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Public speaking tips


Published: 08 Feb 2018 Updated: 05 Dec 2022 Update History

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David Adams gets tips on speaking and presenting from the very best.

We all have to make presentations and perform some public speaking every now and then. Some we may enjoy, and some we may hate. But every opportunity to speak presents us with the chance to influence. How can you ensure that what you give your audience is not only interesting, but also effective?

Jonathan Schwabish is an economist, senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington DC, an expert on data visualisation and author of the book 'Better Presentations'. His first tip is a very basic one: carefully plan what you are going to say, partly because it helps to think carefully about who will be in the audience. A speaker cramming in too much information is just one reason why some presentations fail to achieve their desired impact. Once you have decided what to say, start considering what to leave out. Schwabish suggests thinking about the presentation as a series of headlines. “Think about the active, conscious messages that people are going to take away,” he says.

Who is it all for?

Above all, think about the audience. “It really is all about your audience,” says Simon Bucknall, who runs masterclasses on speeches and presentations, and represented the UK in the 2017 World Championship of Public Speaking. “Too often in business, presentations are speaker-focused, or about the organisation they represent – and whatever is supposed to be in it for the audience gets missed out.”

Bucknall advises checking how often the word ‘you’ is used. “As soon as you see ‘you’ a little bit more, you start to focus on your listener.”

When it comes to creating slides for the presentation, Schwabish believes in using as much visualisation as possible instead of relying on tables and text. While he avoids overusing the most ostentatious features of PowerPoint, Schwabish finds two features of the software very useful. The first makes different points appear one after another on the slide, making it easier to focus on each point individually. The second, a feature available on the most recent version of the software, allows the presenter to display the whole graphic, then dive in to look at a specific element in detail.

However, the most important principle to remember, he says, is that “not everything you say needs to go on screen”. As a general rule, including more detail may be appropriate if the presentation is being delivered to a small group of people in a seminar-like environment. Keynote-type speeches should be based more on headlines and the use of visualisation.

Ditch the 'goodbye' slide

Schwabish doesn’t like the final slide saying ‘thank you’ or ‘any questions?’ because it is a waste of time to have it on screen during the final section of your time on stage or during a Q&A session. “What you want on the screen is the headline of the whole talk so that’s what ends up being burned into people’s brains,” he says.

He also suggests practising the speech. Not just sitting in front of the computer and looking through slides, but actually rehearsing. “Stand up, use a clicker and practise. Say it out loud.”

When it comes to actually delivering the speech, you will surely already know the most important tip: don’t rush. “Go much more slowly than you think you should,” says Schwabish. “That has a lot of advantages, including the fact that it minimises ‘errms’, because your mouth isn’t trying to catch up with your brain.” Bucknall says one way to ensure you do this is to speak in short sentences.

Bucknall describes some other techniques that help ensure a good delivery. “By taking quality, slow, deep breath, you’re likely to project better,” he says. “You’ll also calm your adrenaline. Before you go to speak, take a moment to dip your chin down and breathe deeply. That helps to relax your chest so you’re not tense.”

Go much more slowly than you think you should. That has a lot of advantages, including the fact that it minimises ‘errms’

David Adams Business & Management Magazine, February 2018

Guard against a May moment

A cough or sore throat can derail even the best of speeches, as Theresa May discovered during the Conservative Party Conference last year. Being well hydrated helps to avoid this, but water isn’t necessarily the best thing to drink. “Water doesn’t help a dry mouth – something sweet or acidic does, like a fruit juice, or a sugar lump in tea or coffee,” Bucknall explains.

The way you present yourself on stage can influence the impact of your presentation. It’s generally a good idea to not move around too much. Bucknall recommends thinking about your “neutral stance” (what you will be doing while standing still) ahead of your presentation. This will ensure “you appear composed even if you’re not”, he says. “If you fidget it can be very distracting for the audience.”

Above all, only enthusiasm and engagement with your subject can inspire your audience. As Schwabish says: “There’s no reason the audience should care if you don’t at least appear to care.”

And finally, unless you and independent witnesses are absolutely certain you possess the rhetorical powers of a Churchill or an Obama, always remember the advice of former US president Franklin D Roosevelt, no mean speaker himself: “Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”

Feeling inspired?

Don’t let your post-presentation adrenaline euphoria go to waste: as well as considering doing more training, why not make a habit of watching other presenters in action (including those not giving business-themed talks) to observe how they use humour, timing, pace and slides to their advantage?

TED talks are the most famous example (at ted.com), but you will also find many other examples online, such as Ignite which allows presenters to use no more than 20 slides in five minutes, with each slide moving on automatically every 15 seconds – achieving brevity being the key takeaway here.

Take your search for the perfect presentation offline by seeking out live lectures and seminars. In London for example the Bishopsgate Institute, the London School of Economics and the British Library all have a regular programme of speaking events.

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Further reading

The ICAEW Library & Information Service provides full text access to leading business, finance and management journals. Further tips on improving your public speaking are available through the articles below.
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  • Update History
    08 Feb 2018 (12: 00 AM GMT)
    First published
    05 Dec 2022 (12: 00 AM GMT)
    Page updated with Further reading section, adding related reading on improving your public speaking. These additional articles provide fresh insights, case studies and perspectives on this topic. Please note that the original article from 2018 has not undergone any review or updates.