Five Basic Public Speaking Tips

This is a brief list of what I consider to be the 5 simplest, most effective "quick tips" for improving your public speaking skills. I wrote this in high school for other members of my speech and debate team, but I still use the content today.

According to a variety of phobia-based surveys, the most commonly cited fear among Americans is speaking in public. It's a socially accepted fear that often forms the basis of light-hearted self deprecating humor, and even people without a mortal fear will confess that the prospect of addressing a crowd makes them queasy. This is an unfortunate fact, as public speaking can be one of the most enjoyable, rewarding, and unique activities that one can engage in. My goal in this article is to help you start speaking in public if you've never done it before, as well as to help you become a more effective speaker if you're already doing it.

This list of tips is mostly taken from my own repertoire of "tricks" that I use to improve the quality of any speech regardless of its content, the audience I'm addressing, or the venue in which I'm performing. The benefit of such a list is that you don't need a strong theoretical grounding in communications to implement these techniques. Consistently practicing one or two of them at a time will (eventually) allow them all to become like second nature. Once you've mastered these tips, you can move on to my list of advanced public speaking tips (coming soon!).

  1. Confidence

    The overarching theme behind all of these tips, and therefore the factor that effective public speaking almost always boils down to, is confidence. It's important to recognize that for our purposes, confidence has two meanings. One meaning is a personal emotion/state of mind that comes from knowledge of and familiarity with a subject. This is real confidence, and it takes time and effort to develop. The other meaning is an impression that your audience develops based on your behavior, leading the audience to believe that you have real confidence. This is called apparent confidence, and the most important thing to remember about it is that you do not have to have real confidence to have apparent confidence. If you approach every speech in a confident manner by using these tips, 99% of audiences will believe that you have real confidence.

  2. Posture

    Stand up straight with your feet flat on the floor, shoulder width apart, angled slightly outward. Your shoulders should be back and your chin should be parallel to the floor. Your hands should be hanging loosely by your sides, hands and fingers relaxed. This is your default position. Don't shuffle your feet, clench your fists, look down, put your hands in your pocket or behind your back, or cross your arms. When you gesture, do it deliberately and then return to the default position. This removes distractions and quickly causes the audience to stop paying attention to you the person and start paying attention to what you're saying.

  3. Smiling

    Not a big, toothy, goofy grin, but not a frown or a "flat" face either. Just a slight active smile. This has a number of effects. First, it lifts the tone of your voice slightly and makes you more pleasant to listen to. Second, it puts your audience at ease and makes them more receptive to your message. Finally, it makes you appear to enjoy the subject you're talking about, and an audience is much more likely to believe you're knowledgeable about a subject you like than one you don't.

  4. Eye contact

    At any given point in the speech, you should be looking someone directly in the eye. To connect with the entire audience and not look like you're trying to see a Magic Eye Puzzle, use the figure 8 technique. Start by looking at someone near the front right side. After a few seconds, move to the middle far right side. Then to the back right side. Then to the middle middle. Then to the front left side. Then to the middle far left side. Then to the back left side. Then to the middle middle. Finally return to the front right side, and repeat. This techniques makes virtually everyone in the audience think you're looking at them, since when you focus on any one person you can appear to focus on any of the people immediately around him/her.

  5. Ignore mistakes

    You will slip up while speaking. You will mis-pronounce a word, give the incorrect number to an item in a list, say uhm, or do any of a dozen other things that are considered faults. Whenever they happen, ignore them. Don't pause in response, don't apologize for them, don't correct yourself. Don't acknowledge your mistakes in any way. When people listen to a live speaker whose content they don't know, their minds have only fractions of a second to process each word from the speaker before the next one arrives. This means that if you keep going without acknowledging a mistake, you minimize the amount of time the audience has to recognize it, process it as a mistake, and make a judgment based on it. By apologizing or correcting your mistakes, you bring attention to your weak points and give the audience ample time to process them.