Public Speaking 101 – Tips to Not Suck

In the world of social media, with thousands of voices all crying for attention, don’t underestimate the ability to stand up and speak in front of a group of real-life people as a way to set yourself apart.  Having the ability to get up and speak to an audience as an authority on a topic can do wonders for your credibility, confidence, and reputation.  You may think that public speaking will only reach the people live in attendance, but recording that talk and posting it to a website can be a great way to amplify those effects.

As someone who has not only given several public speeches, but has also been a member of Toastmasters for 7 years, I can tell you that there are several things that separate good, experienced speakers from bad novices.  Sometimes those differences can be painful to experience in the case of the rookie speakers.  A really bad presentation can actually backfire, and badly!  There is a good reason people get nervous in front of crowds…. The stakes are high!  A lot of mumbles and reading from notes will come across like you do not know your material.  A lot of nervous fidgeting and you will appear less trustworthy.  A boring speech will make you forgettable, or your audience will just be mad you wasted their time.

What follows are some tips to make sure that even if you are just starting in public speaking, you do not make as many brutal mistakes and can have positive outcomes.  It’s not hard at all going from being a bad speaker to a decent, or even good, speaker; but what takes work, time, and experience is getting from good, to great.  I am still working on it.

Don’t Fight Your Nerves

There are two types of speakers in the world.  Those that get nervous and those that are liars. – Mark Twain

Nerves can sometimes turn a normally confident and competent professional, into a babbling puddle of stupid as soon as the lights come on.  The key to dealing with nerves is not trying to ignore them or turn them off.  If you do that then you are trying to fight your body’s biology, which never works.  Your nerves are not just a mind game; it’s a biological reaction to putting yourself into what can be a threatening situation.  Do not try and Jedi mind trick your way past it – (“You’re not nervous”) – because when you do that, things get worse.  When you try to fight your body’s biological response, it fights back.  You try to convince yourself you’re not nervous, and your body screams back “YES YOU ARE!!!”  That’s when hands sweat, throats get dry, and tongues get fat.

The key for beginning speakers is embrace your nerves.  Know that you will not get rid of them, acknowledge them, and be determined to use that nervous energy for good.  The best way to handle it is to focus heavy on your material, have notes at hand, and practice, practice, practice, practice.  Do not try and start out and be Tony Robbins (check this video for reference), just stick to what you know, and practice how you are going to transition from one point to the next point.  Put your notes in large print on note cards, and not in paragraph form, but make every line, (or at least every talking point) as a separate line.  That way you can easily find your place if you get lost.  (see picture below)  If you are at the point where you are worried about your nerves derailing your speech, you should not focus on the audience, or yourself or your performance, but instead just focus on the material.  It’s not about you, it’s not about them, it’s about something you know a lot about and you should just stay focused on that.

Format your speech outline so that every place you would put a comma starts a new line.

Connect With the Audience

Once you figure out how to deal with being nervous, you have given a speech or a presentation and felt like it wasn’t a total flop, you will be thinking about how to kick it up a notch.  How do you keep an audience interested in what you’re saying?  One of the biggest differences I see between merely serviceable speakers and decent-to-good speakers, is an ability to connect with the audience.  For most of our smaller settings (unless you’re planning to go speak at a sold out arena) that means eye contact.  By looking right at people in the audience, you will make them feel as if you are speaking right to them, and that’s how you make a connection.

If you need a rule of thumb to follow, just follow the advice of the Julia Roberts character from the movie Larry Crowne.  She plays the speech teacher Mrs. Taino, and she tells her class to have three focal points: one to the left, one right, and one in the center.  You should start on one side, looking directly at an audience member, and then switch sides.  Major points should be given to your center focal point.


Julia Roberts plays speech teacher Mercedes Tainot in the movie Larry Crowne

Practice, Practice, Practice

I don’t mean this just in the sense that you should practice the specific remarks you plan to make.  If you truly want to get good at public speaking, you have to gain experience in doing so.  The best way to improve can be summed up in two words: Stage Time.  The more time you get up on stage, the better you will get at handling nerves, and feeling more comfortable and confident in your words.  You need to practice giving the same speech in different venues, giving different speeches, and otherwise expanding your comfort zone. 

This practice is especially helpful if you can either record yourself or have someone in the audience give you notes.  That is one of the things that make Toastmasters so effective as a skill development club.  Not only does it give you the stage time you need to improve (along with meaningful suggestions to guide you) but it also has an evaluation portion that gives speakers immediate feedback.  One of the more helpful pieces of advice I received was in my first couple of speeches I was told that I would rock back and forth while speaking and it was distracting the audience!  I did not even realize I was doing it.

Public speaking is like any other learned skill –  you can read a hundred articles or take classes on the subject, but if you don’t get up and practice what you learn, you will never improve.

Intro, Conclusion, Transitions

When you are getting up to give a talk about something you are familiar with (say its errors and omission insurance to independent accountants, or succession planning to business owners), you should have plenty of material to work with.  Hopefully, you know your subject matter, and if pressed, could simply give a 5 to 10-minute rundown with little-to-no preparation.  Wanting to make it the best you can, however, if given a chance to give a speech you will do prep by thinking about the most important points, supporting statistics, thinking of relevant stories that will connect with the audience etc…

The thing that can most easily take a decent, informative talk and make it into to a good, memorable presentation is the impression of confidence you leave on your audience.  This means giving a good introduction, flowing easily from point-to-point, and ending strong with a conclusion that ties it all together.

The focus on a good introduction and conclusion is well known, but one thing that isn’t talked about nearly as much are the transitions.  If you have major points you are delivering, you should think about how you are getting from one to the other.  If you can skillfully transition from one point to another, that will project an air of confidence.  So just remember, start strong, end strong, and think about how you get from point A to point B, point B to point C, and so on.   

Find a Way to Amp

Being nervous, focusing on your material, connecting with the audience… until you have significant public speaking experience under your belt this all takes conscious effort, and therefore, mental energy.  This means the energy level in your delivery could be sagging.  And, if you are not energized about what you’re talking about, how can your audience be?  You have to find a way to amp yourself up and keep your energy level high throughout.  Tony Robbins jumps on a mini-trampoline before he hits the stage to get his juices flowing.  You may not have a mini-tramp, but a couple jumping jacks, or even just a quick repeat to yourself “Amp it up, amp it up, amp it up” could serve to remind you to bring your best, most energized self.


Public speaking can be a huge career differentiator if done well.  The world continues to become more and more digital and learning to navigate the digital world is certainly important, however, speaking in front of a live audience will remain a great way to set yourself apart.  Investing a little time and effort to make yourself a good presenter can pay huge dividends.


Until next time…

“Light travels faster than sound.  That’s why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.” – Albert Einstein