportion of the population. However, dealing with nerves is a skill, and just like other aspects of public speaking it can be practised and perfected. While ultimately the best way to get rid of anxiety is to do lots and lots of public speaking, there are various other ways in which you can master your nerves:
- Breathing exercises – This might be as simple as taking a long, deep breath in and then letting it out very slowly. It’s amazing what a difference this can make before a speech. WebMD offers a handy list of breathing exercises to try.
- Positive thinking – Mentally preparing for a speech is like getting ready for a football game or an exam. Tell yourself over and over again that you are a good public speaker, that your audience wants to hear your speech, and that you’re going to do a great job.
- Healthy lifestyle – Sleep well, eat properly and stay hydrated before a speech so that your body is in a relaxed and healthy state. This will help you to relax mentally too and avoids unnecessary extra problems caused by tiredness, hunger, and thirst.
If your mind and body are in the right place before a speech, you’ll find it a lot easier to control your voice and gestures when delivering it.
This last point is very simple: practise, practise, practise. A good public speaker knows that preparation is everything, but how can you practise effectively?
- Don’t just practise your speech on your own, do it in front of a mirror or with a trusted friend or colleague. That way, you or they will be able to look at your body language and posture as well as thinking about tone and content.
- Record yourself, audio or video, and play it back so that you can experience the speech as other people will.
- Get experience speaking in front a group of people if you can. This might just be a few friends, but it’s still really helpful if you need to get used to the feeling of standing in front of a crowd.
- Make sure that your presentation is within the time limit you’ve been given. Better to make it a little short, you will want to feel you can speak more slowly when in front of an audience, not have to rush to fit it all on.
- Give yourself plenty of time in the days or weeks before your speech to go over it again and again and again. It may feel boring or monotonous at times, but it’s the best way to ensure that you’re in top shape for the real event.
Whether the thought of public speaking inspires you or scares you to death, each and every one of us has the ability to deliver a knock-out speech. By honing the skills above, you can make sure that you get your message across loud and clear using every tool at your disposal.