5 things you can do today to improve your public speaking skills
By Jeff Davenport
Every one of us wants to communicate better. Whether we’re presenting in a virtual environment, participating in a team meeting, or just talking with a friend, spouse, or stranger—we all want what we’re saying to be delivered well.
“Delivering well” means you’re saying what you want to say in a way that lands just right with your listeners. It means you come across as comfortable, dynamic, and empathetic. So, what can you do to take steps toward delivering what you have to say better?
Here are five things you can do today to improve your public speaking skills. If you want to boost your public speaking skills, we encourage you to try at least one of these five things today…
1. Let’s Get Critical, Critical
As human beings, we love to critique other human beings.
This explains the massive popularity of reality TV shows. Be honest, did you watch “Tiger King” because you liked giant cats, or, because you liked feeling superior to the show’s cast of wild and eccentric characters? You can use that critical gear to benefit yourself.
Today, try to find a talk or presentation to watch or listen to. Then, take notes on the speaker’s delivery. You could grab a TED talk, a business leader’s keynote on YouTube, or even a presentation you have to sit through at work.
The source doesn’t really matter. What matters is how you respond to the speaker’s delivery. Grab a piece of paper or open a Word Doc and list out what about the person’s public speaking skills that you both like and dislike.
Moving their hands without any rhyme or reason? Note it.
Emphasizing key words to give them punch and make them stand out? Note it.
Zero vocal variety? Meandering sentences? Pacing across the stage? Note ‘em.
Using hand movements to show what they’re saying? Making intentional eye contact? Projecting with a strong voice? Note those, too.
Now, what’s the point of this? To get better at criticizing other people? No. We’re already naturally good at that. The point is to sharpen the way we think critically about how people communicate so we can then turn that critical eye toward ourselves.
The better you get at articulating what you like—and what you don’t like— the better you’ll be able to see what you do—and don’t do—when you deliver.
It’s also a great way to identify things effective speakers do so you can start to adopt those delivery techniques for yourself.
In short, get better at critiquing others’ public speaking skills so you can better critique your own.
2. Call a Feedback Friend
Next, call on friends, co-workers, or significant others.
All of us have blindspots when it comes to public speaking skills. We either do the wrong things—and don’t know it—or we do the right things—and don’t know that either. Getting feedback from other people helps us see past those blindspots.
Before your next presentation, speech, or important meeting where you’ll be flexing those public speaking skills, ask your feedback friend to keep an eye out for how well you’re delivering. You can also take a recording of a presentation or meeting you’ve done in the past and share that for feedback fodder.
Now, do you just open yourself wide to criticism from Jane in Accounting or Jerome in IT, or your husband or wife, asking them something vague like “Hey, would you tell me how my public speaking skills are?”
That likely won’t help. The feedback you get will either be too much, too little, or unfocused. Likely, Jane would say something like, “Uh, I don’t know. You were pretty good.” Responses like that aren’t very helpful.
Instead, you need to give your feedback friends some guidance. Think of just one thing you’d like them to critique.
Do you have a tendency to use verbal fillers such as “uh,” “um,” “er,” or “like”?
Are you trying to move your hands with purpose, showing what you’re saying?
Are you pushing yourself to make more intentional eye contact when you’re talking and listening?
When you ask for specific feedback, you make it more likely that you’ll receive helpful responses. Once you have that feedback, make sure you write it down.
Then, the more you get feedback on specific aspects of your public speaking skills, the better you can track your progress over time.
3. Get Over The Cringe
No one wants to watch videos of themselves presenting.
We all have this built-in gag reflex watching ourselves. “Do I really look like that?!” “Why does my voice sound so squeaky?!” “What was I thinking with that shirt?!”
Emailed links of our recorded Zoom or WebEx meetings show up in our inboxes, and we think, “I’m never watching that.” Delete.
I get it. But, to get better, you have to get over it.
Go to that video download, grab a piece of paper or Word Doc, watch how you come across in the meeting or presentation, and take notes.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when watching a recording of yourself practicing your public speaking skills:
Don’t just focus on the negative. I know, we all think the way to improve is by zeroing in solely on what we’re doing wrong, but that’s not 100% right. When we also identify the good public speaking skills we have—and ways we are improving over time—we actually build up some of the confidence necessary for improvement and momentum.
Turn off the sound and just watch. Notice what you’re doing with your hands. Are they moving? When they move, do they seem to move with purpose, or are they just moving for the sake of moving? What about your face? Is it expressive? Is it communicating emotion and passion? If you had to just watch your face, would you have a sense of the feelings you were trying to communicate?
Don’t watch the whole thing. Here’s where we let you off the hook. Limit yourself to five or ten minutes. That should give you enough time to sense what you’re doing well, what you’re not doing well, and ways you want to improve.
Focus on just one thing you did wrong. Don’t just say, “I’m going to change everything!” You can’t and you won’t. Not all in one day anyways. Just choose one thing to improve about your public speaking skills, and go from there.
4. Make It Personal
Public speaking isn’t just about speaking in public. It’s really about something deeper.
The reasons we communicate the way we do is often connected to how we feel about public speaking, our own history with public speaking, and how we feel about ourselves.
By blocking out 20-30 minutes on your calendar to answer the following questions, you can get a better sense of what’s going on under the hood of your public speaking skills vehicle.
- When did you give a presentation or speech and felt like you totally nailed it? What was the context? Why do you think that time went so well?
- When did you give a presentation or speech and felt like it landed flat? Why do you think that happened? How have you tried to improve your delivery since that time?
- What’s one thing you wish you could change about the way you speak in public?
- What’s one way you deliver well?
- When you speak in public, do you think it’s important for you to be heard? Why or why not?
- When do you communicate with passion? What does it look and sound like when you communicate with passion? How can you bring more of that to your business communication?
- When you’re communicating confidently, how does your audience know? What evidence are you giving through your voice, body language, and facial expressions?
- When you’re communicating nervously, how does your audience know? What evidence are you giving through your voice, body language, and facial expressions?
- Who is someone whose public speaking you admire? Why? How can you emulate them while still being you?
5. Be Brave
You only get better through trying and practicing.
So, offer yourself to deliver… anything. Boss looking for someone to run the team meeting? Raise your hand. Upcoming all-hands needs a speaker? That’s you, pal. Outside-of-work volunteer group needing someone to represent them and communicate their cause? Yep, you.
Why? Because when you frequently practice your public speaking skills, you get less intimidated by the prospect of speaking publicly. The more you do it, the less likely you’ll be to get nervous. Doing more public speaking also gives you more opportunities to try new ways of delivering effectively.
See that all-hands meeting as your chance to practice moving your hands to show what you’re saying. Run the team meeting with an eye toward leveraging more of your voice to land key points. Help your volunteer group while helping yourself by challenging yourself to make better eye contact with listeners.
You can’t get better by trying to improve theoretically. You’ve got to do it in practice. So go for it. Take a chance. Push past your fear. Get your reps in so your intimidation levels go down and your skills improve.
If you do any of those five things today, you’ll take a solid step towards improving your public speaking skills. But first, each tactic requires you to challenge yourself and fight your current public speaking defaults.
Ultimately, as you get better and better, it will be worth it because you’ll communicate with greater confidence, power, and effectiveness.
Bonus Tip: Get Coached!
Your co-workers Jerome and Jane aren’t really trained to help you improve your public speaking skills. They can call out what you might be doing right or wrong, but they can’t help guide you into ways of building your skills. Coaches can.
Coaches not only point out what you’re doing well—and not doing well—but also help you go deep, understanding the reasons why you do the things you do, providing methods for overcoming your natural tendencies, and ultimately empowering you to become the best possible public speaker you can be.
Illustrated by Jonathan Valiente
Communication, Delivery, Presenting, Public speaking