Things I’ve Learned Lately About Public Speaking

Not too long ago, I was at a conference and a friend asked me for advice about how to be a better public speaker. My mind immediately jumped to how exciting I think public speaking is and I get an adrenaline rush from being in front of a crowd and that question ended up making me think about how I could improve as a public speaker. So I decided to write about it, and the writing came out as though I was giving advice to myself.

Dear future self (and anyone else who is listening), here are some things I’ve learned lately about public speaking…

Start with a story. Don’t start by telling people you’re going to tell a story. Don’t talk too much about yourself. Stories are entertaining and can have a big educational impact. Storytelling resonates. I love stories.

You are not as interesting as you think. People want to hear advice that will help them, so tell the part of your story that will impact them. What will help them the most? Talk about that.

Prepare with audio, not text. Form a short outline in your head and record yourself talking—let that become the basis for the talk. Iterate on those ideas. Practice until it’s great.

Enunciate! This improves with practice. Try dictating your talk to voice recognition software to get an idea of how clearly you speak.

Don’t forget to breathe. Use empty space to your advantage. Pauses give an audience space to think.

Imagery is more memorable than quotes. They help people focus on what you’re saying rather than reading the screen behind you. Which images you choose can say a lot about you.

Lowering your voice has more impact than being loud, but it’s more about the change in speed and volume than anything else. If you slow down and speak softly for a moment, it will really stand out. That is often much more memorable than yelling something out.

Stage presence matters. Lean forward, but not too forward. Keep your hands mostly at or near belt level. Look at the audience. Talk to the them as if you’re talking to a good friend about something you’re really excited about. Passion is contagious.

Don’t apologize for being the blocker between the audience and lunch/beer/cocktails/whatever. That just doesn’t make very much sense. Lunch is usually at a set time and will not arrive any faster if you skip your talk.

It’s not as hard as it seems to recover from mistakes. This is because the audience is on your side. They want you to succeed. Also, mistakes can intentionally be used for good.

Q&A can be the most engaging and interesting part of a talk. It’s the part where you get to find out what people really want to hear. A cool trick to easing transition into Q&A is to ask the first question yourself. It breaks the ice and closes the gap between asking if anyone has questions and waiting for that first person to speak up.

So, this has been an experiment. I thought it would be interesting to do an audio component to accompany writing, and this is my first attempt. It’s probably something I’ll listen back to before I prepare my next talk or give my next talk. If it helps me, maybe it will help someone else too and so I thank you for listening.

  • June 3, 2015 at 7:33 am ssanj

    Hi Sheri,

    I stumbled across your blog/post from one of Matt’s posts. I really like the way you’ve interwoven a blog post with text and audio! It’s something I might try on my blog as well.

    Thanks for sharing. :)

  • October 7, 2015 at 2:26 am Alister

    As I am preparing for a couple of upcoming talks, I found this really useful stuff. Thanks for sharing :)