Mike Mullet

Speaking Well: Five Tips on Public Speaking

By: Mike Mullet | April 29, 2013 | 

Speaking Well: Five Tips on Public SpeakingWinston Churchill once observed that of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory.

The ability to speak well, he opined, is a power “more durable than that of a great king.”

Certainly, the prestige we might assign to oratory prowess has changed considerably since Churchill’s day.

While we are able to recognize a great speaker when we hear one – Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, and Churchill himself come to mind – today’s world of 20-second sound bites, status updates, and 140-character tweets may lead some to believe the ability to speak well is no longer essential.

But nothing could be further from the truth, especially in business.

Of course, most of us will never have to give a “speech” in the more commonly-understood sense of the word: Standing in front of an audience of hundreds and speaking on a topic for half an hour or more.

But the ability to present clear information persuasively when speaking – whether in a sales presentation, report to the board, strategy planning meeting, or when accepting an award – will always make a positive impression on listeners, burnishing your reputation and that of your business as well.

So let’s not give short shrift to public speaking. More than 20 years ago, when as a graduate student I taught public speaking, I gave my students a common-sense list of tips to help them prepare for the speeches they would have to give in class. You’ve probably heard most of them before, but they bear repeating – because as I told my students, and as you likely know, at some point you will have to speak in front of others.

Five Tips on Public Speaking

  1. Know your audience. If you’re giving a presentation to colleagues, then you probably know who will be there and feel comfortable in front them. But if you’re ever invited to make a presentation, or are giving a sales presentation, you need to know who will be listening. How many people will be there? Who will they be?
  2. Timing is essential. There is no better way to undermine a great presentation and lose the interest of your audience than by exceeding your allotted time. Ask beforehand how much time you are allotted and plan to use less. More than eloquence, listeners appreciate respect for their time.
  3. Outline your thoughts. Write down the main points you want to make and supporting information. Organize, add, and cut until you have a good set of notes that flow logically and easily. Speaking extemporaneously from this sort of outline is ideal – but to do so, you have to be familiar with your material. Which brings us to…
  4. Practice. Out loud, as many times as you can. And time yourself until your presentation comes in a little short of your allotted time. We can debate the utility of practicing in front of the mirror, but there is no substitute for rehearsing what you want to say out loud until you know it well and are comfortable saying it. Record yourself on your phone (video or audio); listening to it may make you uncomfortable, but it will help you improve.
  5. Dress for success. This may be a cliché on the one hand, but people often underestimate the importance of their clothing – not for the audience, but for themselves. We all have clothes that we feel make us look our best, so when you have to give a presentation, wear them. Likewise, take some extra time for grooming. When you feel you look your best, you are more confident.

Of course, following these five tips on public speaking won’t turn you into a great speaker overnight. Like most things, public speaking is a skill in which one improves only through practice and experience. Take every opportunity you might have to speak in front of others to practice and improve.

The fact remains: People are impressed by good speakers. They find them intelligent and likable – all qualities that only help in business. In other words, as Churchill asserted, speaking well is powerful. And while you may never become a great orator in the nineteenth-century sense of the word, there is no reason not to speak as well as you can at every opportunity.

About Mike Mullet

Mike Mullet has more than 20 years experience in public relations, writing, media relations, and crisis communications. As supervisor of account services at Cookerly Public Relations, Mike provides writing and collateral development to support clients in managing issues and crises, and he works regularly with client company leaders and their legal counsel. 

  • Great tips Mike! My biggest pet peeve is when someone is speaking from their slides. I can read what’s on them, I don’t need you to regurgitate that to me!

    • yvettepistorio That is the WORST. The slides are supposed to be visual SUPPORT, not a script.

  • Great post and tips, Mike. You said, “You’ve probably heard most of these before” and that’s true. But it’s also true that far too many people don’t seem to accept or put into practice these principles themselves. I’m especially surprised when I see PR people give a bad presentation, which happens all the time at conferences and panels and luncheons I attend. Perhaps they’re overconfident, assuming their professional training will somehow “kick in” and they won’t need to plan and prepare so much?
    Anyway, I would add a couple of more (and I’m sure you could add lots more): Energy. Some people present like they’re sitting back having coffee with a friend. While your delivery should be natural and not announcer-like, you need to push the energy out there — that means mental focus, enthusiasm, physical presence, engagement and a lot of other things. And I also find it’s a good idea to involve the audience throughout the presentation by asking questions, getting them involved in “filling the blanks” rather than always delivering the answers yourself. It keeps people engaged.

    • RobBiesenbach Audience participation is so vital to a great preso. People love it, they feel special, it assures their focus stays on you, and in a perfect world, you pick up some new information to riff on or the opportunity to crack a good joke. 😉

  • Mike_Mullet

    Very good points all. I agree that as PR professionals we ought to be able to speak well – after all, good oral communication is essential to effectively pitching a reporter, providing client counsel and closing a new piece of business. Still, of all the tips I’ve listed (and the many others that are out there), I will always believe the most important one is to practice out loud. A well-practiced speaker is confident – so much more likely to be energetic and much less likely to need to read from his or her slides.

    • Mike_Mullet I agree – I can’t imagine going on stage or in front of a group without practising.

  • Phenomenal points here! Follow these, and you will do fine most every time!

    May I add another that I learned in a public speaking class, but that very few people use? Remember that YOU are the main event, not your slides. You might go so far as to turn off the projector while you’re talking. Your slides should be guides, or icing on the cake. Like others said here in the comments, reading slides is boring and makes people sad.  And we all know that we stare at slides instead of the speaker. Own it and do it!

  • SteveMacDonald

    Awesome tips! I agree that speaking well will always make a positive impression on listeners, burnishing our reputation and that of our business as well. Love to read more of your posts Mike!

  • As a Dale Carnegie fan I have to say the being able to effectively speak in public is the most important ability to cultivate, because this is how we interact with the rest of the world. Writing is just an extension of it.
    And we can’t ask for a date with a piece of paper, or can we? 🙂
    Great tips, I would just add “Be you and have a style”.

    Tweeted and Facebooked. 🙂

  • rdopping

    Great tips. I am giving my first of hopefully many presentations next week. Very timely. I read a book called The Pin Drop Principle recently which helped immensely as well. Cheers.

  • Hey Mike! Good to see you here again! But, um, what? No tip on imagining your audience naked?!? This was really great timing, as I’m giving a keynote on Wednesday and it was a good review of the things I should remember. In fact, I even bought a new outfit so I have number five down perfectly!

    • ginidietrich Audience? I thought it was the speaker that was supposed to be naked; no wonder I bombed…..

  • Great suggestions. Ironically, the one thing I do not do…is practice. My slides are my thoughts/notes, and I’m lucky enough to usually really know the topic. And I love to tell stories to go along with the topic.
    I agree about respecting the audience’s time. Keep it moving, and leave plenty of time for questions afterwards. If no questions, then you just gave your the audience the “gift of time”.

    • dbvickery We think we are good enough to ‘wing’ it, don’t we? Trust me, being in outside sales I’ve had to tap dance on the table a time or two…:).

      • bdorman264 everybody make note that it was BILL that started talking about table dancing…

        • dbvickery …but I didn’t shave my legs…

  • Yes, don’t be afraid to practice in front of friends, your mirror, etc. 
    I’m in sales, so I have to make plenty of ‘presentations’ which I’m very comfortable doing. I do have occasion to speak ‘publicly,’ but I’m not out on the circuit or anything. Fortunately, public speaking is not something to cause me to sweat or lose my appetite, but we can always get better. 
    A good public speaker makes a lasting impression and it’s another area if you do it right, it can certainly make you appear much smarter than you really are. 
    Thanks for the reminders and now let me go look up the Dale Carnegie phone number again…:).

  • Dear Mike ~ These great top 5 recommendations will help anyone at any age to give a great talk. However, if someone has a great fear, anxiety of public speaking and performance anxiety, I might suggest looking into one or two homeopathic energy remedies that really take the edge off that stress and remove a lot of those physical symptoms we sometimes call ‘butterflies.’ Read up on the plant remedy gelsemium and the mineral remedy argentum nit, very often one or the other of these over-the-counter items will do wonders.

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