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How to Succeed in Public Speaking

Updated on October 27, 2014

My Situation

Everyone is on a different level when it comes to public speaking. As a college student, I had to take a basic public speaking class on top of a plethora of presentations within my major. In my case, I was never nervous until my speech began. I was totally comfortable until I heard my own voice, then I began to get really nervous. With all eyes on me; everyone depending on me to succeed, how could I possibly deliver the speech everyone was hoping for?

My First Speech

I remember my first presentation in college like it was yesterday. As a freshman IT student, I had to give a presentation on an IT career and explain what a person with this job title did on a daily basis. So I did my homework, I made a presentation, and I came in ready to talk. The problem was, I hadn't actually prepared a speech. I just knew a bunch of facts about the job title, and there was no order to them, save the titles of each of my slides. I completely froze in front of the class; the soft humming of the computers in the room was the most pervasive sound. During my speech! I was so embarrassed, but I eventually recovered and mostly just read off my slides for the duration of the presentation. But I've come a long way since freshman year, and I want to share a few of the tricks I've learned along the way.

Step 1: Organize Your Thoughts

Having not been organized during my first speech, I had no flow to stick to. The facts that I had memorized were accurate, but they weren't cohesive. Because of this, I stumbled through my speech. Separate your speech into a few major topics and make sure you hit each one before the end. If you get hung up on one of your topics or lose your train of thought, you can easily recover by saying something like, "The next point I want to discuss is..."

This might not always be the most graceful transition, but it is a transition nonetheless, and your audience will understand you're going to talk about something new. If you're new to public speaking, you might also want to consider making a note of what your major points are. This brings me to my next major point...

Step 2: It's Not Unprofessional to Use a Notecard

If you feel more comfortable with a notecard that holds your major points, then don't be too proud to bring one with you. You might not even use it, but just having it at your disposal in case you get stuck might provide you the confidence to deliver a solid speech. You'll have that safeguard in the back of your head that if you run into trouble, that notecard will be your scapegoat. If you do end up glancing down at it during your speech, no big deal. You just want to make sure you're covering everything your audience needs to know. You shouldn't be reading the contents of your notecard to your audience, but you should consider keeping one handy for your own reference. A notecard can be something as simple as:

1. Introduce yourself and your topic

2. Tell the audience why this is important to them

3. Cite 3rd party research to establish external validity

4. Ask a question to your audience and conclude

You can structure your speech any way you choose, but keeping a brief list of things you want to talk about is a great way to keep yourself organized and give yourself peace of mind during your speech. I bet you'll be a lot less nervous if you have that card with you!

Step 3: Practice Flow of Thoughts

Rather than reciting the same speech over and over again to yourself or a friend, organize your flow of thoughts and talk about each major point. When you rehearse, say different words each time. If you script everything, chances are, you're going to forget just one line and not know what to say next. If you can talk about just a couple of major points off the cuff, you will be a lot better off. The flow-based approach will allow you the freedom to make mistakes without getting totally lost if something doesn't go the way you expected it to.

Well-Practiced Speaker Gives an Epic Speech

Step 4: Speak about a Passion

I recently gave a speech on a personal project I had worked on for half of a semester, and I have to say, it was easily my best speech. I knew all of the components of my project because, well, I built it. If you're talking about something you're passionate and knowledgeable about, you'll find public speaking is actually quite easy. You will confidently field questions with experienced answers and your voice will be steady throughout. In this case, it's just like you're talking to a friend with a similar interest. Know your topic well by doing research before your speech. Read current events about your topic in case someone asks. Knowing current events about your topic will help you establish credibility with your audience and will make you more confident overall.

Step 5: Don't Rehearse Your Jokes

It's all too often that people that are new at giving speeches try to rehearse jokes to entertain the audience. Unfortunately, these rehearsed jokes often come across as forced, and the speaker won't get the desired reaction. I find it easier and a lot more effective to make light jokes if and only if they present themselves during my speech. I don't give speeches for entertainment purposes, but when the opportunity opens up to pick fun at myself or my topic, I will try to keep my audience engaged by scoring a brief chuckle. The speakers that keep their audience entertained and informed throughout their presentation are the ones that have tons of practice already. Until you feel comfortable in front of your audience, keep jokes to a minimum and focus on your topic.

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