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.

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. 

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