Public Speaking

Public speaking is a lot of fun, if you develop a decent style and overcome any natural jitters. There are plenty of resources out there on how to do that, so let’s focus on some targeted tips. For a fun read on power poses and being more confident grab a copy of Presence.

It is great to get to have the stage! People will listen to what you say. No matter how it goes, it will not be the end of the world. Best case, you may get excellent visibility and positive feedback, with follow-up questions from existing and new contacts. Accept speaking opportunities as often as you can. Sometimes they come in waves, and the invitations can create a self-perpetuating cycle. The more you speak and become known as a good presenter, the more you will be asked. If you have discomfort or just do not like it, there is no need to make it a focus area. But public speaking is a key skill and role of leaders in most fields.

Of course, be prepared. Prepare your story or key messages, then build out specific statements that you can speak from. Practice out loud a few times. Vet the content with the right people. Scan for any material that might be extra, outdated, inappropriate, or awkward. Have a plan for handling tough audience questions—you can ask the questions right back at them, say you will talk afterward, or give an honest reply that you do not know but will find out.

Know your own delivery flaws and have a plan of attack. Practice drilling with someone to train yourself away from the habits. Nearly everyone has weak spots. Do you use filler words (such as um, well, so)? Practice enough times to catch and eliminate them. Do you downplay statements instead of using more active language? Instead of “we sort of got there along the way as we tried many things,” try “we did it, on schedule.” Do you talk too fast, as many women do? Build pauses into your talking points, ask for real-time feedback, and talk more slowly than you think sounds normal. Execution matters as much as what you say.

Have your “get off the stage” line planned before any speaking engagement. Otherwise, you risk rambling, or worse, heated audience feedback. Have a closing thought, line, slide, or some way to end it with a punch line. Easy ones include: “Thank you. I will close there.” “My main takeaway today for you is [say it]. Thank you!” “I know we are out of time, but you can find me in the hall for questions. Enjoy the rest of the event!”

Beware of logistics. You can have brilliant things to say to an audience, but lose impact because of a nonverbal detail. Pause if you need to fix logistical details. One of our experts shares: “One time I did not do this but learned a good lesson: I was at the vice president’s annual leadership meeting. There was a crowd of over 200 other leaders. A CEO-level leader spoke to our group and then hosted a short question-and-answer session. I decided to ask him a question at the microphone, which can be a great visibility opportunity, and demonstrates ability to be assertive and articulate. I thought through the question to ensure that it was appropriate, on point, and easy for him to answer. I waited by the microphone when his presentation ended so that I would be cued up as one of the first and only questioners. I was second. I went up to the microphone and noticed it was aimed upward for a much taller person. I attempted to adjust it, but it felt like it would fall out of its cradle if I pointed it downward toward my speaking height. Not wanting to cause more delay, I simply spoke into it at that height. Unfortunately, I did so by standing on my toes, bobbing up and down to keep my balance. Because of this, my voice sounded strange—hurried and higher than usual. Although I was not nervous, I appeared nervous and unprepared. I knew as soon as I walked away that the overall impact of the question was undermined by the delivery. I asked a communications colleague who was present to give me feedback. She said simply, “You should have moved the microphone down.” I told her I tried and it didn’t seem to work. Her take: figure out how to move it. Motion for the logistics staff to help, take more time. She was right.”

Do ask questions at events occasionally. Do it to demonstrate your presence, competence, and professionalism. Force yourself out of your comfort zone and think of something relevant yet noncontroversial to highlight or ask. Throw out interesting questions to make the speaker look good—especially if it is a leader in your organization. Think of generic questions just before the event, then while listening tailor them to the dialogue. For example, tie in the speaker’s stated objectives. “I heard you say your goals include more sales. Do you have any guidance to offer the marketing team about how best to meet the new targets?” Never put the speaker on the spot publicly in a negative way. Maybe if you are in the press corps or another adversarial function that is okay, but as an employee, this should not be your aim. It is not the appropriate venue to raise a red flag or concern. Take it up privately through other channels.

Video replay is great way to troubleshoot your habits and improve performance. In today’s world, where most phones can take videos, it is so easy to do. Shared by one of our attorney experts: “One of the hardest yet most memorable communication exercises I have done was during law school. They filmed us presenting mock trial arguments at six in the morning to practicing lawyers. Then we went over to the drama department of the university, where stage professionals critiqued our performances. It was horrible! I was stiff, had poor transitions, and did not have a pleasant demeanor. But I learned all of that instantly from the real footage and skilled coaches. Another time, I was part of a team that won an award for innovative technology development. I was filmed outside in a dramatic setting by the product. I was asked to share a few inspirational thoughts about the journey after just a few minutes of preparation. The video montage was presented on a giant screen to over a thousand people at the awards presentation. All I could see was my bobbing head. Up and down. Over and over. I had no idea I was doing it at the time, and I wish the communications person had told me! It did not ruin the experience in any way, but I sure became aware of my head’s movements when speaking after that. Ironically, I was pregnant and feeling quite ill the day of filming, but that was not obvious or noticeable in the video.”

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