Public Speaking Tips

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We’ve all been there – attended presentations that have effectively been ‘death by powerpoint’ or watched dizzily as a lecturer paced the length of the stage like a caged lion.

What is it that makes a presentation successful? That people learn from it, enjoy it, pay attention, leave with intention to change?  Is that success down to the content or the delivery or is it a mixture of both?

I would argue that no matter how wonderful the content is, if the delivery isn’t good, it just won’t be communicated effectively.  The speaker may be the most intelligent and knowledgeable person is their field but if they can’t present effectively, the audience aren’t going to be much the wiser.

Attending Charisma Bootcamp last week for 2 days, I saw a number of outstanding presenters, some of whom just blew me away with the standard of their presentations.  Apart from taking notes on the content, I was watching their presentation skills critically and taking notes for my own learning as I’m now speaking more to groups of different sizes. While I’m relatively comfortable now doing public speaking, I still have a lot to learn and yes, some of my failings come down to a lack of confidence.

(Note – this is a long post – pour yourself a cup of tea first ;)  )

Eye Contact

I’ve often attended presentations and the speaker has just looked at those seated on one side and those on the other side can start to feel a little neglected. I’ve also noticed speakers only looking at those in the front rows. This is particularly noticeable if the room isn’t that large. I tend to sit near the back if I’m going to be tweeting so perhaps it is more noticeable to me.

When I attended a previous workshop by Owen Fitzpatrick, there was approximately 200 people there, I was seated about half way back to the far left and just as I’m sure everyone else there did, I felt that the speaker made eye contact with me a few times and knew I was there.

Asking him about it, Owen said that he does try to make eye contact with everyone in an audience up to about 400 people and I’m guessing that if you are looking at a small group of people, they will all think you are looking at them.

I remember when I first started giving presentations during my MA, I used to practise in front of my old teddy bears which I dotted around the room – the advantage  was that most of them smiled encouragingly and none of them looked bored!

The largest audience I’ve presented to to date has been about 150 people and the next time I’m presenting to a large audience, I’ll be practising in the haybarn by standing on top of a straw bale and making eye contact with every cow or calf in there!

Effective eye contact really does make a difference.

Practice Makes Perfect

One aspect that many of the speakers emphasised was that they practise, practise, practise and that didn’t just apply to their presentation skills but to what they were teaching too.  I think many of us presume when we see someone is really good at something that it came naturally to them because they are very clever or talented. It might come easier to some than others but at the end of the day, practice makes perfect and will improve your presentation.

Too Many Slides

As I mentioned above, we’ve all been to see speakers/lecturers who have used too many slides or have too much text on the slides and it seems like it is just information overload.  People often give up trying to concentrate on both the voice and the slides and switch off.

It can be quite tempting for the speaker to look at the slides on the screen too but try to look at them on your laptop in front of you unless you want to draw attention to one particular aspect of the slide. As Paul Borass mentioned, looking at the slide means that you won’t see the reactions of the audience and you may miss something that you need to react to.

Keywords are sufficient text on the slide – enough to act as a prompt to remind you what about the important points and as an indicator to the audience too.  I noticed a couple of the speakers would change position to change the slide and pause for a second (didn’t have many slides in whole presentation). As a speaker, I personally would have felt this pause was a negative and that I should move on as quickly as possible but in fact, I thought it worked well to give everyone a couple of seconds to gather their thoughts before moving on to another area. Deliberate pause can be very effective.

The other disadvantage of using too many slides with too much text on them is that if you run out of time, the audience may feel cheated if you decide to zip past a number of slides to get to the all-important final ones. Whereas, if you have minimum keywords on each slide, you can decide there and then how much you say about each slide, cutting them short if need be.

Use a Lectern?

None of the presenters at Charisma used a lectern and I noticed the difference when I was at 2 presentations the other morning where a lectern was used. A lectern is handy as you can put your notes behind it, and having them there can be like a safety blanket. Also, if you are the type of person who tends to pace around the stage, it can help to keep you in the one place.  However, I thought the large wooden lectern also worked as a barrier between the speaker and the audience. One of the presenters was quite short, although she was wearing high heels and her gestures weren’t really apparent to the audience, gestures that could emphasise her points.

As Paul Moussoulides pointed out, standing still with your feet and posture balanced will make you feel more confident and by staying reasonably still, with gestures such to emphasise your points, the audience will concentrate more on your eyes and mouth.

Cybernetic Loop

Smile – Many of the presenters mentioned the need for your body language and your tone of voice to be congruent with your topic.  7% of your message comes from the actual words you use – the rest is your body language and tone.  If you smile and look happy, not only will your voice be more agreeable to listen to but you’ll be showing that you are happy to be there and that you like the audience. Like them first and then they’ll like you back!

Telling Stories

Listening to a short story that explains a point in a lecture or a long presentation goes a long way towards helping the attendees maintain their concentration and increase their engagement. Make the story personal and people will listen even more attentively.

I missed Owen’s ‘Compelling Storytelling’ module so I don’t have his full wisdom on this. One point I picked up was his claim that humiliating yourself within a story works well, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes but exaggerating it really gets the point across. This is where lots of practice comes in because I feel that unless you are really confident and go over the top, I would be nervous that the audience would believe I was really ridiculous so this is something I’m really going to have to work on and practise!

Check out Owen’s youtube video showing him tell stories about how he ‘loves’ himself in order to encourage the audience to do the same- he told a similar story at Charisma and it was even more fluent, funny and accomplished while getting the point across and hence, being memorable to everyone in the audience. (Warning – it does contain bad language)


You need to practise your presentation to perfect your timing, bearing in mind that you may speak more quickly in the real situation and that if you are asked questions from the floor during your talk, that will put you over your allotted time. However, don’t keep referring to the time by asking how much longer you have or apologise for going over.  Arrange with the chair beforehand that they alert you in some way a few minutes before the end by holding up a pen or another signal that you will recognise but won’t be obvious to everyone. If you do go over time and they want you to stop, they will glare at you to make eyecontact or will come and hover!

Your Attire

Unfortunately, I missed Sonya Lennon’s module so I can’t impart any of her wisdom so this information is just from my own observations. All the speakers I saw at Charisma were male and I noticed that although the room became warm at times and must have been very hot at the front under the lights, all of them except one managed to keep their jackets on. They all had open necked shirts with no tie but they were all dressed smartly in a suit (apart from Leopi but from what I saw, that guy is in a league on his own). If my memory serves me correctly, none of them wore a black suit – they were navy or grey.  Personally I think black is too severe. It makes us look slimmer but it also makes speakers recede into the background. I’m not suggesting that speakers wear bright red or a motley of colours but variants of navy or greys can look impressive as can adding a little colour.

Mix Old and New

Karl Spain gave this tip – you will have your stories/jokes/content that you’ll have practised and have word perfect but to make your presentation sound more ‘off the cuff’ or up to the minute, include some content that is evidently recent. For example, if I was giving a talk on twitter, I may have stories of tweeting success that I’ll have used as they’re my best examples but I’ll also include an example from last week to show a recent example. If you can work in something that was mentioned by a previous speaker, all the better.

Feel the Fear but Do It Anyway

Apparently many people fear public speaking more than death but with more of us having to make presentations in work or attend interviews, it is becoming a necessity in many roles.  I joined Toastmasters a few years ago when I felt that my presentation skills needed some work and found it to be a great source of fun and support as well as providing plenty of speaking practise. If you are looking for some courses or individual help, check out The Reluctant Speakers Club by Eamonn O’Brien who also writes a very good blog.

Another point – more and more people will be tweeting during presentations or typing up their notes. If someone looks like they are texting, it doesn’t mean they are bored. They are probably so struck by the information they are listening to that they are tweeting to share it with their followers. However, an important note to those tweeters is that it is important to look up occasionally and look interested and smile. Don’t look bored or the speaker will think you are texting. I’ve been in both scenarios!

Always remember too that some nerves are good, you need to control them but you do need a few butterflies in your stomach to give you the adrenaline to perform well. As long as I have practised my talk sufficiently, I’m rarely nervous going on to do a presentation, however, I’m very aware of the heightened adrenaline flowing through my veins.

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Posted in SME, Tools for Conferences
  • briancooney123

    Great post Lorna, its a good and timely reminder of the the seminar and what I need to keep working on. Owen is a master of telling stories! He is totally involved in expressing the stories.

    • Lorna

      Yes, by writing it down, I’m trying to ensure that practising and practising will not only happen but will be worth it :)

  • margaret mara

    Great blog post Lorna. I felt I was back there at the bootcamp. Well done. Keep writing.

    • Lorna

      Thank you Margaret, it was so easy to write as their examples were so clear cut, in fact, I probably wrote way too much but just kept going :)

  • elishbulgodley

    Thank you for that- it brought some personal affirmation for me – I wrote a blog once connecting the intuitive lessons on developing Charisma I learnt as a dancer- performer with the world of business presentations. I find many of my life lessons in showbiz reflected here too. I am so glad you shared these from the boootcamp

    • Lorna

      Thank you for your lovely comment Elish, I’ve more to share from the bootcamp once I get the time. I learnt so much from the brilliant presentation styles that I just had to share it.

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  • suzain

    Really good post. I really like it. Thank you for sharing.

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