After Hours

10 easy ways to improve your public speaking

If the thought of speaking in front of a group makes your blood run cold, here's good news: You can employ a variety of simple tricks to take the edge off your nerves so that your delivery will be smooth and self-assured. Longtime actor Jack Wallen shares these tried-and-true techniques.

In the business world, speaking effectively is a must. Whether you are going on an interview, asking your boss for a raise (or a bigger budget), selling your product to bidders/purchasers, speaking with clients, giving a presentation, or rallying the troops for a long-haul network upgrade, you are going to need to be at your best with public speaking. Problem is, most schools don't really give you much in the way of training for public speaking. That's where I come in.

You may not know this, but I was an actor for a long, long time. I did Broadway, some films (nothing to mention), a LOT of theatre, and even taught at a couple of universities. So I know my way around speaking. And I know how to make speaking easier for those who look at standing up in front of a crowd (or sitting in front a prospective boss) as a nightmare made real. Here are 10 simple ways to make that nightmare more a dream.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Prepare

You have to know your material. And I'm not just talking about memorizing words and facts. I mean really KNOW your material. You can't predict what is going to happen that might cause you to get sidetracked. Murphy's Law dictates that something will happen. And when it does, it's best to know where you are. That's when a little acting trick will come in handy.

When you have a large script to memorize, the best way to do it is in chunks. But not just any chunk. It's best to make a chunk all related material. For example: You're giving a presentation on why your company should migrate to open source software. You could have five different chunks to your speech: Intro to open source, Cost savings, Security, Reliability, Ease of use. With each of those chunks, you'll have certain bits of information to know. But always know the names of those chunks. So when/if you get lost, you at least know which chunk you are on. If you know the information within that chunk well enough, you can get back on track.

This has helped me a number of times on stage. If I know the gist of a scene and I get lost, at least I know what the scene is about, so eventually I can right that ship. If I have no idea what the scene is about, I'll never get that scene righted. Same thing with a speech. If you memorize just a big blurb of stuff and you don't break it down, you'll be lost in a sea of information if you lose your bearings. If you get lost within a chunk, that sea becomes a lake and you can find your way back to shore fairly easily. Know your material!

2: Rehearse correctly

Most people don't realize this, but nerves have a serious effect on how you speak in front of people. Nearly everyone who gets nervous when speaking in front of people will speak faster than they normally would. This can lead to you not being understood and most certainly seeming nervous. (Pitting out that button-down? Shame!). To avoid this pitfall, rehearse your speech more slowly than you would normally. That doesn't mean speeeeeeaaaak verrrrrrrry slooooooowly. That means just be more at ease and relaxed when you rehearse. That way, when the nerves kick in, you will most likely be speaking at a normal pace.

3: Hydrate yourself

Most would think this a crazy thing to do before speaking. But you know why so many speakers keep water with them when they speak? Nerves dry up your mouth. And when your mouth dries up, you will have a harder time articulating your thoughts. To that end, make sure you drink plenty of water before and during your speech. Now this doesn't mean down it like you've not had water to your lips in days. If you do that, you'll most certainly need to pause in the middle of your speech to visit the bathroom. Either that or you'll REALLY embarrass yourself.

4: Relax before you go on

This is another one of those tactics that most people don't think will work. It does. One of an actor's biggest jobs is finding jobs. To find jobs as an actor you have to audition. Auditioning is one of the single most nerve wracking things you will ever do. I quickly discovered that if I relax before I go on, my nerves just ease away. But how does one relax? By not obsessing over what you are about to do. If you go over and over your speech before you go on, you will be in a constant state of reminding yourself that you are about to make yourself nervous. Instead, do something to get your mind off what you are about to do. Two activities did the trick for me: Reading a book or playing a video game. It's pretty easy these days to pack a PSP, DS, Kindle, or paperback with you. Do this and take advantage of the time before you go on. Your heart rate will thank you for it.

5: Rest well

The night before you are going on the biggest interview of your life, don't go out and paint the town the color of the hangover you'll have the next morning. Instead, relax, go to the gym, catch a movie, read, or anything that is going to help you get a good night's sleep. And that doesn't mean medicate yourself to get those 40 winks. If you do, you'll wake up feeling worse than if you hadn't slept.

6: Dress to impress

During my 20 years as an actor, I probably had just a handful of outfits I would wear during auditions. There are two reasons for this: Superstition and looks. When an outfit seemed to help me get a gig, I would use it more than not. But how does this really help? You choose a speaking, interviewing, rallying outfit that makes you look good (both to yourself and others) — and when you feel like you look good, your confidence will soar. So don't just settle on your usual khakis and oxford. Bring in the help of that significant other to help you find just the right look that makes you KNOW you look good.  The confidence you gain by this will greatly improve your speaking.

7: Articulate

Have you ever listened to someone speak who was hard to understand? What do you do after a while? You tune them out. You find them uninteresting and assume they're not really knowledgeable about their subject. You can be the most brilliant person alive, but if your audience can't understand you, you will lose them. There are exceptions to this (think Stephen Hawking), but for the most part, speakers who articulate are thought of much more highly than those who don't.

8: Be heard

This goes hand in hand with number 7. If you can't be heard, you won't be heard. If you have a softer voice, you know you're going to have trouble. And most people tend to speak more softly when they're speaking in front  of a crowd. (Again, nerves can do many things.) Here's a way to help you out with this. When you rehearse your speech, do it in front of someone but have them stand in the back of the room. Make sure they let you know if you can't be heard. You can even make a game of it by giving them a nerf gun (hearken back to the '90s dot-com days) and have them shoot you when they can't hear you.

9: Warm up

Your voice is like any other muscle in your body: You use it cold and it won't work well.  If you roll out of bed, get dressed, drink your coffee, and go give your speech, you're going to have issues. Instead, make sure your vocal muscles are ready to work. When you give speeches, you are speaking for much longer periods at a time than you normally do. If you don't prepare yourself you can wind up with a sore throat (or sounding like you just smoked a carton). Two of the best ways to warm your voice up are by humming (single low- to midrange tones are best or simple melodies or scales) and by doing tongue twisters. If you need a good tongue twister to really get yourself ready try "The big black bug bled blue-black blood." Repeat that for a while and you'll be ready to knock 'em over!

10: Don't fill the void

How many times have you heard a speaker or interviewed someone for a job only to turn them off because they filled the space between thoughts with sounds or words? You know what I'm... ummmm... talking... ummmm... about. Right? This sounds horribly unprofessional. Instead of filling your voids with grunts, groans, and signs of weakness, fill them with thought-filled, connected silence. Believe it or not, those pauses aren't as long as you think. And when your audience (be it a single person or a crowd) sees that you are still connected to them, even between thoughts, you will keep their rapt attention. In other words, don't drift off with ummmm... errrr... uhhhh... eeeee...sounds or words between your thoughts. Hold your listeners' attention with silence as you continue to press forward.

What works for you?

These 10 simple tips will take your public speaking leaps and bounds beyond where it is now. Do you have a trick that helps you before you speak or interview for a job? If so, share it with us.


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website

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