A beginner’s guide to public speaking

Phoebe Perelman

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Phoebe Perelman

Public Speaking 101 needs a rebrand. Back in high school, only the students who were determined to be journalists, lawyers, and actors took public speaking class seriously (at least, in my experience). All the others slumped in their seats, carefully averted eye contact with the teacher, and even “forgot” their homework to avoid getting called to the front of the room. Those were the students who were sure that they didn’t need public speaking. After all, they didn’t want to pursue a public-facing position — why subject themselves to unnecessary agony?

But public speaking is a necessity for all professionals at one point or another. And it doesn’t have to be agonizing. No matter your industry, department, or role, public speaking skills enable you to succeed. Professional speaking is the new public speaking.

Fortunately, you don’t need to rely on your experience in high school public speaking class to become a better speaker. It’s an art that can be learned, practiced, and perfected. This guide is a good place to start.


What is public speaking?

Public speaking can be defined as the act or process of making speeches in public. It can also be defined as the art of effective oral communication with an audience.

Although ‘public speaking’ is often perceived as the act of speaking in front of the vast public, it isn’t limited to main-stage events and presidential addresses. Any time you’re speaking to an audience — of five people or 500 people — you’re practicing public speaking.

When do you use public speaking at work?

Whether you’re pitching a new idea to your manager, presenting a project recap to your team, or asking for a raise, your public speaking prowess (or lack thereof) will influence the outcome.

By improving your public speaking skills, you’ll be able to present your ideas with more confidence and influence. This guide will provide you with some starter tips on how to become a better public speaker and offer options for more in-depth training. With the right guidance and practice, even the most introverted professionals can unlock their potential as powerful public speakers.


How to improve public speaking

If just thinking about public speaking makes your palms start to sweat, you’re not alone. Public speaking is scary! It repeatedly appears among the top fears Americans face. Yep, right up there with snakes and small spaces. The first step to becoming a better public speaker is acknowledging and reframing any public speaking anxiety.

Duarte video: How can I change my mindset to overcome public speaking fears?

Once you’ve channeled that nervous energy into readiness, you can start to focus on delivery. Here are six things that you can work on to become a better public speaker.

6 steps on how to improve public speaking

1. Projection

While it’s important to speak loudly enough for your listeners to hear you, projection is not all about volume. After all, there’s no need to yell at your audience! Projection is about focusing your voice forward so that the quality of your voice sounds full, round, and warm. This ensures your voice is both powerful and approachable. Projection requires proper breathing through your diaphragm and proper positioning with your chest open, your chin up, and your knees slightly bent.

2. Articulation

Have you ever been told that you mumble when you speak? Or are you often asked to repeat yourself? If so, you may need to practice articulating. Articulation ensures your audience can understand exactly what you’re saying, which makes you a more credible speaker. Articulation is particularly important when using long, multisyllabic words, like ‘observation’, ‘management’, and ‘representative’.

Practice presenting a few sentences in a mirror and observe the way your mouth moves. If you’re not seeing much movement, think of stretching your words out, as if you’re trying to get someone to read your lips. Open your mouth wider, drop your jaw, show your teeth, and round your lips to articulate more clearly.

3. Vocal variety

Let’s face it: presentation content isn’t always engaging. It’s up to the speaker to make it so. No matter what you’re talking about, if your delivery is monotone and dull, one thing is for sure: your audience won’t pay attention for long. If you want to engage and motivate your audience, you need intonation — or contrast — in your voice.

You can add intonation in a few different ways:

  • By changing your volume
  • Changing your speed
  • Changing your pitch
  • And pausing for effect

First, to identify whether you sound monotone when speaking, record yourself and play it back. Then, identify important words or phrases to emphasize and practice doing so by slowing down, speeding up, getting louder, getting softer, etc. This will help you determine what form of intonation you’re most comfortable with. You can then add bold or italics to the words you wish to emphasize in your script to remind yourself to differentiate the way you deliver them.

4. Pause for effect

Although pausing is listed above as one way to infuse vocal variety, it deserves its own bullet point. Pausing for effect is one of the most powerful public speaking tactics there is. Pauses in speeches:

  • Emphasize key messages
  • Help vary your vocal delivery
  • And allow your audience time to digest what you just said

Pausing is strategic. You can pause right before you’re about to deliver a key word, or right after you’ve delivered a key point. You can even add [PAUSE] cues into your script as a reminder to take a beat. Pausing also helps you avoid verbal fillers like “uh, um, right, ya know.” When you need to collect your thoughts, just take a moment of silence. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but trust us, it works.

5. Body language

Every face-to-face interaction we have (whether it’s in person or via video) is comprised of verbal and non-verbal communication. Both verbal and non-verbal cues are of tantamount importance. If your boss was giving a presentation with her arms crossed tightly across her chest, her shoulders hunched, and her head pointed down to the ground — what would you think? She’d probably appear closed off and uncomfortable.

On the flip side, if she stood (or sat up) tall, with her shoulders back, and her hands comfortably by her sides, she would likely seem a lot more confident and poised. Your body sends a message to the audience too. Make sure it’s a positive one.

6. Rehearsal

It’s impossible to improve at anything in life without practice. Public speaking is no different. So make sure you rehearse your presentation. No matter how many times you’ve delivered a speech, there is always room for improvement. And since public speaking is about how you are perceived by an audience, it’s important to practice in front of one so you can receive feedback from a listener. Without feedback, you may never truly know the extent of your strengths and growth areas.

Duarte video: How to rehearse for delivering an amazing presentation


The structure of a good public speech

The best public speakers tell a story. And just like stories have a structure, so do speeches and presentations. Nancy Duarte analyzed hundreds of the most famous speeches and presentations — from Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech to Steve Jobs’ first iPhone launch. Through her analysis, she found one major commonality (aside from a beginning, middle, and end): contrast.

Contrast is the creation and resolution of tension. It’s the juxtaposition of two opposing elements: questions versus answers, dreams versus realities, hope versus despair. Humans are naturally drawn to contrast; it keeps us engaged, pushing and pulling us back and forth as events continue to unfold. You can infuse contrast into your messaging, the type of content you use (i.e., emotional versus analytical), and your delivery (ahem, vocal variety) to strike that magic balance.


The best ways to learn public speaking tips

Great athletes train. Great executives train. Great public speakers must train too.

To train your public speaking muscles, you can watch videos of polished public speakers, enroll in public speaking courses, and work with a public speaking coach.

Duarte is recognized as a global leader in business storytelling, change communication, and public speaking. Our courses, workshops, and coaching have helped countless professionals connect with an audience, build confidence, and step up in their roles.

Our array of public speaking offerings is suited to every learning style and experience level.

1. Take a public speaking workshop

Our online, public speaking workshop, Captivate™, enables you to:

  • Increase your confidence in every speaking setting, from meetings to keynotes
  • Persuade others not just by what you say, but how you say it
  • Leverage your personality and presence to create a memorable impression that
  • Track your own progress through built-in practice sessions

If you typically present online, we have a public speaking workshop geared specifically to virtual formats. Presenting Virtually™, was built to help you:

  • Master the art of presenting online
  • Communicate and connect with remote audiences
  • Increase your reach and influence
  • Inspire virtual audiences to action

2. Hire a public speaking coach

And if you’re looking for an individual approach, an online public speaking coach is the best solution for you. We have in-house public speaking consultants who offer one-on-one speaker coaching. They’ll help you double-down on your specific needs to get you stage-ready for your big public speech.

Remember, it’s never too late to learn and refine the professional speaking skills you need to shine.


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