16 Tips On Giving A Public Speech

Growing up, few things terrified me more than public speaking. Given a choice between a fight to the death with Mike Tyson and standing up in front of my 5th grade class, I would have chosen the former every time. 

Over the years, due to various roles I've been placed in, and also in my efforts to stop avoiding fear, I've given an increased number of public speeches, and it doesn't look like it will stop any time soon. 

While I've by no means mastered public speaking, and still have a long ways to go, I have learned a few things as a result of scraping my knees and from people who are wiser and more experienced than me. Here are some of those lessons below: 

1. Clarity, clarity, clarity. Tell your listeners where you're going, take them there, then remind them where you've brought them. 

2. Rhetoric is a valuable tool in engaging your listeners and helping them understand the main idea, but don't make rhetoric the end in itself. Some speakers get so caught up trying to impress their hearers with florid language and lengthy stories that the very message they're attempting to convey is lost. 

3. Use a quote or two. Everybody loves quotes, and it never hurts to employ respected authorities in order to clarify and strengthen your message. 

4. Don't be afraid to use self-deprecating humor or show your vulnerabilities. It helps people see you're human.  

5. Know your audience. While there are fundamental principles that are universal in their application, the nuances—practical examples, jokes, etc.—should be tailored to the people listening. Are they a group of software engineers? Political geeks? Entrepreneurs? High schoolers? An entirely different culture??

6. If at a wedding or other celebratory event: err on the side of succinctness rather than verbosity. As listeners, we all know the awful feeling of being forced to endure a speech that never ends. Second, don't use an inside joke that only a few folks in the room will understand. And third, while humor is a great thing, it's often overdone in these scenarios; the speech should be sincere with a peppering of humor, rather than the other way around. 

7. Public speaking is very unique in that it allows you have to have a personal conversation with multiple people at one time. This provides you a great opportunity to connect with your audience, be it addressing specific individuals by name, or by addressing different "subsets" of people as you move along.  

8. It's okay to be nervous. In fact, if you're not, it may indicate you don't really care about what you're about to do. I take great comfort knowing many, if not all, of the best public speakers get butterflies before speaking, even after doing it for decades. 

9. Stand tall, be confident, and have fun. If it's obvious you aren't "in" to whatever it is you're saying, you can't expect your audience to be, either.

10. Prepare, prepare, prepare. The less you have to look at your notes (if you bring them) during the talk, the more you can make eye contact with your audience, which is always a plus. This also allows you to take advantage of more "pliable" moments in the talk, where, if you're paying attention, you can use the opportunity to make a joke or to drive a point home, depending on the situation. 

11. Watch a gifted public speaker and take notes. What is their body language like? How do they fluctuate the volume, tone, and cadence of their voice? What are some rhetorical devices they employ? How do they make the audience want to hear what they're going to say next? 

You can also pick up a book by someone who's done some of the work for you, such as Carmine Gallo's The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs

12. This one is one of the most difficult things listed so far: try to deliver your points in fresh, new ways.  Tim Keller describes it this way: "Rather than telling the listeners things they already know in terms they know, a memorable address is filled with fresh, insightful ways of conveying concepts - concepts the listeners may already know at one level but find new and interesting. "I never heard it put that way before" is what they say or think afterward. "

How does one do that? Keller's answer sums it up this way: "I'm afraid the answer is volume. If you read a couple of books on a subject or text, you will have only one or two great, surprising insights. If you read a dozen books, you'll have a lot more. I don't see any shortcut here." 

13. A great tip I picked up from my father-in-law, among other things, is if you're using paper for your notes and are standing at a podium, leave a significant margin of blank space at the bottom of each page. This way your eyes don't have to travel too far down the pages as you reference the talking points, making it easier to maintain eye contact with your audience. 

14. One of my mentors, Brian Levenson, taught me to view pressure as a privilege, rather than a burden. Public speaking is no exception, and when viewed as a privilege, you can see it as an incredible opportunity for growth and a chance to impact people you care about, rather than something to dread. 

15. Focus on how you can best serve your listeners rather than trying to make people see how awesome you are. This will help ensure your message is clear, and that you're giving your audience actionable takeaways. It also helps to take the edge off, because you won't be so obsessed with how you're being perceived. Not to mention, any elation received from human applause is profoundly hollow and fleeting, 

16. Relax. There are many more important things in the world than public speaking, and your identity as a human being doesn't rest on how perfectly you deliver the talk. While you should strive for excellence in any task you undertake, there's an important difference between giving your sincere effort to an endeavor, and idolizing your performance. The latter will crush you. 

For further reading, Tim Ferriss wrote a post titled Public Speaking - How I Prepare Every Time.