A Few Public Speaking Tips

Lets make public speaking a little less hard.

I’ve written previously about giving sermons at church. But I did a more generic presentation about public speaking recently. So here’s a summary!

Public Speaking is Scary

Very few people like speaking in public. It’s one of those activities you try to avoid, if at all possible.

And there are plenty of reasons why it’s so disliked:

  • Nervousness - just plain old nerves before a big event.
  • Worried you might say the wrong thing.
  • Or worse, you might offend someone.
  • Stage fright - freezing in front of a large crowd.
  • Which leads to: bad experiences speaking in the past.
  • After all your effort your speech might not make any difference.
  • Worried you can’t answer tricky questions from the audience.
  • People might heckle you.
  • You’ve never been taught how to speak in public.
  • Lastly, you might have just never spoken in front of a crowd before.

Overall, I think the big problem is fear. People are afraid of public speaking, for the reasons I just listed (and probably a few I missed).

And many are entirely justified.

Glossophobia is the fancy word for this. It is a paralysing fear of speaking in public rather than just being nervous. But I’ve frozen in the past, and managed to speak another day! (Even if it was after many, many days of avoiding public speaking)!

Get Confident!

You overcome your fear by being confident.

OK, that’s fine, but how do you get confident? It’s not like you can buy some confidence in a tin at the shop and all is well.

You build confidence by working on your presentation, and practising giving it. And, as with so many things in life, you build confidence by actually doing it: speak in public more!

And you can use your confidence to overcome, or at least to mitigate, your fears of public speaking.

Confidence in Your Message

The first bit of confidence you need is in your message, that is, the ideas your are communicating to your audience. Fortunately, this is the part which a) usually isn’t a great problem, and b) if it is, it easy to build confidence!

Because this can all be done well before hand, in the comfort of your own room, without a bunch of scary people hanging on your every word.

So prepare in advance. Prepare in detail. Do your research - the Internet has a wealth of useful information on it (and plenty of less useful info, but even that may help). You might even want to pick up a book or three. Check your facts. Double check what you’re saying actually makes sense, and can be backed up with facts. Talk to other people, what do they think? What about experts? Be specific about what you say; don’t waffle.

Finally, once you have your ideas in some sort of order, let someone else read over them and see what they think.

Leave your presentation for a few days (or even a week if you can afford it), then read over it again with a fresh mind - are you convinced by your own speech?

And keep refining, changing, tweaking and improving.

Confidence in Your Presentation

Being confident on the day when you speak is where people often come unstuck. This is where stage fright kicks in, or at least nerves. There are all these people looking at you and wanting to hear something.

If public speaking is scary, this is where you’re going to be afraid.

First things first: you have prepared your speech well, right? You are confident in your message, right? Assuming you are, then you can walk in with a degree of confidence - you just need to overcome nerves.

Now, about those nerves - make sure you’ve practised your presentation before you give it. Many times over.

Once you have a pretty good outline, read it over again and again. You can pretend to speak it out loud in your mind (which is how most of my practice happens - as I prepare on train trips to and from work).

You absolutely must practice it out loud at least once - do it in a private space, or to an inanimate object. You’ll notice plenty of things you can correct after reading out loud.

You can try presenting to a trusted friend who can give you constructive feedback. Or, if you’ve run out of trusted friends, you can record yourself and play it back (yes, your voice will sound terrible, but its an amazing way improve how you speak).

After all that practice, the hope is that you’ll have most of your speech committed to memory. Perhaps not all of it, but great chunks of it. So rather than reading a full text, present from bullet points (the fewer, the better). And it’s OK to go off script; little stories and anecdotes are a fantastic way to make an otherwise boring speech more lively. (As an aside, about the worst thing you can do in a presentation is just read from a script).

Some fears people have are about turning up somewhere to find the A/V system doesn’t work, or their Powerpoint deck isn’t compatible with the 10 year old computer, or the whiteboard markers are dry, or whatever. Some key element in their presentation can’t happen, which adds stress on top of stress. So turn up early!

If you’re a bit early, there’s some hope of fixing that terrible problem. Or, if it can’t be fixed, you can sit down for 5 minutes, breath, and work out a plan B.

More Confidence?

The best way to build your confidence in public speaking is to do it. To get better at public speaking: speak in public more. (It’s the same with most things in life).

So look for some easy opportunities to present. Something small, on a topic you already know well, and to a friendly group.

After you’ve done the first few gigs, you’ll be much more confident! (And after 100 or so, you might even be half decent)!

A Few Tips

I assume some will have overcome their fears of public speaking, but still need a few tips to improve (or build more confidence).

Well, here are my public speaking tips.

(The Internet has a million more tips on public speaking, if you haven’t already checked).

One Big Idea

Your presentation must only ever have exactly one big idea. That is, you cannot communicate more than one thing in a presentation and expect people to remember it.

Now, you will certainly have many small ideas to reinforce your big one. And you may have all manner of supporting facts. And you could have several sub-points which all add up to the big one.

But anything at all which doesn’t contribute to that big idea cannot be in your presentation. Cut it out!

Oh, and don’t be tempted to have “one and a half” ideas, or “one and a bit”, and definitely not “two big ideas”. They’ll all just confuse you and your audience. And you’ll be lucky to communicate anything at all.

It helps to write your big idea down. Without any “and”s (that probably means you’re trying to sneak an extra idea in). Check that all your material supports your big idea.

One big idea will help you keep focused, keep your presentation short and interesting, and stop you going off topic.

Audience & Environment

Consider who you’ll be presenting to and in what environment. They will influence your style and content.

Your audience is the most important part of your speech, so give them some thought. Who are they? What’s their background? What are they likely to be thinking when you start speaking?

Where are they up to on your topic? Is this the very first time they’ve every heard about it? Do they know something? Are they experts?

Are they listening voluntarily because they want to hear you? Or have they been forced to be here (eg: some kind of compulsory training)?

Put yourself in their shoes - what might you be thinking listening to your own presentation?

Yes, there will be plenty of guesswork and some generalisations involved, but that’s OK. A guess that’s 70% right is better than completely wrong. And you can always learn for next time.

Environment is less important, but can still affect your presentation.

For example, a wedding speech as best man has certain things people expect - its worth thinking long and hard before not saying them.

A corporate presentation almost certainly will have Powerpoint facilities available, and you’d be a fool not to use them.

Telling stories in a pub on Saturday night is different again: its just you and your mates - no microphone, no Powerpoint, probably no prep either!

And speaking to children is an experience in itself - worth watching a few Play School episodes (hint: there’s no editing, only one take).

Speak Slowly, Make Eye Contact

Speak. Slowly. When. Presenting.

When nervous, we often speak faster. To the point where it becomes hard to understand.

And your audience needs extra time to hear and process what you say. So some delays, silences and “dead time” is actually very helpful.

And as you speak slowly, take the time to actually make eye contact with your audience. In a small group of say 10-20 people, you should be able to eye-ball them all. And even in larger groups, the more you can lock eyes with the better. This will help connect you the speaker with your audience.


Final tip: how to structure a talk.

There are plenty of different structures, but I prefer a simple one:

Beginning - where I introduce a problem, and a solution. I know lots of speakers who keep the solution until the end, but I prefer to put it up front. (I will build suspense in other ways, but my key solution or big idea needs to be plain and simple, so people understand).

Middle - where I talk about the problem a bit more, and develop the solution in detail. How does the solution actually solve the problem? What do I, as a member of the audience, need to know to put this solution into action?

End - where I repeat the problem and solution, but make it punchy and memorable!

Most of my “meat” is in the middle section. But that’s OK, as long as it all contributes to the big idea somehow.


Public speaking is scary. Which is why so many people are afraid of it.

However, it is a learned skill - few a born as gifted speakers, most learn slowly and painfully. With enough confidence in yourself, your message and your presentation, you can overcome your fears and give a good speech!

So prepare well and keep practising.