Public speaking: Twenty Terrific Tips for Top-Notch Talks – Part I

Martin Luther King

Public speaking expert Matthew Cossolotto offers precious advice on how to wow your audience.

My new book, The Joy of Public Speaking, includes a detailed discussion about Twenty Terrific Tips for Top-Notch Talks. For this short article, I offer a condensed version of the first half of those twenty tips. My next article in Together Magazine (Part II) will cover the remaining ten tips. This collection of performance-related tips, techniques and pointers is necessarily brief – the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. For a more complete and robust discussion, please see my book.

Tip 1: Every speech should be about one thing and easily remembered
Build your presentation around one clear, unmistakable point and connect everything you say to that central message. A useful image is to imagine a tree with one main trunk and several large branches stemming naturally from it. These branches – ideally no more than three to five – contain the examples you’ll want to marshal to illustrate your main message.

As you prepare your remarks, ask yourself: What’s the point? It helps to start with the conclusion in mind. Intriguingly, one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is: “Begin with the end in mind.” That happens to be sound advice for effective people and effective speakers. Doing so will help you stay on message as you prepare the content and flow of your remarks. If you don’t know what your main message is, chances are very good the audience won’t be able to figure it out either.

Tip 2: Smile!
In most speaking situations, smiling is a must. This can’t be emphasized too much. A warm, natural smile is especially appropriate at the beginning of your remarks.

Smiling goes a long way toward putting both you and your audience at ease. As Dale Carnegie put it: “Your smile is a messenger of your goodwill.” There’s just something magical about a friendly, sincere smile that calms the nerves of the speaker and makes him or her much more appealing and magnetic to the audience.

Don’t be stingy with your smiles. Smile early and often. If you think you’ve smiled too much, think again. Go the extra smile!

Tip 3: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
Keep it brief. Remember the so-called 18-minute rule. After hearing somebody speak for about 18 minutes, give or take, audiences usually hit a wall. They simply can’t concentrate any longer. Martin Luther King’s inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech clocked in at 17 minutes. Steve Jobs delivered a well-received commencement address at Stanford University in just 15 minutes. And Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – a speech that, contrary to Lincoln’s own words in the speech itself, has been much noted and long remembered – was only 272 words long and took less than three minutes to deliver.

As an object lesson in what not to do, study Polonius’ deliciously verbose speech from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (check out Act 2, Scene 2). So, don’t follow Polonius’s example. Keep your remarks brief and on message.

Tip 4: Go easy on facts and stats
You want substance in your talk, but you don’t want to overdo it. It’s counterproductive to overwhelm the audience with statistics and other detailed facts and figures, including PowerPoints crammed with too much information.

Sure, some specialized topics and audiences require more technical details than others. You need to know about and cater to your audience. For most general interest audiences, you should highlight only the most compelling facts.

Tip 5: Rehearse. Rehearse. Rehearse
If real estate is all about ‘location, location, location’, effective speaking requires that you ‘rehearse, rehearse, rehearse’. There’s no substitute for rehearsing your presentation out loud several times before delivery.

Abraham Lincoln

Tip 6: Study recordings of your presentations
Whenever possible, you should also videotape yourself giving a presentation, and be sure to watch the video at least once. More often is better. If video isn’t available, it’s helpful to make an audio recording of your presentations, and listen to the audio several times.

The feedback you receive from studying recordings of yourself will prove invaluable. You will inevitably spot habits, mannerisms, quirks, distracting gestures, weird facial expressions, strange pronunciations, odd voice intonations and nervous ticks that might detract from your effectiveness. With this knowledge, you’ll be able to make corrections.

Tip 7: Make sure your text is easy for you to read from a distance
Type size matters. Font style also matters, along with white space around the text. Avoid stress and strain by making sure you can read the text – even notes or outlines – easily and clearly with a quick glance down at the page. Not all type sizes and fonts are created equal. Experiment with type size, font styles and even line spacing to facilitate quick and easy reading.

Tip 8: Slide pages you’ve read instead of flipping them
If you’re giving your speech from a prepared text or extensive notes, place the pages of your speech text or notes slightly to the right of center on the lectern top and create a stack of used pages on the left. Or reverse the direction if that’s more comfortable.

The key here is not to staple or paperclip your pages together. Avoid flipping the used pages over. Just slide each used page inconspicuously from the right stack to the left stack. Or slide from left to right if you prefer. This conveys a much smoother and more professional image and avoids the telltale page flipping that signals the audience that you’re using a prepared text or extensive notes.

Tip 9: Never speak when looking down at the text
My friend and leading speech coach, Granville Toogood, talks about the Ozone, the No Zone and the Go Zone. The Ozone is when the speaker speaks while looking up at the ceiling or over the tops of the heads of the audience members. The No Zone is when you’re looking down at the text. You should never speak when looking down. If you do, it will be obvious that you’re reading the text. Public reading is not recommended. Audiences don’t appreciate being read to, word for word. When looking down at the text, zip it. You’re in the No Zone.

The Go Zone is when you’re looking out at the audience, making good, effective eye contact. That’s the sweet spot of speaking to an audience. You should only speak when you’re looking out and connecting with someone in the audience.

Tip 10: Breathe
It might sound ridiculous to say this, but speakers should be sure to breathe. And breathe properly. Ideally, you want to take slow, deep breaths, in and out through your nose. Fill your diaphragm. Let your stomach expand as you breathe deeply. Count to five as you slowly inhale and to five as you slowly exhale.

This helps you to relax and collect your thoughts. Needless to say, you won’t be able to experience anything close to the joy of public speaking if your breathing is rapid, shallow and centered in the upper chest.

These ten tips – combined with the ten contained in Part II – will help you become a more compelling, confident and joyful speaker.

About the Author
A former Nato speechwriter, Matthew Cossolotto is the author of The Joy of Public Speaking (available on Amazon books). Matthew provides coaching and conducts public speaking workshops and other Personal Empowerment Programs (PEPTalks) in Brussels and beyond.

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