A Short Guide to Effective Public Speaking by Stephen D
A Short Guide to Effective Public Speaking
by Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP
Delivering an effective presentation to 20 or to 200 people is difficult.
Because listeners have better access to information since the internet became
commonplace, audiences expect more content from speakers today. In addition,
because of the entertainment slant of most media today, audiences want a
presentation delivered with animation, humor, and pizzazz.
If you would rather spend your time preparing your content than reading a book
on public speaking, this is an article especially for you! From my experiences
in delivering over l500 speeches during the past 20 years, here is a quick guide
to giving an effective and interesting presentation your very first time.
Begin with something to get the attention of the audience. This might be
a startling statement, statistic, or your own story. Listeners pay close
attention when a person begins with, “Two weeks ago as I was driving to work a
car pulled out in front of me….” You could begin with a current event:
“You might have read in the paper this morning about the flood that….” A
question is another way to make people listen. “How many of you feel our
society spends too much on medical care?” might be a way to begin a
presentation about curbing costs. Whatever technique you use, when you grab the
attention of the audience you are on your way to a successful speech.
Second, be energetic in delivery. Speak with variety in your voice. Slow
down for a dramatic point and speed up to show excitement. Pause occasionally
for effect. Don’t just stand behind the lectern, but move a step away to make
a point. When you are encouraging your audience, take a step toward them.
Gesture to show how big or wide or tall or small an object is that you are
describing. Demonstrate how something works or looks or moves as you tell about
it. Show facial expression as you speak. Smile when talking about something
pleasant and let your face show other emotions as you tell about an event or
activity. Whatever your movements, they should have purpose.
Structure your speech. Don’t have more than two or three main points,
and preview in the beginning what those points will be. With each point, have
two or three pieces of support, such as examples, definitions, testimony, or
statistics. Visual aids are important when you want your audience to understand
a process or concept or understand a financial goal. Line graphs are best for
trends. Bar graphs are best for comparisons and pie graphs are best for showing
distribution of percentages.
Tie your points together with transitions. These could be signposts such as
“First,” “Second,” or "Finally." Use an internal summary by
simply including the point you just made and telling what you plan to talk about
next. “Now that we have talked about structure, let’s move on to the use of
stories,” would be an example. When you have an introduction, two or three
main points with support for each, appropriate transitions, and a conclusion,
you will have your speech organized in a way that the audience can follow you
Tell your own story somewhere in the presentation--especially in a
technical presentation. Include a personal experience that connects to your
speech content, and the audience will connect with you. You want to help the
audience link emotionally with what you are talking about, and the personal
experience does that. With almost any topic you might choose, you have at least
one “war story” to relate to the topic. When you tell the story, simply
start at the beginning and move chronologically through the narrative, including
answers to the “W” questions: “Who,” What, “When,” "Why,"
To add interest and understanding to your speech, include a visual aid. A
visual aid could be an object, a flip chart, a PowerPoint presentation, overhead
projector slides, or a dry erase board. Whatever visual you are using, make sure
everyone can see it. The best way to insure this is to put the visual where you
will be speaking, and then find the seat farthest from it and determine if you
can read the visual from that seat. Introduce the visual properly rather than
simply throwing it at your audience; explain what the visual will do before you
unveil it. Don’t allow the visual to become a silent demonstration. Keep
talking as you show the visual. You are still the main event and your visual is
an aid. Look at your audience, not your visual. When the visual is not in use,
hide it from the audience. Humans are a curious lot, tending to keep looking at
the object and losing track of the speaker—you!
If you are delivering a persuasive speech, in addition to your own stories include
testimony of experts whom the audience respects and whose views reinforce
your points. Add a key statistic when possible to show the seriousness of what
you are discussing. For example, if I were discussing the need for improved
listening to better serve your customers, I might add that although we spend
half of our communication time in listening, our listening efficiency is only
about 25%. By using stories, testimony, and statistics in your persuasive talk,
you add depth to your evidence.
Look at the audience as you speak. If it is a small audience, you can
look at each person in a short period of time. If it is a large audience, look
at the audience in small “clumps” and move from one clump to another. One
way to insure good eye contact is to look at your audience before you start to
speak. Go to the lectern and pause, smile, look at the audience, and then speak.
This will help you maintain good eye contact throughout your presentation as
well as commanding immediate attention.
One of the ways to have consistently good eye contact is not to read your
speech. Use note cards that have key words on them. The word or phrase should
trigger the thought in your mind and then you can speak it. If you are including
a quotation or complex statistics, reading from your note card actually lends
credibility. If you write out your speech you will tend to read it and lose eye
contact with the audience, as well as not being as enthusiastic in delivery as
when you speak from note cards.
Include a “wow” factor in your speech. Something in your speech
should make your audience think, “Wow!” It could be a story, a dramatic
point, an unusual statistic, or an effective visual that helps the audience
understand immediately. With a “wow” factor, you then have something to look
forward to in the speech that you know will have an impact on your audience.
You’ll become a more enthusiastic speaker because the “wow” factor will
get you as well as your audience pumped for the speech.
Consider using a touch of humor in your speech. Don’t panic at this
suggestion; you are not becoming a comedian but rather lightening up a serious
speech so that people will be more accepting and interested in your ideas. Humor
will help you to be perceived as an amiable person, and it is hard for people to
disagree or be bored if they are smiling at you. Until you have lots of
experience, keep your humor short. Perhaps inject a one-liner or a quotation.
Yogi Berra said a lot of funny things. “You can observe a lot just by
watching” for example. Tell a short embarrassing moment in your life that you
might have thought not funny at the time. Now that you can laugh at the
experience, you understand the old adage, “Humor is simply tragedy separated
by time and space.” Don’t poke fun at your audience; you should be the
object of any shortcoming, showing that you can laugh at yourself. Avoid long
stories or jokes. Even seasoned speakers know that funny stories soon become
unfunny if they go on too long. Probably the least risky use of humor is a
cartoon. The cartoon is separate from you and if people don’t laugh, you
don’t feel responsible. (Be sure to secure permission to use it.)
Finally, leave the audience with something to think about. People
remember best what you say last. You might summarize your main points, or you
might complete the statement, “What I want you to do as a result of this
presentation is....” But beyond that, make your last words a thought to
ponder. For example, I might end a speech on becoming a better speaker with
“As Cicero said centuries ago, 'The skill to do comes with the doing.'”
A more modern guide to effective public speaking was penned by some unknown
sage: "Know your stuff. Know whom you are stuffing. Know when they are
One never becomes a “perfect” speaker; developing public speaking skills is
a life-long experience. But the points discussed here will get you started in
becoming the speaker you want to be and the speaker your audience wants to hear.
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is a professor of speech communication at Northern
Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky. He is also a trainer in
communication who presents more than 60 seminars and workshops a year to
corporations and associations. See additional articles and resources at http://www.sboyd.com.
He can be reached at 800-727-6520 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.