Become a Better Public Speaker in College and on the Job
1 July 2010
You’re wearing only your underwear as you stand alone at the podium on the massive auditorium stage where 800 strangers, professionally dressed in dark-colored business suits, are anticipating your three-hour presentation, Rescuing the Economy. Your face is red-hot, your heart is racing. All eyes are on you. What if you faint or vomit in front of all these people? The media is everywhere, cameras are flashing and the television sign reads “on air.”
You blink and realize that your brain’s playing tricks on you; in reality, you’re wearing blue jeans and your favorite warm, fuzzy sweater while standing at the chalkboard of your Introduction to Business class (BUS 101) in front of 15 classmates, including your roommate, and a casually attired instructor, who’s not much older than you. You’re ready to give a Power Point presentation and discussion, the Advantages of Incorporating.
Whether you’re presenting a college paper, giving an in-service at work, or proposing change in the garbage ordinance at a city council meeting, speaking in front of a group is high on the list of life’s most stressful experiences, right up there with death. It doesn’t matter if you’re a student or CEO of a Fortune 500 company, public speaking can cause anxiety.
Speaking to a group doesn’t need to be scary. Two main components of public speaking are preparation and presentation. If you’re well prepared before you arrive, and cognizant of ways to keep your speech interesting, you’re sure to succeed.
Adequate preparation before speaking is the main requirement for being a successful orator.
Determining your goal for the presentation is the first step. Is your intention to inform, persuade or entertain your audience? Do you need quotations, charts, jokes, or sources and references? And, who is your audience? How many people will be at your talk and what do you think they expect? Prepare your presentation at the appropriate level so that you neither talk down to them nor use language or concepts that are too abstract or confusing.
Being informed of logistics is essential. Know the location for your presentation, how the room is set up, and seating arrangement of the audience, such as in rows, at tables or desks, or positioned in a semi-circle. Will you have a podium? What type of microphone will you need? Also, be sure to know exactly what technology will be available to you, such as wireless Internet access in the room, an LCD projector and a screen.
Giving a presentation is like writing a paper. A speech should have an introduction that informs the audience of your intentions. In the body of your talk, you need only two or three main ideas; more than that is simply too much information and overwhelms your audience. Be succinct. Your conclusion should briefly reiterate your major points. Determine whether you’ll answer audience questions during or at the end of your talk.
Use visual aids and handouts only if they enhance your presentation. A snazzy Power Point presentation may show off your super-sized technology prowess or graphic design expertise, but actually distract from what you’re trying to say. If you do utilize technology, be certain to have a back-up plan. Technology has been known to fail even the most experienced orator.
Once you’re well-prepared, presenting your speech is next. Think of yourself as an actor and this is your performance. Rehearsing in front of an honest friend or video taping will give you valuable feedback prior to facing your audience.
Don’t underestimate the power of body language. It adds credibility and conviction to any ideas you convey. Pay attention to your posture, stand up straight and don’t pace around the stage unnecessarily. Use hand gestures to enhance not distract. Be sure to make eye contact with your audience. Keep your eyes away from your notes as much as possible and try to relax and smile. Don’t prepare a speech to read, or your eyes will never leave the paper, and if they do, you’ll lose your place and appear uncomfortable. Write easy-to-read notes with keywords to guide you through your presentation.
Be eloquent. Enunciate and use your clearest diction that your high school music teacher always emphasized. Use inflection in your tone and pause when appropriate. If you’re nervous, you may find yourself speaking faster and faster. Pay attention to speaking slowly and loudly so that even the petite woman in the back row who you can hardly see, is able to understand every word you utter. This is especially important if people are taking notes.
Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people become better speakers. Check out the many resources on their website and attend a meeting near you. With a bit of practice you can become a confident, articulate public speaker.
Debra L. Karplus, MS, OTR/L
Registered Occupational Therapist