Public speaking: take control

As 2016 draws to a close, all I seem to be hearing is how terrible this year has been. While the endless negative comments usually contain a sort of subdued optimism (surely 2017 can’t be any worse?!), my fear is that the first sign of trouble in the new year will crush that fragile hope and the pall that has hung increasingly heavily over 2016 will be back in place.

I can’t help feeling this general consensus that everything is awful is in danger of becoming self-fulfilling. The power of the mind is lop-sided in this regard: although positive thinking is inherently good, it’s not sufficient in itself to ensure a positive outcome. Negative thinking, on the other hand, can be all it takes to turn any event pear-shaped.

One of the consequences of national negativity is that people tend to feel less in control of their destiny and more passive about their role in shaping it. From “The world is falling apart and I can’t do anything to stop it” it’s but a short step to “Anything I set out to achieve is doomed to failure, so there’s no point in even trying”. My message to you, on the cusp of 2017, is this: you have far more power than you may realise, to create a bright future for yourself and, yes, even to change the world!

This blog is about public speaking, so let’s focus on that. A negative attitude will sabotage any attempt to deliver a worthwhile speech or presentation, so let go of your preconceptions and hold on to the fact that anyone and everyone can be good at public speaking. A positive attitude will help you feel more confident about addressing an audience but this is not enough by itself. Telling yourself “It’ll be fine… it’s got to be…”, while taking no action, will sabotage your success just as surely as telling yourself it’s going to be a disaster. The way to succeed is by learning the techniques and applying them.


We can all be winners – if we put the work in

I don’t know who said it first but I’m a great believer in the idea the harder I work, the luckier I get. Contrary to popular opinion, effective public speakers are not lucky people who were born with the gift; they are people who’ve worked very hard at honing and polishing their content and delivery.

Gloom can be stultifying but we can dispel it by standing up and taking control of our lives. If public speaking is a worry for you, you can change that in a few hours, by confronting it and learning how to do it well. Losers tend to reckon things can’t be done, whereas winners know they can reach their goals because they take the necessary action to get them there. As we enter 2017, let’s remember, we are all capable of doing this.

Happy New Year!

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Public speaking: how to sound natural and make an impact

At one end of the public-speaking continuum, we have the tight speaker who reads from a script. At the other, we have the loose speaker who improvises delivery. In most situations, what we’re aiming at is to strike the happy medium between these two extremes, to know exactly what we’re going to say, yet to deliver it in a way that sounds natural.

happy-mediumIf you begin by writing a script, even if you go on to speak from brief notes (or none at all), the risk is that you’ll still sound as if you’re reading, because you’re reciting something that was originally written, rather than spoken. On the other hand, speaking off the cuff is never going to be as focused, clear and effective as delivering something you’ve prepared and practised.

For inexperienced public speakers, a large part of the problem is the language that’s commonly used to describe the preparation phase: writing a speech is surely a contradiction in terms. Yes, there are those who excel at this task, particularly for formal, set-piece occasions (such as political speeches), but there are also people who can write novels or plays and most of us would not assume we could do that without training – or not for public consumption, anyway.

The happy medium between writing a script and improvising is developing your talk organically, by speaking out loud.

Think of a story from your life that you’ve recounted many times over the years. When you first narrated that incident, it probably wasn’t as well crafted as it is now. Over the course of repeated tellings, you’ve honed your wording, cut out any waffle and fine-tuned your punchline, so as to have maximum impact on your audience. This is exactly the process you need to apply to your speech or presentation.

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Public speaking: not the arena for multi-tasking

When I was a student, I used to be able to do a Russian translation and follow a play on the radio at the same time. Over the years, my capacity for multi-tasking has dwindled to almost nothing: these days even scrolling through Facebook with the Today programme on in the background makes my brain ache. Apparently, feeling drained by multi-tasking is scientifically explained by it using up oxygenated glucose, and it certainly makes sense to me that doing two things at once is more demanding than doing one at a time. When we choose to do it, it’s not because it’s more efficient, it’s usually because we want some inducement to get on with something that’s quite hard work.

mono-taskingHowever, it’s only a strain when the two tasks are similar (both cognitive or both physical): listening to the radio while I’m washing up or ironing is a completely different matter. As the BBC’s Claudia Hammond points out, “If the tasks are different enough then multi-tasking can even improve your performance”. What helps and what hinders us varies from individual to individual, as well as on the intensity of the tasks. According to Ms Hammond’s article, about 2% of the population are natural multi-taskers, while for the rest of us performance can benefit from it sometimes and suffer at other times, depending what we’re trying to do.

Most people find it easy to walk and think at the same time. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman says, “Indeed, I suspect that the mild physical arousal of the walk may spill over into greater mental alertness”. Yet when the task is to walk as fast as possible, it is much more difficult to think coherently. Conversely, if the mental task is too taxing, we stop walking because all our energy is focused on solving the question we’re thinking about.

Now let’s introduce stress. Putting aside any flashes of genius that have come to people whose backs were hard up against the wall, I imagine most of us would agree that, under pressure, we don’t think as clearly and as well as we do when we’re relaxed. If this is true anyway, how much more challenging is it to be multi-tasking under pressure?

The reason I’m discussing this here is, of course, to relate it to public speaking. If you’ve never looked at it this way before, here is the truth: expressing yourself coherently is one task; connecting with your audience is another. Yes, in everyday conversation we achieve both simultaneously without turning a hair – but don’t underestimate how different it is when you’re the only one speaking, a) for an unnaturally long time and b) to a big group.

Some degree of multi-tasking is unavoidable (even desirable) in the normal course of work and home life. When you’re making a speech or presentation, however, there is no room for multi-tasking. If you’re trying to find the right words at the same time as you’re trying to connect with your listeners, one or other task will suffer. It’s usually the latter, meaning all the effort going into the former will be largely wasted, since the audience won’t be listening. Where a speaker favours connection over finding the right words, the risk is of saying something he/she will regret.

And let’s not forget, a modern audience is accustomed to multi-tasking. If they’re not fully engaged with the talk, they will soon be surreptitiously checking their messages, possibly believing they are still listening, though actually they will retain little or nothing of what the speaker is working so hard to tell them. If you don’t want your audience to be multi-tasking, you mustn’t be doing it either! The cognitive effort to work out exactly what you want to say needs to be made in advance, so that on the day you’re free to concentrate entirely on the all-important task of connecting and communicating with the people in front of you.

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Don’t confuse authentic with unprepared

The pros and cons of the digital age have thrown up a big question for public speakers: how polished should your performance be? On the one hand, since there’s always a chance a snippet of your talk will end up on YouTube, you want to avoid doing anything that may come back to haunt you. On the other hand, audiences are increasingly mistrustful of speakers who appear too slick and rehearsed.

djt-speakingIn a culture of soundbites and media manipulation, authenticity has come to be a highly prized quality in public figures. Jeremy Corbyn’s authenticity is respected by his supporters and detractors alike – and Donald Trump’s popularity is largely ascribed to his authenticity (though I’m less convinced of its accuracy in his case).

It was Mr Trump’s performance in the debate with Hillary Clinton on Monday that prompted me to write this post. For whatever reason, the Republican candidate had not prepared effectively for this event and found himself on uneven ground, often on the back foot. While some have criticised his quirky and difficult-to-pin-down public speaking style, Mr Trump and his supporters characterise it as ‘telling it like it is’, being authentic, speaking from the heart, and many applaud him for it. Yet on Monday evening his approach let him down. A debate, by its interactive nature, is different from simply making a speech but I would have imagined that, for someone who prefers to speak spontaneously, it would be easier rather than more difficult.

The big lesson we can all take from this is that, even if you don’t care about expressing yourself in a considered and coherent way, even if you believe it’s better not to choose your words carefully in advance but to wait and see what comes out in the moment, you still can’t afford not to plan the points you want to make. Under the heat of the spotlight, if you haven’t prepared what you want to say, let alone how you want to say it, however supremely confident you are, you’re going to struggle.

And if you’re not supremely confident, beware! Standing in front of even ten people waiting to hear what you’ve got to say, if you don’t know exactly what that is, don’t expect it to come to you as you stand there. The ideas you discuss so eloquently over the dinner table or in the pub desert you in your hour of need and your mind goes blank: an experience I would not wish on my most ardent political opponent.

While I agree that passion is more important than polish, public speakers don’t have to choose one or the other. Too polished and you risk becoming robotic or plasticated and you’ll lose your connection with the audience. But this doesn’t mean you should go to the other extreme. An improvised speech is never going to be as articulate and effective as a speech that has been well prepared.

What I always advocate is rehearsed spontaneity. Of course, you need to sound natural and sincere, but you can still do that if you’ve worked out what you want to say and practised it. Honing and rehearsing your talk doesn’t make it any less true or heartfelt. Authenticity lies in the content, not the delivery.

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It starts with having something to say

Every successful speech or presentation has a clear message. Ideally, that is the starting point for the whole process: there is something the audience needs to know and your mission is to enlighten them.

A brave young woman called Jessica Clark got past her trepidation about public speaking because the drive to speak out about sexual abuse was so strong. As a public-speaking coach, I would have advised her to take a different approach to preparing the speech we hear in the video, so as to have even more impact and to make it much easier for her to deliver, but that is not to detract one iota from her courage. Despite the rather stilted delivery, the audience is paying attention, because the message is so important.

public speaking: woman with a microphone

Having something worthwhile to say will help you find your voice

Even if your subject is less momentous than Jessica’s, having something worthwhile to convey will give you confidence to speak up, as getting the message out there trumps your reticence. If you’re hovering with these needs finely balanced, concentrating on the content of what you want to share with the audience is a great help with overcoming nerves. It takes the spotlight off you: think of your talk not as a performance but as communicating something the audience needs to know, and automatically the focus shifts.

If you’re starting from the other end – ie, you’ve been asked to make a presentation but you don’t really know what to talk about – the first thing you need to do is to identify the core message you want the audience to take away. This will give your talk meaning and purpose, which already sets it apart from a distressing number of presentations.

The next step is to prepare your material in a way that allows your passion to shine through as you deliver it, but that’s another story. The message for today is that successful public speaking starts with having something to say.

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Using notes effectively in public speaking

bigstock-Business-conference-smallerWhat is all this rubbish about notes undermining a speaker’s credibility? I hear this a lot and I can only assume the speakers in question are using their notes as a script and that what their audiences are objecting to is not the notes as such but the fact that the ‘speakers’ are reading their ‘speeches’. It’s not public reading, folks, it’s public speaking, and reading is no way to engage or build a rapport with the people you’re there to talk to.

Without a script, how are you supposed to remember everything you want to say? Let me first draw your attention to what NOT to do:

DON’T design your PowerPoint slides to double as notes. Your notes are prompts for you; the audience doesn’t need to see them. In any case, if you’re not sure what’s coming next until the slide is displayed to everyone, you’ll always be on the back foot, instead of one step ahead.

DON’T settle down to memorise your talk. This is very nearly as bad as reading it; reciting from an internal script allows you to look at the people in front of you but you’ll still sound stilted. Also, the effort of remembering it will soak up all the energy you need for connecting with the audience.

Public speaking should not be a feat of memory. If you’re going to be saying more than a very few words, notes are the way to go. Properly used, they save all sorts of stress and help you do a much better job – just knowing they’re there will prevent you worrying about your mind going blank. If you refer to your notes only between points, at least half the audience won’t even register you’ve got them, though it really doesn’t matter if they do notice. What is insincere or shabby about wanting to deliver a clear, focused talk in the order you planned it? Far from reducing your credibility, it shows you’re organised and care about giving the audience your best.

That is, of course, if you use your notes sensibly and are not seen to be looking up the name of your company’s managing director or the product you’re trying to sell.

Clients often ask me what their notes should look like. The answer is, it’s completely up to you. Everyone is different and finds different styles of prompt useful. Most people have some variation on bullet points, with a word or two for each one, just enough to remind them what the point is that they want to make. When you start preparing your speech or presentation, you’ll probably have copious jottings, including elements of how you want to express your ideas, as well as what you want to cover. This is fine at the beginning (though beware of writing sentences because they can so easily turn into a script) but, as you refine your talk, cut down your notes so that you’re left only with the what.

Depending on the circumstances in which you’re going to be speaking, the best thing to write your notes on is usually index cards. A sheaf of A4 paper is too much of a barrier between you and the people you’re talking to and an iPad or tablet is too heavy. Write only on one side of the card, for ease of navigation, write clearly and large enough that you can read what you’ve written without having to strain or reach for your glasses. I recommend punching a hole in the corner of your assembled cards and tying them loosely together. Even if you’ve numbered them, if you drop them just before you’re due to speak, it’s just too flustering.

Instead of memorising your talk, say out loud what you’re planning to say until it flows smoothly and consistently. This is how you come to know how you’re going to express yourself: you’ll say it like that on the day because that’s how you always say it.

Your notes are in your hand to act as a map, to keep you on track and make sure you don’t miss out any stages of the journey. The crucial guideline here is that you should never consult your notes while you are actually speaking. All the time you’re talking, you should be looking at the audience. Finish the point you’re making, then, after a couple of seconds, look down at your notes to see what’s next. This is a pause, during which your audience will be thinking about what you’ve just told them, so you’ve got plenty of time. When you’re ready, look up and start speaking again.

As you rehearse, practise looking at your notes between your major points (ie, look at each point you’ve made a note of). If you don’t build this in, on the day you may get carried away and not look at your notes until you get stuck. Not only is this a pity, since notes work best as prevention rather than cure, but you may also find it difficult to locate where you’ve got to, now you’ve gone ahead of your cards.

The only complication is when you’re using a microphone, simply because of not having enough hands. Where possible, check with the venue in advance to see if you can wear a lapel mic. If it’s got to be hand-held, make sure you rehearse with a hairbrush or something similar, so your hands get used to being full and you don’t fumble every time you turn a card.

Don’t be put off by what you hear. When speakers are criticised for using notes, the notes are getting the blame for a badly delivered speech or presentation, when the real problem lies elsewhere. Discreet use of notes, as outlined above, will do nothing to harm your reputation as a confident, effective speaker. In fact, I maintain, it will help to create and strengthen that reputation.

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How to strengthen and improve your public speaking voice

A powerful, compelling voice is a great asset in public speaking. If yours is not like that, let’s have a look at how you can strengthen and improve it.


Vocal warm-up before public speaking

Breathe, warm up, relax… You can find your voice.

In the few minutes before you begin your speech or presentation, take some deep breaths. Breathe into your abdomen, rather than your chest, and focus on the action: breathe in slowly through your nose, then out even more slowly through your mouth. This will calm you (breathing is an excellent tool for reducing anxiety) and bring in more oxygen to stimulate your brain. Feeling more relaxed will automatically give your voice more strength.

Throughout your talk, remember to speak slowly and to pause between your points. This not only makes it much easier for the audience to follow what you’re saying, it also allows you to breathe. Tight and shallow breathing makes for a strained and feeble voice.

Be aware of your posture

Make sure your posture is not inhibiting your voice. If you’re hunched and tense, your vocal cords will have a hard time transmitting your message, so straighten your back and loosen your arms.

Project, don’t shout

Forcing your voice in order to make yourself heard will damage your vocal cords. This is already enough reason not to do it but anyway it won’t make the impression you want it to. The way to project is to keep coming back to the people furthest away as you make eye contact with your audience: if you’ve got the people at the back in mind as you’re speaking, once you’re doing everything else on this list, your voice should naturally rise to the occasion and reach them. If the venue is too big for that, make prior arrangements to use a microphone.

Nurture your voice

Always have some room-temperature water to hand, to keep your vocal cords lubricated. If you suffer from throat dryness or mucus, it’s worth taking some precautions in the days leading up to an important speech or presentation – for example, by cutting right back on caffeine, alcohol, smoking and dairy products and by getting enough sleep and drinking lots of water.

Before a big speaking engagement, it’s useful to warm up your voice. For guidance and inspiration, have a look at how National Theatre actors warm up for their performances. Practise some tongue-twisters, stretch your facial muscles and connect with your body for maximum resonance.


As already mentioned, tension will weaken your voice. As part of your warm-up, you might find some gentle body (as opposed to purely voice or facial) exercises useful in helping you to relax. This video shows you the kind of thing:

Make a conscious effort to relax – it will make everything better and easier, both for you and for the audience. Smile, be positive, enjoy your talk and your voice will find its power.

This is all good advice that will help you to strengthen and improve your public speaking voice, but there’s one crucial factor we haven’t yet looked at and that is…

Be thoroughly prepared

It may sound obvious but trying to find the right words while 10, 20, 100 people are gazing expectantly at you is not only difficult, it’s pretty scary. You can’t possibly do yourself justice in these circumstances and it will have an adverse effect on your voice, both physically because you’ll be tense and psychologically because you’ll be tentative about what you’re saying.

Hone and practise your talk until you know exactly what you’re going to say and how you’re going to express it. If this doesn’t strengthen and improve your public speaking voice to your satisfaction, it may be that some longer-term speech therapy would be the answer. I had a friend with a voice like a little girl’s, who worked with a speech therapist and got great results. I believe in the process, where it’s needed, but most people don’t require that level of intervention.

If you’re wanting to strengthen your voice, I recommend you begin by having some public speaking coaching. Whenever my clients have been unhappy with their voices, learning to prepare thoroughly, so they don’t have to think about what they’re going to say, has freed them from that worry. The key to powerful, compelling delivery is confidence, and confidence comes from knowing exactly what you’re doing.

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