Tips for public speakers

Ask a random person their worst day to day nightmare, obviously not including nuclear apocalypse or something genuinely important, but many will say speaking in public. You may even see them flinch or wince as they say the words. No matter what you're up to in your life, talking in front of a crowd could be an unexpected surprise at work thrown at you by your cruel boss, or a best man's speech.

I do a fair bit of speaking, approaching three-figures on a professional basis, and so both people I know and social media folk often ask for tips. There's no lack of advice online and some themes are commonly mentioned (since they're true...) but here's my take:

It's not a race.

The speed you talk at is often different to how quick you think you're going. No matter how fast you talk socially (I'm generally quite speedy when sat around a table with friends and a pint), this is a different game. Do yourself a favour and give your audience a chance to absorb your words and your brain a chance to settle and think properly. When nervous, words-per-minute are bound to increase so intentionally slow yourself, even if it feels weird.

Don't overplan.

Unless you're presenting a technical or legal document where long tracts of exact text need to be spoken without variation, don't script. You may think that it's great to have everything you want to say written down, but the opposite is true. If you memorise a script and try to do a David Cameron, you might do an Ed Milliband and forget the economy. No matter how good your memory or how bright you are, it doesn't take much to throw a spanner in the works. You'll lose your place, stumble and it's all people will remember from your fifteen minutes of pearly wisdom. If you don't memorise and just read off a page, briefly looking up in pauses, you might as well not bother. Get a robot to do it or issue a written statement for people to read. Your audience is perceptive and can spot an overprepared, 'wooden' speech a mile off. They'll nod off.

Instead, learn your subject. Know it. Love it. Then, give yourself a rough structure to help with pacing and giving each section or topic equal attention. You might just remember three main topics to talk about or use a few images to jog your memory on the structure. You'll then talk to that sea of expectant faces naturally, warmly and most importantly, genuinely. Instead of contrived sentences that might look good on a page but sound daft spoken aloud, you can talk, relax and get your message across.


DON'T READ YOUR SLIDES. USE A HANDFUL OF WORDS MAXIMUM. This is such a big one but time and time again I see people do it who should know better. Yes, you may need to show a graph with a subtitle, or briefly caption something that needs it. However, you're there to communicate vocally and not get your audience to read. If there's a battle between listening to you and reading a paragraph or even a sentence of text on a projector screen, it's one you'll lose. Don't give those pesky text lines in annoying 1990s fonts the chance to win. Exclude them. You'll have your audience's full attention and that's a good start. Use simple images, an infographic, and maybe a graph if you really need, but they must support what you're talking about and not distract.


If you don't know what's coming up next and rely too heavily on each slide or prompt to tell you what to say, your flow will be lost. It comes across SO well to calmly and nonchalantly advance your slide (with a small remote clicker and NEVER with a mouse, iPod, iPhone or daft faddy thing) mid-sentence at the right time. It's professional and it shows you know your stuff.


Don't say too much. Cut out the repeated statements and fluff.


The fear, tension, your brain racing away at 1000% can all lead to projecting a look of seriousness, woodenness or at worst, abject terror. You want to win your audience's support and even their affection, so talk to them like they're normal, real people. Because they are. Smile when it's funny unless you're doing a dead-pan quip. If someone in the audience is clearly enjoying the talk, whether it's a conference or a relaxed social event, make eye contact and feed off their positivity. But not too much. They might get a restraining order.

Don't be afraid of silence.

At home and when chatting, we all have natural filler words. Um, ah, basically, you know, and the absolute killer disaster filler – like. If you're still doing that teenager/student thing where you add five 'likes' to every sentence, do not stand up and speak to an audience until you've kicked the habit. All of these filler words are irritating to an audience listening to just you. They'll fixate on the word and not your message, and some may not be able to handle the torture. Instead, remember that it's ok to pause, to think, to say nothing for a second or two, and then move on. Replace pointless words with nothing. It'll give your brain a chance to recoup, give your audience time to digest, and it'll help with pace and not speeding up.

Enjoy it! I've jumped across open crevasses and put tents up in 80mph winds, but the emotional ride of pre-speech concerns, mid-speech 'it's actually ok up here!' and post-speech elation and adrenaline rush has no equal.

Alex HibbertComment