Public Speaking Tips for the Nervous

To misquote, the essence of speaking in public is to maximize your benefits and minimize your liabilities!

Here is just a bare checklist to remember:

1) If you are feeling nervous, just keep rehearsing your carefully prepared opening in your mind while you are waiting to be called.

2) When you get up to speak, note the time and keep within your allotted period.

3) Before you start speaking, look at your audience. If it feels natural, then smile. Believe me, not only does it help you to bond with your audience, it helps relax you too.

4) Possibly the single most important key to speaking successfully in public is eye contact. Don’t look away from your audience (except for an occasional reference to your note cards), and when you need inspiration, find it between a pair of shoulders. It is impossible not to overstate the importance of this. If you do not look at your audience, your audience will not listen to you. And if they do not listen to you, you are wasting your time.

5) Of course, you must be heard. Look at the back to make sure they’re not frowning. And those mooting advocates need to look at the front to make sure they’re not overpowering!

6) Speak slowly and remember to pause. There’s no point in talking too fast without a break; your audience will not keep up with you without one.

7) The hands are like the bold and underlining of Word script. Used well, they serve to emphasize; used badly, they are at best a lost opportunity, or at worst, an irritating distraction.

8) Whether or not you have a lectern, find a comfortable standing position with your feet planted firmly on the floor. Not only will you look good, but it will be one less issue for your mind to worry about.

And please do not use visual aids! They are the prop of the weak public speaker. They are either an unnecessary distraction or they contain too much information. Most importantly, they break the bond between speaker and audience that only comes through good eye contact. If you have complicated data to share, circulate it in written form after you have spoken.

Here’s a final tip. No matter how well we might have prepared for an occasion or however experienced we become, we all have off days. You never want to be in a position where you are standing in front of an audience and you simply cannot remember what you want to say next. The act of picking up a glass of water, sipping it and replacing it looks entirely natural. And it gives you the time you need to move on without apparent effort. Make sure that glass of water is always there.

However good a writer you may be, personal communication skills can be the most personally rewarding way of sharing your views. With determination—and practice—everyone can more or less get it right. And wouldn’t that make for a more interesting world?

Scott Hamilton is partner at The Westminster Connection, LLP. This article is part of the Institute for Humane Studies Guide to Public Policy Careers.

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