10 Top Tips for Better Public Speaking
(Day 29, Speaking Palooza 2019)

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July is Freedom from Fear of Speaking Month and to celebrate, I’ve invited a team of speaking experts to share their best tips and tricks for improving your speaking skills and overcoming speaking anxiety.

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10 Top Tips for Better Public Speaking

By Guest Expert Dr. Max Atkinson

10 Top Tips for Better Public Speaking

1. Think of audiences as friends, not enemies

A major cause of nerves is that inexperienced speakers often regard their audience as being like an enemy gang, who’d like nothing better than to see you fall flat on your face. But think about how you feel when you’re in sitting in an audience, and you’ll realize that you don’t sit there hoping speakers are going to make fools of themselves, or looking for a chance to sneer, heckle or boo. So why should the people you’re speaking to be any different? Treat them as friends, rather than enemies, and you can stop worrying about this particular cause of nerves.

2. Look at the audience

If the audience is friendly, there’s obviously no reason to be afraid of looking at them. And eye contact has two big advantages. One is that it makes people feel that you’re interested in them. The other is that it makes it easier for you to hold their attention. This is because they don’t want you to think that they’re not listening. So if you look at them, they will try to look as though they’re paying attention, and may even nod in agreement or give some other sign of encouragement.

3. Smile

If you smile at someone in a conversation, they usually smile back. So do members of an audience. Seeing people smiling will boost your confidence and help to kill off the nerves. So smile at them and they’ll smile at you.

4. Use notes

Having some notes means that you’ll never be at a loss for what to say next. But don’t write too much, and make sure your writing is big enough to be read at a glance. If you write out a speech in full, there’s a risk it will sound too formal or stilted. Another disadvantage of writing too much is that all you see when you try to read them is a mass of words. You’ll then either panic and give up using them altogether. Or you’ll end up reading it all out word for word, losing that all-important eye contact with your audience.

5. Be prepared

Being well prepared is probably the most important weapon of all in the battle against nerves. First, you need to plan what to say and how to get your points across in a simple and punchy way (see tips 6-8). Once you’ve done this, rehearse it by speaking it aloud. This not only gets you familiar with your material but also enables you to check on how long it’s likely to last.
be prepared

6. The rule of three

Dividing your speech into three main parts is a reliable recipe for success. So too is listing three things in a row. Lord Spencer started his speech at Princess Diana’s funeral by saying: ‘I stand before you today as the representative of a family in grief in a country in mourning before a world in shock.’ And people still remember ‘education, education and education’ from a speech by Tony Blair back in 1997.
rule of three

7. Compare and contrast

In 1980, the main message Margaret Thatcher wanted to get across to the Tory party conference was that ‘no one is going to make me change my policies.’ What she actually said was: ‘You turn if you want to; the lady’s not for turning.’ Simple contrasts such as this make it very easy for audiences to get the point, and are found in many famous quotations, such as Mark Antony’s ‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him’, and John F. Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’
compare and contrast

8. Use anecdotes to illustrate your points

Since the earliest days of infancy, we’ve enjoyed listening to stories. As adults, we read them in novels and watch them in plays, films and soap operas. Parables have played a very important part in getting religious messages across. Illustrating your points with a few suitable anecdotes will interest and impress your audience – so long as they don’t go on too long. A maximum of one minute per anecdote is a safe rule of thumb.
use anecdotes to illustrate

9. Relax

The Catch 22 of public speaking is that that nervousness causes physical tension that attacks the very parts of the body that produce speech — resulting in a tightening up of the chest, neck, and throat that can make your voice quaver and tremble. Just before you speak, almost any standard relaxation exercise will help to avoid this, even if it’s only deep breathing or chewing gum.

10. Alcohol is never the answer

The idea that a drink or two will help to banish nerves is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Even small quantities of alcohol go straight to the brain, making it more difficult to think clearly. And, as everyone knows, anything more than a few drinks and speech becomes slurred. If you stick to water or soft drinks, especially when everyone in the audience has been drinking, it’s much easier to stay in control. And you can look forward to making up for lost time once you’ve finished.
no alcohol

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About Dr. Max Atkinson

Max AtkinsonDr. Max Atkinson is a communications consultant and author who was formerly a Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, his research into rhetoric came to public notice when a televised experiment showed him coaching a novice to win a standing ovation at a political party conference.

In 1985, he ran a seminar on speechwriting in the Reagan White House and was a speechwriter for the late Paddy Ashdown, leader of the UK Liberal Democrats.

His latest books include Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations (2004) and Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy (2008).

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About the author

This post is part of Speaking Palooza. Created by Carma Spence, author of the award-winning, bestselling book Public Speaking Super Powers, it is a month-long event bringing together a wide variety of speaking experts from throughout the English-speaking world to help you overcome the fear of speaking and become a better speaker.

Please see the "About" section above for more information about today's featured expert.