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Becoming a Better Public Speaker: Tips From the Greats

—Image adapted from "Microphones" by Håkan Dahlström, Flickr Creative Commons.
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Heart thumping so loud I know everyone can hear it. Face and neck flushing red. Sweat beads beginning to sprout and then trickle down my forehead.

No, this is not the moment in front of the crowd and under the spotlights—this comes from just THINKING about that moment! Whether it’s speaking in front of our school faculty, presenting at a local school board meeting, or testifying in front of Congress, many of us feel anxiety about public speaking. So what can we do to be better prepared as public speakers? Here’s a few lessons from some speaking greats.

Embrace the Anxiety

Did you know that Warren Buffett used to be terrified of speaking in public? According to this story in Forbes magazine, he picked out his college courses based on whether he’d have to speak in front of the class, avoiding the ones where he knew he’d be forced to face his fear. He even dropped a public speaking course.

But then he decided he would have to overcome this fear to be in business. And that he did—becoming not only one of the world’s richest people but also a well-respected storyteller.

We can all do the same thing. A fear of public speaking is not just common; it is innate. Our ancestors had to be accepted into social groups in order to survive, instead of standing out and being alone (and then possibly being a predator’s dinner!). We have to acknowledge our fears; don’t try to pretend they’re not there! Instead, harness the jitters and refocus them by thinking of those nerves as positive energy and excitement. If we reframe anxiety as our desire to do our best, it can help us control those feelings.

Connect With Your Audience

Have you ever watched Bill Clinton speak? I recently talked with several people who have, and one thing rang true for them all: He can make connections! Clinton seems to have a way of making people feel like he is connected to them and who they are.

So the lesson here? Don’t talk to people, talk with people. Whether it’s 25 or 250 people, in your head, frame it as a conversation, not a speech. Think of the faces in front of you as your flock. Nurture them and your relationship with them. Make eye contact. Bring them along on the conversational journey.

Be Aware of Your Body Language

This is another homage to Bill Clinton. He smiles during positive points, gestures with his palms for added inflection, and furrows his brows during serious moments. When he is making a point, he uses his index finger to tap the podium in front of him.

This behavior is backed by Harvard professor Amy Cuddy’s TED talk and research, which shows that our body language can send just as big of a message as our words. Albert Mehrabian, a UCLA professor who has done extensive research on nonverbal communication, stated in a communication study that, in regards to liking a speaker, seven percent happens in spoken words, 38 percent happens through voice tone, and 55 percent happens through general body language.

This can be hard to focus on while you’re up in front of the masses, so sometimes I need some help. I write messages to myself in the margins to relax. Smile. Have fun. Think about what message my body is sending that I might not be aware of.

Tell a Story

Think about the elements and flow of a great story. What drew you in? What kept you reading or listening? Chip and Dan Heath mention this in the book Made to Stick. The same elements go into a great speech! Paint a picture with your words. When it comes to advocacy, this is especially important. Show the faces of your students and what affects them.

Connect With Your Emotions and Show Passion

Don’t be afraid to be human in front of an audience. There is something great about human connection that builds relationships, even from behind a podium. A great example of this is Rita Pierson, who emits her love and passion through every syllable in her speech “Every Kid Needs a Champion.”

Be Succinct

Think of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Big message, 265 words. I think we sometimes think more is more, but the mantra “less is more” really stands true.

Use Wit

Think of the last line of Socrates’s famous speech, given after he was condemned to death: “But it is now time to depart—for me to die, for you to live. But which of us is going to a better state is unknown to everyone but God.” Now, I wasn’t a literature major, but I am a connoisseur of witty banter and comments. I took that comment as the ultimate example of a witty closing comment (pun intended).

Think About Cadence, and Don't Be Afraid of Silence

The perfect example of cadence? Martin Luther King, Jr., in “I Have a Dream.” The intonation, the inflection of his words, the rhythm, and the power of a carefully placed pause. Don’t be afraid of silence—it can be more powerful than any word. I have another trick here: I write notes to myself. “Pause,” written in capital letters, or underlining words to emphasize. I read lines over and over again until the cadence feels right.

Use Repetition as a Golden Thread

Repetition can tie your message together. Think of Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Sweat, and Tears,” where this great orator would weave a phrase through both the beginning and end of a speech. I wouldn’t use this strategy all the time, but it’s a good trick to have in your back pocket.

Relax and Have Fun

I have to remind myself to do this. So at the top of my notes for a speech, I write two words: “Breathe. Relax.” When your adrenaline is pumping and the spotlight is on you, what seems like common sense may slip our mind. A reminder really helps.

Know Your Style

Do you need notes? How much practice do you need until you feel comfortable? How much scaffolding do you need so you are comfortable in the moment? Should you print out your whole speech to have on hand in case panic strikes (yes, this happens.)?

Know yourself and give yourself whatever support you need to be the best “you.” I practice my speech and record it so I can listen, reflect, and refine. I also make sure to time my speeches so I know what content to cut and what needs additional work.

Keep Your Print Large

Twelve-point font is not always helpful under the spotlights, in front of a crowd, and when your heart is thumping like the Energizer Bunny on Red Bull. If you decide to print out your speech and notes, do so with a larger font size that you can easily read when you glance down. Also, highlight the important pieces of your speech so if you go off on a tangent, you make sure to hook back into those key points.

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