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How To Build Public Speaking Skills: You Can Do It! 8 Tips For Success.

Updated on April 7, 2018
Leland Johnson profile image

"Great speakers are not born, they are trained." There are abundant resources available to help you overcome the fear of public speaking.

Tip #1 Write Your Speech

A proper speech is comprised of 3 parts.

  1. a solid opening
  2. a middle/body containing facts, data, anecdotes, experience based insights, etc.
  3. a strong closing statement that reinforces your opening statement

Carefully crafting your speech is of utmost importance. Write a rough draft, then read through it and make corrections, eventually make a final draft. Get the speech just the way you want it. Re-reading and re-writing are the best tools you have for creating an excellent speech. When asked to give a talk you have no need to speak extemporaneously. Thinking on your feet is for amateur night at the Improv. Work on your speech like an artist or sculptor finding just the right words as they find just the right colors and textures. Use proper English and interesting language. Don't be afraid to use a word that might drive your listeners to a dictionary now and then. Carry a pocket thesaurus. View your speech as a special creation personifying, giving life to what is in your heart and mind. The writing process also helps to calm nerves and imbue the speaker with a greater sense of confidence. I believe in the neuro/tactile theory of learning which suggests that greater learning is achieved by handwriting ideas as opposed to using voice recorders and computers. That is not to say the latter two are of no value, but rather placing an emphasis on actually putting your thoughts on paper in ink, manually.

Tip #2 Practice Your Speech

"How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!" So goes the old joke, but it's true. Perfecting your speech will require practice. Once you've completed the task of writing your speech ask your spouse, friend, or trusted co-worker to give it a listen. I don't recommend asking your children to serve as your trial audience as they tend to giggle and enjoy mom or dad's flubs. Practice in a mirror when by yourself, trying different hand gestures and facial expressions. Personally, I have a bad habit of furrowing my brow when I speak. It's because I'm concentrating, but I look as if I'm angry. I have to work at consciously raising my eyebrows and smiling, mannerisms that put an audience at ease rather than making them think you're upset with them.

Tip#3 Your Audience Wants You To Succeed

The realization that your audience wants you to succeed will help settle your nerves. Whether the audience has gathered to hear instruction or information, they want you to do well. Most of the time an audience is not hostile towards the speaker. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part people are taking time out of their day to learn something from you, the speaker. They come to learn, not heckle.

Tip #4 Engage Your Audience

If you read my summary you will recall that I said I had already revealed the most important tip for public speaking. Here it is:

Begin by asking your audience a question. This compels, even forces the audience to become engaged in your talk. Asking a question, even here and now in this article, demands an answer. For example, I could ask your age and immediately your age comes to mind. You probably didn't say it out loud just as an audience member wouldn't answer a question out loud. It is a question posed for consideration. Lets say you're giving a talk about angry outbursts. You begin, not by saying "hello" or "thanks for coming," but with an immediate question.

"Have you ever been cut off in traffic? Do you recall how that made you feel?"

The question will have heads nodding and smiles of recognition appearing all over the room. Long, drawn out introductions actually create a sense of tension in the speaker and the audience. The sooner you engage your audience the sooner you will win them over.

Tip #5 Respect Time

Respect the time of your audience. Begin on time, end on time. Don't worry if people are still milling about or shuffling in their seats. If you wait until everyone in an audience is perfectly still and quiet before beginning you'll be waiting a long time. In fact, beginning your speech will cause the audience to settle. This is what you need to do to bring your audience to attentiveness unless you are a judge and have a bailiff to call the room to order. Otherwise, you're on your own.

Make sure you've finished speaking before your audience has finished listening.

— Dorothy Sarnoff

Tip #6 Join a Public Speaking Club

The only club of it's kind, dedicated to empowering it's members to become excellent public speakers is Toastmasters International. You will find franchises all over the world. Meetings are held weekly during which time speeches are given (typically 5-10 minutes in duration), techniques for public speaking are discussed, other exercises conducive to learning the arts of speaking, leadership, and communication are taught. Follow the link below for more information.

Toastmasters International Speaking Club Testimonials

Tip #7 Sincerity, Knowledge, Opportunity

Know what you're talking about. Know your information well. Be yourself. Don't use gestures and mannerisms that are unnatural for you. Don't try to impersonate another speaker. Develop the speaker you are to become with practice and making use of every opportunity. If there is a poetry reading at a local coffee house, go and read or recite. Mentor a new employee. Teaching a new person the inner workings of your company is the perfect way to practice becoming a spokesperson for your products and services.

Tip #8 Omit Crutch Words

"Um, uh, ya know..." are all called crutch words or fill in words. They are distracting to the audience and the mark of an amateur. Most everyone uses them and it takes practice and discipline to rid your vocabulary of them. Their absence alone will elevate your status as a quality public speaker.

Speaking Styles of Our Presidents

I have selected three US presidents as examples of speaking styles. The presidents, in order, are as follows:

  1. President Barack H. Obama -44th
  2. President George W. Bush - 43rd
  3. President Ronald W. Reagan - 40th

President Obama

Our 44th president has a reputation of being an excellent orator. Critics scoff at that tribute because of his preference for using teleprompters. "A real orator," they say, "speaks directly to the people. A real orator has no need of a teleprompter." I disagree with that analysis. President Obama used teleprompters as a preferred method of speaking because he believed it allowed him to better connect with the audience. It freed him from looking down at notes and made his presentation look passionate and personalized. Remember, when he was looking at a teleprompter, no one in the audience really knew it. An audience member would only see the speakers eyes moving across the room/arena. They would see the eyes of the speaker lighting on listeners occasionally, and perhaps even make eye contact with the speaker themselves. It is a style that creates the illusion that the speaker is more intimately connected to the audience. For this president, making that connection was as important, if not more important, than the content of the speech itself. Obama was personable, engaging, and charismatic. He knew what worked for him. There is little doubt that he received coaching and grooming in regards to his oratory. No one is naturally that good. You may recall from my bio statement, "Great speakers are not born, they are trained." The axiom most certainly applies to our 44th Commander-in-Chief.

President Bush is seen here using a page weighted speech folder while giving a speech.
President Bush is seen here using a page weighted speech folder while giving a speech.

President G.W. Bush

I have placed the order of the presidents as such for the sake of contrast and comparison.

Number 43, in contrast to number 44, was not considered a great orator. That doesn't mean he was a poor communicator. While President G.W. Bush did not possess personality type that makes us think of the great dialogues, he did have a peculiar charm that people found likeable. He was less formal than Obama, more easy going, the type of man who preferred being seen with a chainsaw in his hand rather than a golf club. This casual persona, one he was well aware of, came through in his style of public address.

I saw this president speak in person on two separate occasions and I took special note of the folder he used to contain his speech. In fact, I purchased one similar to it. The pages are encased in laminated sheaths and are weighted to prevent pages from flipping at inopportune times. Bush knew his limitations when it came to public speaking, and he acted accordingly. For him an intimate connection with the audience was less important than the transmission of information. Listen to old speeches by President Eisenhower and you will hear the same cadence and flow of speech; not particularly riveting or spellbinding, but clear. Again, in contrast to President Obama, for whom a listener was likely to come away saying, "I'm not exactly sure what he said, but I sure like the way he said it," for Bush, people tended to be more entertained by his verbal stumbles. Comedian Drew Carey cleverly pointed out during a White House press dinner, "watching President Bush give a speech is like watching a tight rope walker. You hope he isn't going to fall, but then he comes up on a word with more than two syllables and you're on the edge of your seat." President Bush may not have been as visually appealing while giving a speech, but he knew his limitations. As I said, he used a folder to hold his speech in place, he mispronounced words and even invented some, but because he knew his limitations, even knew how to capitalize on them- his speeches were effective and clear.

Bush was a great "off the cuff" speaker. Call to mind the picture of him standing on the rubble in New York days after 9/11. He was using a bull horn to speak to the crowd. He took an elderly man in a fireman's coat by the arm and helped him up to the top of the rubble saying, "you're with me, buddy." As he was addressing the crowd you can clearly hear a man's voice yelling in the background "We can't hear you! We can't hear you!" Instantly Bush responded, "But I hear you, and the world hears you, and pretty soon our enemies are gonna hear you!" The crowd erupted in cheers. Though not a master of speaking skills in general, on that occasion he hit a home run.

In short, President Bush's skill lay in spur of the moment, extemporaneous speech.


Ronald Reagan aka "The Great Communicator"
Ronald Reagan aka "The Great Communicator"

President Reagan

Though Reagan preceded both president's Bush and Obama, I saved him for last because I find his speaking history, and style, to be the most interesting.

Having appeared in some 57 motion pictures imbued President Reagan with an undeniable stage presence. In appearance, he was all but flawless. He had the hair of a 25 year old well into his 80's, a charming and disarming smile, and a gentle yet firm resolution to his voice. He was even honed for this. From 1932-1937 he worked at several radio stations as a sportscaster. His voice would ever retain that textured, professional tone.

All those years of training, acting, and speaking truly earned him the title of "the great communicator." When a person takes on the task of improving their public speaking skills they not only learn how to speak, they also learn about people; the way they need to be spoken to. This is where Reagan excelled to the point of leaving all other contenders in the dust. He knew, not just how to speak, but how to speak to people in the way they needed to hear. This skill enables the listener to accept your ideas. Once you've achieved that, you can build a consensus and get things done. That's one reason for Reagan was able to achieve so much during his presidency.

That's all well and good, but we can't all be like him, can we? "Well...," perhaps not, but you will be surprised at just how quickly you can improve your speaking skills once you have the proper tools at your disposal.

President Reagan is really an amalgam of Bush and Obama as far as speaking styles go. Like Obama, it was important for him to make that oh so important close connection with the audience, and yet you never see Reagan making the same sweeping gestures, or looking off in the distance at some imagined utopian horizon. One way Reagan made the connection with his audience was the practice of direct eye contact. In fact, he didn't like to wear glasses because he thought it obscured the face and people need to see the face. He did wear contact lenses, but when he spoke to an audience he only wore one. This was so he could read his speech in glances and yet still look out into a sea of faces and single people out with his eyes making that connection. We may not all be as affable, charming, and funny as he was, but we can take a lesson from the man known as "the great communicator."

The Presidents as Speakers

Who do You Think was the Best Speaker?

See results

You Can Do It!

Public speaking is a skill that can be learned just like juggling or playing the piano. Sure, there will be those who have more of a natural talent for speaking than others, but we can endeavor to be the best speakers WE can be. Don't compare yourself to others. Work at it, practice, take those speaking opportunities even if it's just giving announcements in your local place of worship, family reunions, etc. You've read this article. You must have some inclination towards public speaking, and inclination is indicative of natural talent. Go. Develop that talent into the best you, you can be!

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    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      5 months ago from Midland MI

      Thanks Margaret! Glad you stopped by and I'm sure we'll be seeing more of each other :)

    • revmjm profile image

      Margaret Minnicks 

      5 months ago from Richmond, VA

      Excellent tips for public speaking. I like the way you have the tips organized. I also like the examples of the orators you listed. That's my type of reading!

    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      5 months ago from Midland MI

      Thank you Paula! It does me good to get kudos from an accomplished speaker. I'm sure you'd agree that the more you do it the better you get. Thanks again, and peace back atcha!

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 

      5 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      I've given countless public speeches in the form of tutorials, at several Crisis Centers across the Tri-State areas. Years ago, it was one of my favorite responsibilities.

      Wonderful article, Leland. Peace, Paula

    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      5 months ago from Midland MI

      Flourish- It occurred to me that perhaps I could include more presidents, but I actually didn't intend to mention the 3 I did. It was a last minute idea. Maybe another hub :) Thank you for reading.

    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      5 months ago from Midland MI

      haha, that's ok. I think this forum fits with my next endeavor of writing about the bill of rights. Freedom of speech tops that list. Who am I to suppress it? Wouldn't want you any other way than the way you are, AB. Blessings.

    • abwilliams profile image

      A B Williams 

      5 months ago from Central Florida

      Cheap shot Flourish Anyway!

      There are plenty of other Trump-bashing articles, this isn't one if them.

      Sorry Leland, couldn't let it lie.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      5 months ago from USA

      I especially liked the comparisons of Presidential styles. It would have been great to hear your thoughts on Bill Clinton’s speaking style. Also, I sure wished that you had included Trump. Setting aside that I think he’s an awful human being and worst president ever, I see Trump as a speaker who is utterly undisciplined, lacking in inspiration and cohesiveness of message, someone who must appeal to raw emotion —ironic given the man’s lack of empathy. Just my take. Loved this article.

    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      5 months ago from Midland MI

      Ms.Dora- thank you for your comments and I'm glad you liked the inclusion of the presidents speeches. It was a last minute decision to include them. I think presidential speeches could make a hub by themselves.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      5 months ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for the useful tips. I appreciate your analyses of the presidents' speeches. Really encouraging!

    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      5 months ago from Midland MI

      I'm sure there's one nearby

    • Jessie L Watson profile image

      Jessie Watson 

      5 months ago from Wenatchee Washington

      Leland,

      I've always wanted to find a nearby Toastmasters.

    • abwilliams profile image

      A B Williams 

      5 months ago from Central Florida

      Yes, do!

    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      5 months ago from Midland MI

      Thank you, AB. For me it's a toss up between him and Lincoln. Both gave their lives for their country in my opinion. I'll have to look up the Pointe du Hoc speech.

    • abwilliams profile image

      A B Williams 

      5 months ago from Central Florida

      *mouth ;)

    • abwilliams profile image

      A B Williams 

      5 months ago from Central Florida

      A solid article Leland. Well done.

      The half dozen or so times I have spoken in public, a deep breath in through the nose and out the month, works wonders!

      I voted for Reagan, not just because he's my favorite President, he was such a great orator. My favorite is his 'Boys of Pointe du Hoc' speech.

    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      5 months ago from Midland MI

      Jessie, so good to hear from you my friend. Thank you for reading my article. I value your opinion very much and view you as an authentic intellectual (and I mean that in a good way). I've been a member of the club I mention in the article, Toastmasters, since 2014 and it has helped my powers of communication immensely. I used to be terrified to speak in front of an audience, but I always had something to say- I just didn't know how to say it. Again, it means a lot to me that you saw value in my article.

    • Jessie L Watson profile image

      Jessie Watson 

      5 months ago from Wenatchee Washington

      He also handled criticism like a champ. If we think back to our very first president, we see a man who accepted quite a large and bloody burden and carried it to victory. He had so much opposition and criticism even among his own generals. Character is everything.

    • Jessie L Watson profile image

      Jessie Watson 

      5 months ago from Wenatchee Washington

      "The question will have heads nodding and smiles of recognition appearing all over the room. "

      If you don't notice how the crowd is reacting, there's no way to know if what you're saying is sitting well with them. I like to talk to individuals in a crowd as I'm talking. There's no talking to a mob. haha

      By the way, I voted Obama on your quiz because I do believe he is one of the most dignified and sophisticated among the rest. I like what Reagan had to say on certain things but Obama just knew how to win hearts and minds.

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