Public speaking: a very basic ten-point guide

I was at a farewell presentation for someone I know a couple of days ago. The person moving on was much loved and respected by friends and colleagues, and the event was packed. The speechmaking, alas, didn’t live up to the occasion. Head down in his notes, mumbling and at times inaudible, the speaker obviously wasn’t having a good time.

The thought of standing up and speaking to an audience fills many people with dread. But whether it’s a best man’s/woman’s speech at a wedding, or a presentation at work, church or school, here are a few simple tips that will help you overcome your fear and loathing and do a superb job.

1) Plan what you’re going to say. Don’t aim to talk for more than a few minutes. (Most long speeches bore people.) Focus on the topic.

2) Unless it’s a fratboy/comedy gig, keep any humour inoffensive. You’ll probably have to see these people again. Don’t hurt or embarrass anyone, yourself included.

3) Write out the things you must include, in the right order, as clear, legible bullet points on a few cards. This will help you to keep on track and not miss anything important.

4) Practice on a really honest friend beforehand. Ask them to tell you how you look and sound. Get them to feed back a short version of the talk to check they understood you.

5) Arrange with the organisers to arrive at the venue early and practice with the microphone. THIS IS NOT OPTIONAL.

6) Even if you think everyone knows you, introduce yourself and say why you’re the one making the speech, unless the organiser does it first.

7) Make eye contact with the audience occasionally. Don’t just stare at one person, but look around the room, meeting people’s eyes sometimes so they feel you’re talking to them.

8) Speak slowly and clearly. Keep your head up while you’re speaking – some listeners can’t understand you unless they see your lips move.

9) Have a glass of water handy. If you think the audience might get out of hand, make that a bucket… no, seriously, taking a sip of water gives you time to recover from a mistake or glance at your notes without looking as if you’ve lost the plot.

10) Make it clear when you’ve finished. Say something positive: “Thanks for listening, now let’s get on with enjoying ourselves/ give xxx a big round of applause / get back to splitting the atom.”

The good news is that as long as you stay calm and focussed, it’s hard to make a big mistake. Your audience won’t notice anything that goes wrong unless you draw their attention to it by panicking or getting flustered.

Nobody but you knows what you plan to say or how you plan to say it. Nobody but you knows if your pauses are intentional, if your slow delivery is covering your scanning the notes because you lost your place,  if you deliberately threw that marker off the podium to raise a laugh.

They get what you give them. If you give it clearly and with a smile, it will be fine.


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