January 5, 2024

Public Speaking 101: Help for Beginners

Public Speaking , Instruction , Presentation Tips

Maybe you've managed to get this far in life without having to give a presentation or speak to a group. Or perhaps someone else on your team is not a public speaker.

Now, that never-have-I-ever (non)speaker discovers a frightening truth: They're required to speak as part of a presentation.

Where does a new speaker even begin?

We recognize as well as anyone that successful public speaking has lots of pieces and parts. So let's start with a few basics and build from there.

"The way you overcome shyness is to become so wrapped up in something that you forget to be afraid."

– Lady Bird Johnson

Step 1: Know your goal

We like to think every message a person delivers has a purpose, so a beginning speaker should start there:

  • Who am I talking to and what do they care about?
  • Why am I talking to them and what do I need to accomplish?
  • What's the opportunity here?

Your goal might be to provide information, facilitate an agreement, pitch a new project to clients, or convince leadership you've got things under control.

Knowing your goal with a specific audience will help you decide what to include and what to leave out. You can determine if your audience needs more data or more stories, if they'd like a PowerPoint deck or if you should leave that out.

When you start with a clear goal, you'll be steps ahead of many experienced speakers, by the way. This important first step is something too many people don't bother to figure out. 

Step 2: Prepare a solid message

Once you know what you're hoping to achieve with your audience, define your message thoroughly. In other words: don't wing it!

There are lots of ways you can do this and as you gain experience, you'll find the methods that best serve you.

Nearly every beginning speaker we work with benefits from writing out what they want to say, word for word.

That's not to insist you'll deliver a scripted message from your text. But writing a first draft, editing it, and getting feedback from someone else can help you zero in on what you want to get across and decide if you're saying it as clearly as possible.

Once you work your message out on paper, speak it out loud—because that's the real test. If it's not easy to say, find different words.

Then you might want to boil your written message down to key words or bullet points, which you can use for step number three….

Step 3: Practice delivering

Even if you're only giving a 90-second update, stand up and practice delivering, out loud, just the way you hope to do when you present the real deal.

Many of our students are surprised to learn the level of rehearsal that really good speakers invest in a presentation. But we often coach top speakers for a day or more on delivery. Then they continue to practice on their own before making an important presentation. 

If you're new to speaking, you may have lots of questions about gestures, eye contact, voice, and more. Here's a basic concept to keep in mind: Focus your energy on supporting your words and connecting with the audience.

As a beginner, work on controlling your pace—don't rush—and speak clearly so your words are understood.

After a few practice rounds on your own, have a trusted friend or colleague to be your audience and ask a few specific questions: How's my confidence and energy? Am I moving too much or not enough? Is there anything I'm saying that's not totally clear?

As you gain experience, you can work on the nuances—but at the foundation of every choice a speaker makes is achieving delivery that serves the audience and the message.

"All great speakers were bad speakers at first."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Secrets of experienced speakers that will carry you through

New speakers often believe that the best presenters possess some sort of magical talent or superhuman skills. Not usually. But they do have some surprising secrets, and here are a few:

Perfection is not the goal. You are enough.

Even the smoothest speaker is not perfect. You already have lots of strengths to bring to the assignment and your unique personality and style will help set you apart. Focus on making the most of your strengths, not on being perfect.

Your desire to get a message across is your best asset.

When a speaker has something an audience can use and that speaker is working hard to communicate it, the battle is nearly won. 

Most speakers are nervous.

You probably can't see it, but most people feel a little nervous as some point in a speech. Don't worry about getting rid of nerves. Instead, work on pressing through them. Focus on the message and your goal. 

The audience is rooting for you to succeed.

Let this idea give you confidence. They want you to do well. In part, this is about self-preservation: Few audiences enjoy watching a speaker struggle. So assume they're cheering you on, because most of the time they are.

The best speakers work to get better all the time.

Yes, there are people who enjoy public speaking and have a flair for it. But really good presenters are those who have worked to get better. That means you can work and get better, too! (If you're being asked to speak more frequently, this might be a great time to suggest your boss send you to our Executive Seminar—so you can zoom ahead with your development!)

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