Improving your public speaking effectiveness

Improving your public speaking effectiveness

“The executive who talks impressively in public may not be better than his tongue-tied opposite number, but he sure makes a better impression.” That’s a common opinion in top executive circles. The average executive has many opportunities for public speaking. Every­thing from the informal company meeting to an invitation to address an industry-wide convention may come your way.

If you are less effective as a public speaker than you would like to be, consider first the three obstacles that act as deterrents:


“I can’t give a speech,” is a common excuse. In his book People in Quandaries, Wendell Johnson calls this defeatist attitude IFD disease—that is, idealization, frustration, demoralization. Many people set too high standards for themselves, are frustrated when they prove unreachable, and then consider themselves failures. If you have to coax yourself to accept speaking opportunities, remember that there are very few great speakers. Just set yourself a goal of a talk that is adequate for the purpose. (Obviously you will improve with practice.)

Stage fright.

Everyone experiences it, from the high school vale­dictorian to the seasoned professional actor.

The fear of being “on stage” can be minimized. You may grope for a word; your voice may develop a quiver; your knees may feel shaky or—even actually quake. So, what. If a man is realistic about his speaking abilities, expects to make mistakes and resolves to speak regardless of his fears, generally he will do fine. How often have you heard a speaker complimented enthusiastically respond by saying, “I was scared to death.”? He may have been. But chances are he was the only one who knew it.


Some executives don’t consider speaking to groups important. “Why should I bother. It’s a lot of trouble. . ..” Why should you bother? Because you want to be a leader, a motivator, and to grab a piece of the action.

In addition to minimizing the three mental blocks just described, there are three approaches that help you score: Planning, Practice, Performance.

Planning: The Preliminaries.

In journalism school, aspiring reporters are taught to start out on each assignment with five ques­tions in mind: why? who? what? where? when? Only when they have come up with the answers to all five will they be able to write the whole story.

The same technique can be used by aspiring speakers.

When you are to give a talk begin your preparations by asking yourself:

Why are you giving the talk? To tell other executives about a pet project? To alert your men to new plans? When to ask for help on a special project? The answer will put your purpose in clear perspective, help you get it across easily.

Who will you be talking to? Rank-and-file employees? Managers? Students? Industry businessmen? Will they be knowledgeable, sym­pathetic, resistant? The more you know about the audience, the less likely you will be to fail—with the words you use, the ideas you express, the way you present them. Knowing the audience and its areas of interest helps you decide what aspects of a subject to cover.

When will you be speaking? Early morning or late evening? Is this to be a one-man show or will there be other speakers on the bill? Will you be the first speaker, or the last? Clearly, your position in the sequence of speakers will influence your approach; for example, you would want to put extra punch into a talk to rouse an audience wearied by a succession of previous speakers.

Once you have the five W’s answered to your satisfaction, you can proceed to . . .

  1. Planning: The Nitty -Gritty. An important factor in any successful speech is planning so that you know beforehand what you’re going to say. This doesn’t mean writing a talk out sentence by sentence. A person seldom writ7es as he talks, and what reads well on paper usually sounds stilted and dull when spoken. What you’re after is a clear outline of your main ideas, plus brief notes, and key phrases to serve as an assist to your memory.
Organize the main part of the talk first.

Jot down the major theme of the talk and then decide on several key points to support it, shuffling and reshuffling until they’re arranged in logical order, one leading naturally into the next. Add subordinate points, case histories, examples to back up each idea—but only those that actually help to clarify the idea. Don’t try to include too much—it will only con­fuse your listeners. Better to say less, effectively, and have it remem­bered.

If you’re going to want notes with you when you speak (and most people do), print each key idea at the top of a 3″ x 5″ or 4″ x 6″ card. Then under each heading list the necessary subordinate points, brief notes, or phrases that will serve as reminders.

Plan a “socko” opening .

Start with something that will gain the immediate attention of your audience. It may be in the form of a question, a human-interest story, a striking quotation, a state­ment of disturbing fact—but whatever your choice, it should be relevant to your topic. Keep it short, informal. And, unless you’re an experienced raconteur, avoid humor—when it doesn’t work it’s embarrassing, to you and your audience. (Good idea: write out the actual opening sentences on a card—and memorize them.)

and a forceful, thoughtful closing.

The close of a speech is a strategic element, since what is said last is likely to be remembered longest. Plan your ending carefully, know almost word for word what you are going to say. One of the best ways to end is to briefly sum­marize your main points. Telling your people what you said after you’ve already said it, really makes it stick. Or you may want to wind up with an appeal for action, or a sincere compliment for the au­dience. Your closing sentences should round out your talk, leaving no loose edges.

Keep your talk audience-centered.

People are much less interested in what’s going on in Timbuktu than in what’s happening in their own backyards. Talk in terms of the problems facing the people who will be listening to you—use illustrations and examples that they will recognize. Everything you say, and any visual aids you use, should relate to what they do, want, and worry about.

Plan for participation.

How will you know whether your audience has understood what you’ve been talking about? The best way to find out is to get them to tell it back to you. If appropriate, plan questions now that will promote discussions then. Don’t leave this to chance. Add the questions to your notation cards—at the proper time use them to get the group started talking back.


Once you know what you want to say, prepare for the big day. The only realistic way: get up on your feet and practice out loud. You may feel a bit silly at first, but keep at it. Make the first run-throughs in privacy, then move up to appearances before a mirror (where you can see yourself as the audience will see you) or before a sympathetic wife or friend (who may helpfully point out your goofs).

If you have a tape recorder available, of course, one or more run-throughs played back help polish rough spots, and give you an idea as to the overall effectiveness of your talk, as well as its length.


You’ve done the planning, the practice—now you’re on stage, ready to put yourself—and your talk—across. To succeed…

Dress neatly and to suit the occasion. This may mean anything from khakis for the construction site to business suit with shirt and tie for the conference room.

Act confident—

even if you’re not. A little nervousness is a good sign; it will give you the extra push you need to put yourself across. But don’t let it show. Stand tall, steady down with a couple of deep breaths, glance around at the audience, and smile. You may be judged even before you speak, so make sure your attitude is a friendly one.

Talk naturally—and loud enough.

Today people don’t dig the soapbox oration, four-syllable words, or “readings” from a manuscript. They want you—your words, your ideas, your feelings. And, if you have any doubts about “projecting” to that guy in the last row, ask him if he can hear you, before you get into your talk.

Vary the tone and pitch of your voice, your rate of speaking, and the stress you put on words. You do this in everyday conversation—why not when talking to an audience? A monotonous, singsong ap­proach doesn’t win listeners. Prove the point now by noting the difference between.

  • We have the lowest accident rate in the industry. (Read in a mono­tone) and
  • We have the lowest accident rate in the industry. (Read with emphasis on the underlined words.)

If you find yourself running dull, running scared, or running down.

  • Look at the blankest countenance in the room and direct your words to him. In trying to get him to respond, you’ll perk up your way of speaking.
  • Think of the audience as a group of people who owe you money. You could tell them what’s what, couldn’t you?
  • Introduce a new point in the form of a question—then proceed to answer it. Makes it easier for you, more interesting for your listeners.
  • Pause before and after important points. This puts added em­phasis on them, gives you a chance to take another deep breath.

Avoid mannerisms.

Pounding fist in palm, pulling off and putting on glasses, clearing the throat, pointing. Any of these, done once, may be an effective attention-getter. Repeated, it takes away from your talk—the audience will be so busy wondering if you’re going to do it again (and being irritated when you do) that they’ll miss most of what you’re saying.

End with a smile. And that’s all. No thank you’re, no apologies for what you’ve said, why and how you said it. If you’ve done the best you could, your audience will know it and appreciate it.

A final thought. Don’t worry about applause. There wasn’t any after the Gettysburg Address.

Certified Workplace Communication Skills Professional

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