5 Public Speaking Tips From the Pros

Not a natural-born public speaker? Don't worry. It's a skill that can be learned. Start with these tips from professional speakers who know all about getting in front of an audience.
Author, Reinventing You, Harvard Business School Publishing
July 22, 2014

Whether it’s a pitch for funding, a talk in front of your local Chamber of Commerce or a demo of your new product, every small-business owner eventually has to make a public presentation. Of course, for many that’s a terrifying thought: "What will capture the crowd’s attention? How can I keep them engaged? How can I keep calm?" No one has a better understanding of audience dynamics than professional speakers, who make their living giving talks around the world. Make your next presentation shine with these five helpful tips from speaking professionals.

Kill the Slides

“Think of the greatest speeches of all time,” says Mike Michalowicz, OPEN Forum contributor and author of Profit First. “Martin Luther King's ‘I Have a Dream,’ Kennedy's ‘Man on the Moon’ and Lincoln's inaugural address didn’t use PowerPoint. They instead painted pictures in our mind.” Don’t rely on slides as a crutch; make your language vivid so the audience is focused on you. If you have to use some slides, just “make sure they have very limited text,” advises singer-songwriter Dave Carroll, who is famous for his viral “United Breaks Guitars” video. “Given the choice, people will always read your slides rather than listen to you. Make sure you're holding their attention with great content from the stage.”

Think Outside the Traditional Lecture

Everyone knows how a presentation works: Sit back and let the speaker perform. Sometimes it’s interesting, and sometimes it isn’t, but it’s always a fairly passive experience. But marketing expert John Jantsch, the author of Duct Tape Selling and an OPEN Forum contributor, suggests we try something different. You could present the audience with a business school-style case study, and ask them to talk about it and present recommendations. Or split the audience into smaller groups and have them analyze and present suggestions to various questions. You could even, as in one talk Jantsch recently attended, hand out art supplies to audience members and ask them to create a model that illustrates the challenges they’re facing. Says Jantsch, “You should think outside the traditional lecture and really get your audience into the act.”

Connect with the Audience

You may be nervous speaking, so it’s natural to hide behind the podium. But resist the urge, says Carroll. “They serve as a physical barrier between you and your audience, when your goal is to make a connection.” Ellyn Spragins, author of the bestseller What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self, suggests forging a bond early on by making an effort to appear approachable. “Smile while you speak, even when your topic is serious and it feels weird to do so,” she says. “This is actually pretty hard to pull off for most people, but smiling while speaking will add tremendously to your stage appeal.”

Embrace the Power of Improv

“Improvisation is one of the most powerful secrets from the actor’s trade and all successful people employ it to some degree—and it can be learned,” says Michael Port, the author of Book Yourself Solid. Especially if you’re facing a tough crowd, it pays to work on your ability to “listen in the moment, trust your intuition, have faith in the other players, accept criticism and ... learn to play more at work.”

But don’t think that improvisation means you can get away without preparing, says OPEN Forum contributor Barry Moltz,  the author of How to Get Unstuck: 25 Ways to Get Your Business Growing Again. “Many people think that you can wing a speech, or it has to be spontaneous,” he says. “It takes a lot of hard work to be good on stage. The fact is that great speakers practice every day and only after they really know their material can they be spontaneous.”

Understand the Audience’s Perspective

You can’t connect with the audience if you haven’t really considered what they’re thinking or feeling. “It's not a pitch, it's a performance," according to John Bates, a TED and TEDx speaking coach. "If I'm pitching, I'm mostly thinking about presenting the information and getting you to understand it. If I think of it as a performance, I start to consider [questions like] what state you’re in when I begin, where are you mentally, where are you emotionally, am I interesting to you, am I weaving in some of the unexpected and where do I leave you when I'm finished?” Port agrees, noting that the best speakers “read in the moment how people and audiences respond to them. Those abilities enable them to use the spotlight to move audiences, change minds and even change the world.”

Most professionals don’t relish the thought of public speaking. But with these strategies from the pros, your moment onstage is likely to be a lot more enjoyable and successful than you could have imagined.

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press), subscribe to her e-newsletter, and follow her on Twitter.

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Author, Reinventing You, Harvard Business School Publishing