Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

How to become better at public speaking

You’re a confident speaker who doesn’t see any need to finesse your public performance.

In other words, you may be a good candidate for Toastmasters International.

“Some people may not be aware there are areas they need to improve,” such as the need to avoid sprinkling a talk with “ums,” says Dr. Richard Ford, vice-president of education for NAITurally Speaking, NAIT’s Toastmasters club.

Public speaking skills apply to more than just the stage. Getting comfortable with situations such as presenting in a meeting or providing an impromptu overview is important, says Ford.

The JR Shaw School of Business instructor credits Toastmasters with helping him overcome his fear of speaking to groups. At NAIT, the organization meets weekly to share supportive feedback, as well as improve listening and leadership skills. Ford has been a Toastmasters member for more than 20 years, and still finds it valuable.

Here he shares ways to improve your public speaking.

Prepare

  • Be familiar with your material so you can speak with confidence but don’t try to memorize it.
  • Practice by yourself and, if possible, in front of people.
  • Watch strong public speakers online, such as Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ted Talks.
  • If you’re called upon to speak without preparation, pause for a moment. If someone has asked a question or made a statement, repeat it to buy time to think.
     

Build a solid speech

  • Opening – Grab attention by starting with a question or making a bold statement, suggests Ford. Memorize it. Then quickly summarize what you’re going to cover.
  • Body – cover your points. Don’t try to memorize these because it will increase your stress. If necessary, write down key points on one card. “I think it’s really important to view this as a conversation,” says Ford. “Nobody has to memorize or study for a conversation. The audience talks back through their body language. They nod. You can look at how they’re sitting. They communicate with their eyes.”
  • Close – provide a summary of key points.
     

Say it well

“How you say things is as important as what you say,” says Ford. “If you share a brilliant concept but you don’t say it well no one cares. Say a simple concept really well and people remember it.”

  • Avoid filler words including um, ah and so. They make a speech sound sloppy.
  • A pause adds emphasis. “It’s the punctuation of a speech,” says Ford. “It reinforces or accentuates the next part.”
  • Avoid grammatical errors. For example, dangling prepositions are common. Instead of “Who are you giving it to?” say “To whom are you giving it?”
  • Avoid faux pas, including stereotypes and potentially offensive phrases. “Your audience is made up of different people,” says Ford.
  • Use a range of emotion to keep the audience’s attention.
     

Gestures and body language

  • Eye contact helps you engage the audience. “Keep it brief. You want to connect and move on,” says Ford.
  • Hand gestures can convey your passion but don’t overdo it in a way that is distracting. Keep hands out of your pocket – it suggests you don’t care. Clasp your hands in front of you and you’ll appear nervous.
  • Avoid gripping a lectern, which may appear to the audience that you’re looking for support. You might also look like you’re hiding.
  • Don’t stand glued to the floor unless the microphone doesn’t detach. An effective speaker moves around to increase engagement. Don’t pace.
  • Smile if appropriate
     

If you are terrified

  • Join a group such as Toastmasters so you can practice in front of an audience that provides support and feedback.   
  • Before you speak, breathe deeply from the abdomen. It will help calm you.
  • Release tension before you stand in front of a group. Push against a wall, for example.
  • Remember that people want to see you succeed.

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