Not every moment is equal.
Some are pedestrian, an inconsequential biding of time. Waiting for your noodles to boil. Your fortnightly inner debate about whether you’ve got time to floss.
Some are pregnant, though. Laden with silent potential. Burdened with the question of how they will be broken. Life begins with one such moment. A baby is born, and collective breath stills in anticipation of singular breath. The emptiness of silence settles in which anticipates its own filling by piercing cry.
Such a moment follows when someone you love says, “Listen, we need to talk.” You feel your heart squeeze within your chest. Your mind races to anticipate what’s coming. Your hands chill with worry about how that silence will be filled.
And such a moment happens when you’re called upon for public speaking. An introduction is made, the applause hoists you to your place of prominence and then recedes like surf. Then silence settles in as those gathered in front of you anticipate how you’ll fill it.
We’ve been engaging in public speaking for as long as we’ve been a species, but we haven’t quite boiled it down to a science yet. Why? Because public speaking is as much an emotional act as it is a rational act. Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown. Fight or flight. Public speaking requires rising above all of these fears and more in a space in which you can neither fight nor flee.
I’ve made my living navigating this space. As a former police officer and minister, I have spoken over time in front of crowds ranging from a handful to dozens to many hundreds. It has always been an odd fit for me, a natural introvert who isn’t keen to jump on a stump in most any other context. While my greater strengths were and remain elsewhere, I applied myself to the art and science of public speaking, made a lot of mistakes, and learned a lot along the way.
As I look back on my experience, here are my top tips for mastering the art of public speaking:
1. Remember: You are supposed to be there.
From the first brainstorming thought to the conclusion of your speech, remember that you belong in front of that audience.
Unless you’re crashing an event (in which case, I’m afraid you’re on your own), you have been invited to speak. You belong. That applies whether it’s a small wedding reception or a keynote to 10,000 people.
Confront your inferiority complex here. You have something of value to say. You’re supposed to be there, your words are wanted, and they will be valued. Take that confidence and project it through your speech.
When you eventually get up to speak in public, keep repeating this to yourself. If you’re uncomfortable with public speaking, it’s easy to perceive your fear as a confrontation with your audience. Fight that tendency. The audience is on your team. Nobody sitting in front of you wants you to fail. Even if someone is completely ambivalent about you as a person, they don’t want to sit through a bad speech.
It might help to view the situation through a lens of gratitude. When people willingly sit quietly in front of you to listen to something you have to say, they’re collectively giving you two of the most precious gifts in the world we live in: time and attention. Once people are sitting in front of you, they’ve already decided you’re worthy of them. So as long as you honor their sacrifice by not squandering either of them, you’ll be appreciated in your public speaking.
Everyone assumes you’re qualified, credible, and competent, and sits down in front of you primed to accept your words. As long as you’ve made sure your thoughts are valuable, you do not need to waste time proving yourself by bringing up accomplishments, making apologies, or name dropping people in your speech. Mastering the art of public speaking means planning, and then speaking, in a manner which reflects this.
2. Your public speaking should be a little teapot: Short and stout.
Your audience isn’t there to listen to you.
Sorry to bruise your ego.
You’re just a server delivering a tray of information. The best way I’ve framed it is to think of your speech as a teapot, containing water of information and tea leaves of your personality. The same things that make for a good pot of tea apply to the art of public speaking:
A good teapot minimizes turbulence.
The quality of a teapot is judged, in part, on how much turbulence it introduces into the tea as it’s being dispensed:
When you have an annoying mannerism, belabor your points, ramble, speak crassly, or a do a thousand other detrimental things, you introduce turbulence to the flow of information. It still gets there, but the process becomes less pleasant and less efficient as more turbulence is introduced. Minimize this. Ensure the flow of information from your mind to the minds of your listeners is as smooth as possible.
A good pot of tea has the right amount of tea leaves.
Too many and the flavor will be unpleasant; too few and the experience will be bland and underwhelming. Similarly, if you put too little of yourself into your public speaking it will come off sounding like a Wikipedia article; too much, and the speech turns into an autobiographical performance piece and the information will be overpowered by your personality. Remember, you want people to remember your message more than they do you.
A good teapot is typically small.
If a teapot is too big, the tea is going to be weak. Even worse, the last of it is inevitably going to be cold by the time it’s dispensed. When you write your manuscript, include everything you want to say, then go back through and reduce your word count by 10-20%. It will be painful, but it is essential. It will ensure every word is intentional, every idea concentrated, every turn of phrase crisp and concise. It will also ensure your audience doesn’t turn cold by the time you’re done.
Remember, some of the greatest speeches in history were shorter than a TED Talk:
3. Do you know who you’re talking to, pal?
Who’s going to be listening to your public speaking? There’s no such thing as one size fits all oratory. In addition to making sure your ideas are worth listening to in the first place, there are three important questions you need to ask yourself when you’re crafting your speech:
How grand should your public speaking be?
That is, how soaring and majestic should your public speaking be? In general, a speech’s grandiosity will be proportional to the number of people in front of you – that is, the fewer people in front of you, the more conversational your tone should probably be. I Have a Dream was perfectly crafted for 200,000 people, but would have been borderline ridiculous in front of twenty. The art of public speaking demands knowing how bold your brush strokes should be.
What tone should your public speaking take?
Great speakers tint their oratory with just the right shade of emotion. FDR gave “Infamy” a perfect tone of righteous indignation. After the Challenger disaster, Reagan was sitting down in a hundred million living rooms at once consoling his national family in the midst of a tragic loss. Gehrig’s farewell had every syllable dripping with gratitude. Match the mindset your audience will be coming in with, or the dissonance will be distracting. Art on canvas uses shading to provide depth; the art of public speaking uses emotional inflection.
What level of vocabulary should your public speaking employ?
You can’t take the same speech into a bachelor party and then an academic conference and get away with it. You need to think about your audience – their general education level, vocational background, and so on – and craft your speech accordingly. The art of public speaking requires knowing how to size and frame your artwork to fit the intended setting.
4. Know what type of public speaking notes suit your style and strengths.
Written notes fall on a continuum, from non-existent, to the barest of bulletpoint outlines, to full manuscripts with prompts on how to gesticulate and emote. If you haven’t done enough public speaking to know where you fall, you’ve got a bit of extra homework to do:
Work your public speaking manuscript up in full and save it. Then, pare your notes down to nested bullet points and save them. Each point should be a subsequent idea that you read and then expound upon off the cuff, with subpoints of supporting ideas as well as lines that you want to quote word for word. Then pare that down to the most spartan form that still makes sense to you. Now give your speech from each version and see what seems and sounds most natural. That’s probably what needs to go to the podium with you.
Understand the promise and peril of each end of the continuum. Sparse notes encourage a conversational style, but make it more likely you’ll gloss over something you intended to say or lose your place; manuscripts ensure everything you want to say gets said, but introduce the danger of simply reading your speech. Which brings me to an important rant:
Don’t read your speech.
Do NOT read your speech.
Do. Not. READ. Your speech.
This should probably be its own point. Consider it 4A.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve watched someone read aloud a speech they’ve written as a manuscript, and God Almighty is it always every single time invariably and without exception PAINFUL. Do not do this.
Reciting your speech straight from the page is not public speaking, it’s public reading. It takes absolutely no skill beyond the fortitude to not sprint off stage in abject panic, and your audience will sit in a mixed state of boredom, irritation, and pity until it’s time to go shake your hand and lie about what a good job you did. Reading a speech from a sheet of paper isn’t engaging in the art of public speaking, it’s engaging in book report recitation like fifth graders do in history class.
Don’t read your speech!
Okay, deep breath, serenity now…
All that said, I’d encourage you, regardless of the note form you end up using, to still begin your public speaking process by writing your speech as a full manuscript. Reading it through aloud to yourself while you work it up gives you a good sense of flow, and the general flow of a speech is a better mnemonic than trying to memorize blocks of text.
Plus, manuscripts age better. I was once looking at a speech I wrote years ago, and I got stopped by a bracketed note in the text:
[TELL HIPPO STORY HERE]
I don’t have the faintest idea what the hippo story was.
If you have a good story featuring a hippopotamus, please let me know.
5. Know your public speaking content intimately.
I don’t mean ‘read your speech until you memorize the words.’ That’s not the art of public speaking – there’s no art to it at all. It’s just machine learning that happens to have been done by a human. The result will be you robotically reciting your text, which is really just reading your speech off the back of your eyelids.
Did I mention you shouldn’t read your speech? Don’t read your speech.
Okay, I think I’ve said my piece there. When I say you should know your content intimately, I mean you need to engage your ideas in a sensual way. It’s an odd parallel, but art is inherently sensual, and the art of public speaking is no different:
Press the words. Is this word you’ve chosen reflective of the meaning you actually want to get across?
Manipulate the words. Are there synonyms that are clearer or flow better? Can you massage the flow of prose to better suit your purposes?
Take in the words with your senses as you would a lover. Words have sensory elements to them – they can be harsh or smooth, soothing or grating. How do you want your listeners to feel at hearing the words you choose? What emotions do you want to stir within yourself while you’re speaking so your listeners might feel the same?
This sounds weird, I know. But there needs to be a powerful emotional appeal to your speech. If it was just about transmitting information, they’d have Alexa or Siri do it and save the fuss.
And that goes for any kind of public speaking. Even when I was hawking shoes over the PA system at the Wal-Mart I worked in during college, I wanted to stir something in people — even if it was merely disdain for the shoes they were wearing. (If you happened to frequent Store #743 in the mid-2000s, sorry for making you feel poorly about your shoes. They were probably fine, Brenda made me do it.)
Stay firmly aware of the emotional cadence of your public speaking as you craft it. Is there a lighthearted introduction that quickly gets down to business? Is there an emotional story that puts a human face on a point you’re trying to get across? Think about how you’re going to capitalize on that movement. What words do you need to emphasize? How do you need to vary your tempo and volume? These considerations can only be made when you are intimately, emotionally, sensually engaged with the art of public speaking.
If you’re not inflamed with passion about what you’re saying, do you really think anyone else would be?
6. Assume you’ll be forced to do your public speaking by candlelight.
Did you make a fancy PowerPoint presentation for your public speaking gig? If the venue’s projector goes out, no, you didn’t. If there are important data points in your presentation, assume something will preclude their being seen and ensure you’re able to articulate them vocally.
Are you going to give your public speaking remarks from an electronic device? When it suddenly informs you there is more speech than battery left, no, you’re not. I have personally always considered it somewhat tacky and pretentious, for public speaking given from a podium as opposed to the context of a roundtable business meeting or something of the sort, when people have given speeches from tablets. Or, ugh, laptops. Besides the tack, it just introduces a possible point of failure.
Paper doesn’t have battery life, switch to a blue screen of death, suffer from popups or malware, or spontaneously shut down. So long as you keep your water away from it – and probably even if you don’t – you’re going to be able to read ink on paper. I would be shocked if there is an opposite side of the coin. In fact, I defy you to find someone who would be relieved or respect you more at seeing you engage in public speaking bathed in the glow of an iPad screen.
Don’t get fancy. Just get it done.
In general, prepare yourself in such a way that even if a solar flare fried every piece of technology in the building, you could still engage in the beautiful art of public speaking while society outside descends into chaos.
7. Make navigation through your public speaking easy on yourself.
The art of public speaking demands the science of geography in establishing waypoints.
It’s inevitably going to happen — you’re going to riff on something, make a nice organic point that came to your mind in the middle of your public speaking, and then go back to your notes and realize you destroyed your mnemonic trigger to fire off your next point. If you’re looking at a wall of text, you’ll probably be consigned to scanning through it while your audience sits and blinks.
Just like traversing a physical space, navigating your way through public speaking is much easier if you designate waypoints along with way. Every speech will have different needs in this way, but it’s likely your public speaking manuscript will have a divisible superstructure, such as:
Transition to Body of Speech
Supporting Point 1
Supporting Point 2
Supporting Point 3
Now, this is just a classic structure, and may not represent yours. Unless you’re just free associating, though, there should be different, definable sections of content you’ll be transitioning between in your remarks. You don’t necessarily need to memorize your public speaking remarks, but doing some memory work around the transitions from one section to the next can pay dividends:
Arriving at a transition you’ve memorized is centering and confidence building.
When you hit one, you know exactly where you are in your speech. From there, you can propel yourself forward on the firm footing of a transitional element you know by heart and can deliver forcefully.
Memorized transitions serve as ripcords to parachute you out of a tailspin.
If you’re lost in the weeds of a point you’re trying but failing to make, losing your train of thought in an off the cuff riff, or if you’ve lost your place in your notes, having the next transition memorized means you can cut your losses in the section you’re on, jump to the safety of the next transition, and go from there.
There are some practical things you can do to help yourself here. Perhaps the foremost of them is varying your text on the page. Doing this will look different for different people — using various colors of highlighters for alternating paragraphs or sections, using numbered points, alternating bold and italics, or something else. Do some experimentation and see what works for you.
Make the text of your speech, both mnemonically and visually, an atlas you can easily follow from the first words of your introduction all the way to your destination of a solid close. Which brings me to my next point:
8. Invest extra time in crafting your hook and kicker.
Your hook (opening words) and kicker (last paragraph) deserve a disproportionate amount of preparation:
The Art of Introductions in Public Speaking: You need a good hook.
How many times have you seen someone bumble up to a lectern and go, “Hello, my name is _____, and today I’m going to be talking to you about ________.”
Don’t be this person. Why do people do this? Nobody does this in any other context. Imagine standing in line at the grocery store and having someone approach you only to say:
“Hello, my name is John, and today I'd like to talk to you about an upcoming weather event.”
It sounds almost as dumb and unnecessary in public speaking. Attention is a valuable commodity that you’re going to have to work for. Unless you’re so famous your face is on one of the magazines on the rack behind John, you aren’t getting it based on your identity. So you have to earn it. Seduce it.
The maxim about never getting a second chance to make a first impression couldn’t be more true here. How you intrude upon that pregnant silence when you begin your speech will very likely be how you’re perceived throughout. While it is possible to win people back in the body of a speech, why waste time trying to dig yourself out?
There’s no one way to break the ice in public speaking – it wholly depends on you and your audience. It’s possible for a joke to fall flat for an audience primed to laugh. It’s also possible to successfully get one over at a funeral. Perhaps you need a cryptic element that only gets resolved in the closing of your speech. Maybe a quotation is best. There’s no golden key to opening a speech. The relationship between you and your audience is as unique as any other relationship between people.
While there is no perfectly right way, here are some wrong ways to open your speech:
“Hello, my name is…”
Now, if your audience is for some reason completely cold in terms of introductions and has no idea who you are, you have permission to ignore this and introduce yourself.
However, if your name has been made known at any point, whether in print or by someone introducing you, repeating it is a waste of time. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, “As David said, my name is,” and I roll my eyes every time. Did they think I somehow managed to forget in the preceding seventeen seconds? Were they the keynote for an amnesia conference who took a wrong turn?
“How is everybody doing today?”
Ugh. That’s up to you, pal.
This is a shopworn open mic stand up comic trope, and it increases the likelihood your audience will take you exactly that seriously. Of all the rhetorical questions you can ask your audience, it’s likely this is the most meaningless.
Seriously, what are you expecting here? A voice in the back piping up? “Thanks for asking…I’m a little stressed, my cousin Carl just found out his gardener's wife has been cheating on him.”
Asking the audience to excuse anything you could have prevented.
If you’re hoarse because you’re at the tail end of a head cold or you've been bellowing direction all weekend to players on a sports team you coach, sure, feel free to briefly ask for patience with it and then move on. However, do not ask your audience to excuse anything to do with your appearance, nerves, notes, or preparation. That onus is not on them, it was on you. The art of public speaking demands you and your speech dress the part.
Unless you know precisely what you’re doing, most cold open jokes.
You’re not as funny as you think you are. Humorous introductions certainly have their place, but don’t use humor as a cheap means of trying to calm yourself down or as a shortcut to developing rapport with the audience. When you tell a non-sequitur yuk-yuk joke just to ease your own nerves in public speaking and then give remarks having precisely nothing to do with it, all you’re doing is wasting your listeners’ time.
Self-deprecation in any form.
When you’re tearing yourself down without larger context in your introduction, all I think you’re trying to do is lower my expectations about how well you’re about to do.
Trust me: You will succeed.
You’re supposed to be the expert here! If you’re belittling your own ability to do the job, why does it matter that it’s you? Why don’t you throw the microphone over your shoulder like a bride at a wedding reception and let the person who catches it give the speech?
You’re probably going to have some measure of impostor syndrome up there. That’s normal. You have to fumigate those butterflies, though. Don’t turn your public speaking engagement into a crowdsourced therapy session. And don’t call the judgment of your host into question by jumping under a bus in front of your audience regarding your qualification to speak.
The art of public speaking is snapping your suspenders, giving your neck a good crack, and getting it done.
However you decide to introduce your speech, ensure the introduction dovetails with and contributes to the rest of the speech. Craft an introduction that invites your audience to a table of rhetoric, and then serve them each course with pride for your work. Slice into each morsel with intention and let your audience mull them and take in their aromas and textures.
The Conclusion: Make your public speaking stick in your listeners’ minds.
The way you wrap up a speech will determine how your message sticks in your listeners’ brains. Many years ago I was listening to a speech someone was giving about having clear purpose in life. A potter by trade, he was actively working on a vase on a small potting wheel as he spoke (talk about taking the art of public speaking to the next level).
With every transition of motion he explained each significant detail, and why his decision was of benefit to the eventual finished piece. Each transition in his work correlated perfectly with the content of his speech. Toward the end, he had fully formed the vase and given it a lot of delicate flourishes. It was beautiful, and ready for the kiln.
But then, with no warning and in mid-sentence, he suddenly picked up the vase, raised it over his head, and violently smashed it on his work table. The beautiful piece of art that existed a second prior was now a lumpy, formless blob of clay. The audience of maybe 500 loudly gasped in shock, with multiple people mournfully saying, “No!” in protest. We’d all gotten strangely attached to it, and now it was just…gone.
The potter masterfully let the silence and sorrow set in. Then, in the utter stillness and silence, he looked us dead in the eye before very quietly saying at length, with the perfect glimmer of emotion inflecting his voice:
“Sometimes life will crush you, for no reason, when you least see it coming. And you’ll have to decide in that moment whether the potential you’ve seen in yourself is worth the effort it’ll take to put yourself back together.”
I might have otherwise long forgotten an identical speech dispassionately droned from a dais. But that expertly crafted conclusion was a syringe right to my hippocampus. I’ll be telling this story hunched over a cane one day, which is the closest thing we have to time travel.
And you're capable of doing the same to someone with your speech.
9. Get out the camera, because it’s showtime, baby.
You’ve got to record yourself doing your public speaking so you can review it. Mastering the art of public speaking means recording yourself and taking brutal notes on your performance.
I know, I can see you clutching your chest and reeling backward. I get it. I always despised everything about this too. But it’s the only way you’re going to know how you’re coming across to people in public speaking.
“Nah, don’t worry bro, I’ll just have [insert unfortunate person here] listen to it and give me notes.”
Sure, go for it…if you want to completely waste your time.
Listen, anybody you’re so comfortable with you’d ask them to listen to you practice your public speaking will care enough about you too much to honestly critique you. You will NOT get an honest, objective review of your performance from your partner, child, parent, or friend. Worse, their inevitable thumbs up will give you false assurance that you’ve ironed everything out.
Even if you could inject any of these people with truth serum, they would still be incapable of giving you a worthwhile critique. These people all have the bias of knowirrng all of your normal tendencies, which won’t rise to their attention as they watch you. Unless you’re doing your public speaking at a family reunion, you need to know how you’re coming across to a random John or Jane Doe.
Short of hiring a focus group, there is simply no alternative to filming yourself practicing your public speaking and then taking brutal notes as you watch it. Are you doing something annoying without realizing? Are your hand gestures over the top at points? Is your posture poor?
You’ll never know if you don’t let your biggest critic watch.
10. Don’t fight your nerves in public speaking. Leverage them.
I never shook my nerves completely as a pastor. Even two years in, despite the fact I’d been in the living rooms of the majority of the people listening to me, despite the fact I spoke to some of them twice a week every week, I still got some level of butterflies facing the prospect of public speaking. Unless you’re possessed of exceptional confidence, no amount of deep breathing, visualization techniques, or self-affirmation is going to completely squelch your nerves.
So instead of trying to destroy them, make the problem part of the solution. Let your nerves provide punch to your voice when you need to exude excitement, or a bit of waver when you need to inflect it with emotion. Let that nervous energy flow through you. All your audience will be able to see is energy, and energy is what keeps their interest. The art of public speaking is a performance art, after all – so get the better of your nerves and own the stage.
11. Remember: For better and worse, nobody knows your public speaking script.
The fact nobody in your audience likely knows exactly what you’re about to say to them is a double-edged sword:
First, it means it’s up to you to give them everything.
There’s no gist to be gotten beyond what you’re telling them. To you, the public speaking you wind up doing will be some percentage in tune with the notes you’re familiar with. Your audience doesn’t have that standard, though. They have precisely nothing to stack your speech up against. So remember, if you want to paint a picture in their minds, you must provide every brush stroke. However, that ignorance of theirs has a platinum lining:
Nobody is going to know when you mess up.Unless you tell them.
If you mess up, for the love of all things pure and holy, don’t tell your audience!
If you don't let on, nobody will otherwise know. Just use your waypoints, double back to it, and then go on. The second a speaker I’m listening to says, “Oh, wait, I think I skipped something, hold on,” I sigh and half check out. It’s completely unnecessary and comes across as amateur hour.
If you need a second to catch up in your notes, reword the last point you made to buy time. If you’re thoroughly lost, either pull the ripcord and bail out to your next waypoint, or clear your throat and excuse yourself to take a long swig out of that bottle of water you should have nearby and figure it out.
Don’t break the fourth wall — keep your audience in the moment and engaged. That’s your only job up there. Make your art of public speaking immersive.
12. Don’t lash yourself to the mast – but don’t go overboard either.
Nothing will trumpet how nervous you are during public speaking quite like gripping the podium or lectern with white knuckles or slavishly hewing to your notes. Don’t use what you’re standing behind as a shield, because you’ll come off as timid. Be comfortable enough with your content to be able to take a step or walk away. Depending on your context, you can do it to expand a point, engage with the audience, and come back. You don’t grab the nearest fixed object or stand behind a barricade when you’re talking to a friend. Don’t do it on stage either.
That said, two cautions about movement on stage:
Avoid cyclical movement.
Don’t repeatedly make the same series of movements, or you will very thoroughly distract your audience. I had a professor in college who, when lecturing, would periodically leave the lectern, take two steps to his right, move his right hand in an arc two or three times, and then retreat to the lectern. It was like water torture. You never knew when the next instance was coming, but you knew exactly what it would look like.
Don’t do this. When you move, mix it up. The focus should be your message, not the messenger.
Don’t go overboard with movement.
If you think about public speaking like a meal, movement should be a seasoning. It should be present lest the speech be bland, but in moderation so as to enhance without being overpowering. If you’re constantly wandering around as you speak, you’re going to make people half seasick as they try to follow you.
Movement shouldn’t be a means of burning off nervous energy. You should only do it to better communicate a point you’re making. As you’re crafting your speech, think about points where it might make sense to take a couple of steps to seemingly muse to yourself about something, or close distance to confront your audience with a point, or do a hundred other things depending on your content. Flag your notes to remind yourself of your intentions.
13. You probably need to slow. Way. Down.
Nerves tend to act like pure adrenaline for your speech rate during public speaking. Without mindfulness on your part, your it will probably slowly increase over the course of your delivery.
Now, there will be times when you’ll want a flurry of words to inject energy and create a crescendo in your delivery. However, bear in mind that many speeches surviving the test of time, such as “I Have a Dream,” JFK’s 1961 inaugural, and Obama’s “Yes We Can," at points were around or under 100 words per minute (versus 140–150 in typical conversation).
Properly pacing public speaking can only flow from your knowing your content intimately. Think of it as though you were physically engaging the audience:
Where in your speech do you want to stroke and soothe them?
Where do you want to nudge them toward a new consideration?
Where do you want to slap them with a point?
Where do you want to build and gallop to a sudden conclusion?
Your tempo is part of what does any of these things.
However, overall, it’s likely you need to slow from your natural inclinations.
14. Master the science of silence in public speaking.
As a general rule, we have a distaste for silence and stillness. It’s a jarring state when our lives are typically so full of noise and movement. As the noise fades away, we become uncomfortably self-aware. We start to feel the machinations of our own bodies, becoming aware of the breath in our nostrils, the thrum of our heartbeat, the buzz of our hearing as our ears search for something to seize on. Silence forces introspection upon us, and it is unsettling.
Come to terms with this yourself, and then use it as a weapon in public speaking.
Somewhere in your speech is a seminal kernel of truth that you need to sink into the consciousness of your audience so it can take root and grow. Depending on the circumstances, a period of protracted silence might be of assistance in driving that point home. Once, when I was giving a sermon and speaking about how busy and distracting modern life is, I abruptly stopped speaking without explanation. My intent was to highlight how uncomfortable silence is for most of us.
My point was made by observing the congregation. Five to ten seconds in, their gazes began shifting and there was a general sense of restlessness. I was hit with a wave of quizzical looks. Had I lost my place and forgotten what to say? Was I having a panic attack? Having a stroke? After 30 seconds, I broke the silence and asked whether they’d found the experience uncomfortable. The response was a unanimous wave of nods. Speaking to people later, I found almost everyone overestimated the length of the silence.
That’s an extreme example. As you’d see if you tried it, thirty seconds is an eternity standing silent on stage. But looking your audience in the eye for even a few seconds can be a great way to drive a point home. If you’ve got a home run of a line in your speech, hit them with it and then let it cook for three or four seconds. Good speeches cause some level of discomfort, because it’s uncomfortable to be challenged or confronted with your own ignorance. Silence is a barb you can sharpen into that hook.
Another reason to get comfortable with silence: It means you won’t feel compelled to fill it with vocalized pauses. Remember – everything you say should be distilled and concentrated. Every time you say, “ah, uh, erm, you know, like,” it dilutes your message further and further. In terms of the energy flow of your speech, they’re junk calories with no nutrition destined to turn into fat weighing down your speech. They’re going to happen, but try to make your default silence rather than vocalized pauses.
15. Don’t chase attention – engage with the already engaged.
When you see clips of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it’s typically the steady, tight shot directly in front of him. The impression you get is that his speech is irresistibly captivating. Yet if you have never seen the full video in context, you’ll notice – perhaps with the same surprise I did – the crowd isn’t completely engaged. Some are milling around, others are only distractedly listening. And remember, they’re overwhelmingly sympathetic to his message, or they wouldn’t have chosen to be there in the first place.
If he couldn’t inspire rapt attention from everyone listening, I promise you damn sure won’t.
Scanning around your audience during a public speaking experience will yield a host of unsettling sights. Someone checking their watch. A big uncovered yawn. Someone unconvincingly pretending they aren’t on their phone. If you focus on these people, your speech will suffer. You’ll get offended and irritated, and either lose your train of thought or wind up trying too hard in an effort to win their attention.
The solution is to simply engage with the engaged. The art of public speaking demands you ignore those ignoring you. Listen, I understand your frustration. I still remember a woman who checked her watch during a presentation I was giving in 2007. But nothing you’re going to do, short of stripping naked or lighting yourself on fire (or maybe both for some people) is going to magically win back the watch checkers and yawners and texters. So look elsewhere to find people who are paying attention, making eye contact, nodding agreement.
In a crowd of almost any size, I assure you they’re there. Talk to them. Ask your questions of them. Make your points to them. In return, they will give you the confidence you need to speak well.
16. Give people more than they’re expecting.
A little bonus is always nice. Now it’s your turn.
Everybody who listens to a speaker comes into the experience with a preconceived notion about how it will go. Even someone grabbing a mic on a whim will have judgments passed at a glance as people instinctively go either “ugh” or “hmm.” Your job going into your speech is to overperform those expectations.
Anybody can speak in public. Not everyone is a public speaker.
I lay no claim to being a wonderful orator. But over time, I’ve taken all of these tips piecemeal from people whose skill I have admired and respected, and implementing them has made a world of difference since I first got into public speaking as a teenager. And I promise, if you put them into practice in your own writing and delivery, they’ll make a difference in the art of your public speaking, as well.
Not every moment is equal. And your job as a public speaker is to ensure the moment your listeners are in with you is, in some way, unequalled.
About the Creator
Rambler slowing so my kids can start rambling. Done everything from cattle ranching to law enforcement, clergy work to retail, writing to living in Canada's far north. I try to let all of it inform my writing, but current focus is SaHDs.