Good public speaking skills come naturally to few. Most people dislike speaking in front of groups of people as it is alien to our characters. This makes preparation and practice very important if you want to achieve success in public speaking. Through watching others, picking up tips and finding out what works for you, you’ll be able to enhance your abilities.
The first thing to realize is that public speaking and acting are two different things. If you are planning to deliver a speech, but try to conceal your character, you need acting lessons, not public speaking tips. For most public speakers, one of the keys to success is being open about who you are, and honestly showing your strengths and frailties. Given that the general public can usually see right through professional actors (be they from Broadway, Hollywood or Washington D.C.), your chances of pretending to be a different or ‘better’ person than you really are, are slim to minute. The person you want to portray yourself as, is probably so one dimensional and boring, and has so few endearing qualities, that, even if people do believe you, they won’t be able to relate to you. You could risk coming across as a raging narcissist (which you clearly are not, as narcissists don’t need advice).
The key to public speaking, as with anything and everything else, is not natural ability. It is preparation and practice. Whatever you are going to talk about, make sure you know the topic inside out. This gives you flexibility and dynamism, the ability to expound and think out loud. This need to be tempered, however, by structure and timing. Unfortunately, many intellectuals and experts are actually poor public speakers. They are used to taking their time to discuss and develop new ideas, and often don’t work comfortably within time limits. Structure your talk or speech so that it is divided into clear sections, including an introduction, the body of information you want to communicate, and an ending. You may even need to time yourself speaking to get an idea of how much you can develop each section.
Lastly, be sure to face the audience as much as possible – so that they feel they are being addressed and you’re not just talking to your shoes. Shying away from the audience will simply make many feel that you are wasting their time – they could have simply read from your script instead of turning up to listen to you. In all but the smallest venues, you will have access to a microphone. Regardless of this, it is still important to project your voice. In order to do this, imagine that you are addressing yourself to the people right at the back of the room. Don’t worry about it sounding unnatural – it won’t.
Microphones are a surprisingly personal topic. Some regular speakers insist on using their own, and it’s not surprising given the number of issues they can present. Some microphones require you to stand right in front of them without turning away at all, some are clipped to your lapel, some are worn on your head, others hover above you like giant hornets. If you decide to stick with your own microphone, it is often better to go with a shotgun microphone, which will minimize the amount of background noise that is picked up. Even a lapel mic, while perhaps being more discreet and comfortable, can be overwhelmed by the sounds made by others around you, wind and friction. You don’t need to spend a lot of money, either – you can pick up budget shotguns online for a surprisingly low price.
Other useful tips include pausing before you speak at first. Walk onto the stage. Look at your audience. Wait for them to settle down. Once you have their attention, it’s time to speak. Failing to wait for the audience to stop what it is doing devalues what you have to say – it’s as if you are saying “what you are talking about is just as valuable as what I want to say”, when that clearly is not the case in that situation.
Speak slowly and deliberately for effect. Make eye contact with each member of the audience, one-by-one. Smile, when appropriate. Don’t be discouraged by furrowed brows and folded arms – in fact, look at and address yourself to these people – even if you don’t win them over, you will have completed an exercise in steeling yourself and boosting your confidence for the future.