Public Speaking

Becoming a better public speaker

Mature businessman using a microphone to talk to his colleagues with focus on the businessman

Don’t think you’re a very strong public speaker? You’ve got lots of company. In a recent Logitech survey of 1,500 office professionals, nearly 64% said they were not strong public speakers, even though they believed their salary would increase if they were.

About 66% of those surveyed think that no one with poor presentation skills could ever be an executive at their company; yet more than half have walked away from a chance to present because they felt they were not good enough.

They avoid public speaking. They avoid it even though they believe they’d benefit if they got better.

Some believe that good public speakers are born that way, so what’s the point of trying? But that’s a lame rationalization. It may be true that some bring more talent to the table than others, but not one of us starts out strong. We get that way with coaching and practice.

Public speaking is a skill like any other. Like learning a foreign language, it seems daunting at first. Then you learn the rudiments and see there are rules. You learn to follow the rules and identify exceptions to those rules. Your vocabulary grows. And, with practice, you put it all together.

So it is with public speaking. The primary rules are these:

  1. Know your subject
  2. Believe what you’re saying
  3. Know how to present

The first two are on you; a speaking coach will be glad to help you with the third.

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“I’m sorry, but . . . .”

Businessman and woman standing so shadows look like she's giving him a giftDo you always find yourself apologizing? Even when some would say you’ve done little or nothing to apologize for?

Studies suggest that if you answered “yes,” you’re probably female. That may be a stereotype, but it’s apparently one grounded in reality. Women do indeed apologize more often than men.

But wait. It goes deeper. A 2010 study published in Psychological Science 1) suggests this pattern has nothing to do with egos (i.e., men refuse to apologize because it makes them look like losers; women apologize because they’re not assertive).  Both women and men apologize when they feel an apology is warranted. It’s just that men seem to have a higher threshold of what constitutes offensive behavior.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Research conducted by Carol Kinsey Goman 2) about communication in the workplace noted a consistent strength in female communication: the ability to read body language and pick up nonverbal cues. Males, she found, are less sensitive to audience reactions. Thus, it may be that women perceive more offenses because they are more focused on the experiences of other people. They are also more likely to use tentative speech forms—qualifiers, hedges, and fillers—when speaking (e.g, “kind of” or “sorry to bother you”) because they are more sensitive to the possible effect of their words.

Males, on the other hand, may have a higher threshold for social pain. They are less likely to apologize because they are less likely to perceive that an offense has been committed. When they use a tentative form it is more likely meant to take the edge off a direct statement (“Perhaps if you turn to page 2 of your text you will see what I mean”).

The point of this is not to admonish either women or men to change their ways—just to be aware of this key difference in communication. When women apologize they are not necessarily being self-effacing, just displaying the empathy they may feel is warranted. When men seem overly blunt and direct it’s not necessarily that they’re trying to be overbearing, just that they see no reason to be less than direct and to-the-point.

As you prepare to address any audience, it’s worthwhile to learn whether it will be exclusively male, exclusively female, or some proportion of the two. That can have a bearing on how you present your information. It can also have a bearing on how well you understand your next workplace interaction with a member of another gender.


1) Schumann, K., & Ross, M. (2010). Why Women Apologize More Than Men: Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive BehaviorPsychological Science, 21(11).

2) Goman, Carol Kinsey (2016). Is your Communication Style Dictated by Your Gender? Forbes online:


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Will You Read or Listen?

Male anatomy of human organs in x-ray viewIf you get a handout and read it as the speaker goes on speaking, will you remember anything the speaker has said when you look up again? Is it possible to comprehend the written and the spoken word at the same time?

Most agree that it can be done, but it’s really hard. Try it. This is multitasking on a scale most of us can’t handle.

Why is that? We have no problem listening to someone as we gaze at a picture. Most of us have no problem listening to music as we hold a conversation. But it seems that reading and listening at once is just about impossible.

Neurologists believe that our brain architecture is probably responsible for this. Music is interpreted in the cerebrum. Vision is interpreted over nearly half of the brain. But language has an area all its own. Just above and a little behind your left ear is a special region of the brain called “Wernicke’s area.” Those suffering disease or injury to this area have a hard time understanding anything people say to them—via the written or spoken word, or even via sign language. Although other parts of the brain are apparently involved as well, Wernicke’s area acts like the Grand Central Station of language interpretation. Reading and listening are both sorted out there. So if you try to read during a talk you’ll get an “all circuits are busy” signal, and face a choice—keep listening or shift over to reading mode.

That’s why it’s such a bad idea to give your audience a handout while your talk is underway or to stuff your PowerPoint slides with words. You’re asking your audience to listen and read at the same time. They read much faster than you talk (250 words-per-minute vs. about 125), so they’ll almost always opt to read and be done with the slide before you’ve reached even the third bullet point. In the meantime, you’ve derailed the continuity of your talk.

People have no choice in their brain architecture, so don’t ask them to make one. If you’re delivering a talk, use visuals to emphasize and clarify what you have to say. Then your audience can focus easily and exclusively on you. And that places you in control.

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Getting ’em back

Engage Your AudienceWhat do you do when your audience begins to drift away from you? Of course, no audience will be riveted on every word you speak, but when they start fidgeting, murmuring, and checking their watches, you may be losing them.

And it can get worse. Conversations may begin breaking out. People may grow uncivil, and some may begin to leave.  This most often happens during the question-and-answer session, when things loosen up, and it may lead to a classic fail. Even at that point, though, it’s possible to get back in control.

You do it by leading.

Leadership comes with speaking. When you get up there you become the captain of the ship. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking to the union rank-and-file or the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The audience will take its cue from you.

So remind them who’s in charge, but don’t do it by raising your voice or demanding attention. Be quiet. If you are behind a podium, step away from it. Walk toward the audience. Remove your glasses, if you wear them. Do this calmly and deliberately. Say nothing. Gaze at them. You’ve now broken the pattern of speaking, which is unexpected and therefore attention-getting. Chances are that everyone will fall silent and every eye will find its way to you to see what you are about to do. They will suddenly feel like children in a classroom.

This moment—and you can only invoke it once—is now yours. Use it wisely. Remind the audience why your message is important to them. Tell them a story. Have something to say, and then keep the initiative by continuing to talk as you return to the podium.

The important thing is not to relinquish command. Audiences can mutiny, just as ship’s crews can, but they don’t do so lightly, and they won’t do so if you remember who you are and why you are there—and if the audience clearly sees that you are in charge and have something valuable to say.

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The public address system

Slider 1How much should you know about sound systems? There’s plenty to be learned, but maybe the first lesson is how they affect your delivery.

The kind of microphone you use—clip-on, hand-held, or podium-mounted—makes a big difference in your speaking dynamics.

A podium mic like this one would be my last choice—it ties you to one spot and forces you to swivel your head around the mic as you address different parts of the audience. It’s better than nothing, but it restricts your movement. I’d ask for something different.

If you’ll be using a hand-held mic, that’s better, because you control its position. Even so, you’ll want to practice with it. Some mics may be held a foot from your mouth. Others you practically have to “eat” to get amplification. In either case, you need to be conscious of where it’s pointed. If you swivel your head but don’t move the mic, then your voice will fade away and listeners will miss something. If you inadvertently point the mic at a sound speaker, the resulting feedback will disrupt your talk.

Lavalier or clip-on mics are probably best—once positioned, they stay positioned and give you hands-free movement. On the other hand, they generally require some cord pulling and adjusting to get you hooked up. A battery pack is required to transmit the signal, and this pack must be hooked onto a belt or a waist band. Most men don’t have to worry about that, but if you’re a woman, you’d better not plan to appear in a sheath dress. In either case, know how to switch the pack off when you leave the stage so you don’t inadvertently advertise a private conversation or—God forbid—a stop in the restroom.

Whatever you use, a sound check is mandatory. And when you are asked to do the mic check, just talk; don’t blow into the mic to see if it’s on. That’s an amateur move that can damage the mic and make enemies of the sound professionals you’re trying to work with.

It all goes back to one of the fundamental principles of speaking: rehearsal. Insist on rehearsing your talk with the very equipment you’ll be using in front of the audience, including the sound system. I’ve seen panel discussions ruined because of feedback squeals caused by the shortsighted refusal to rehearse. Those in charge tried changing the positions of the speakers, turning off one mic after another, and moving chairs around. When it was over, no one remembered a thing that was said. Don’t let that happen to you—rehearse!

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Looking for work? Read this.

Business man making a presentation in front of whiteboard. Business executive delivering a presentation to his colleagues during meeting or in-house business training, explaining business plans.Although it was published just over a year ago, Job Outlook 2016, published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, has something important to say to job seekers—especially those just out of school.

It’s this: know how to communicate verbally, inside and outside the organization. That ranks ahead of technical knowledge, the ability to plan, the ability to work on a team, the ability to analyze quantitative data—even above the ability to solve problems. The survey of 201 NACE employers asked that each skill on a list of 10 skills be given a value between 1 and 5. Verbal communication skills edged out every other category.

Now how can that be? Presentation Skills Expert Ellen Finkelstein suggests there are two reasons:

  • Communication is important for most of the other skills employers seek
  • Employers don’t see good verbal skills in their candidates today

“Believe me,” says Finkelstein, “if they saw great verbal communication skills they’d be worrying about something else.”

And that spells opportunity for the job seeker. If you master the skills of communication, you will have the edge on most other candidates. You will differentiate yourself. If you know how to make effective presentations—including presenting yourself effectively during in an interview—you will, in short, be distinctive.

Remember, marketers have for years practiced the art and science known as “positioning.” They determine where their brand exists in customers’ minds in comparison with competing brands. The goal of positioning is to make your brand distinctive—to make sure it’s nowhere close to anyone else’s brand.

So if most job candidates are lumped in the smart-but-can’t-communicate category, you need to be in the smart-and-can-communicate category.

You won’t have much company—and that’s the goal.

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Show ’em you mean it

Cropped view of a man in a suit speaking into a microphone with his hands in fistsI recently had the honor of judging a university-level speech tournament. In one event, Persuasive Speaking, each of six finalists had 10 minutes to make a case about a cause. Judges looked for knowledge of the subject, a structured approach, documentation of the points made, and a good finish, often including a call to action.

Most of the speakers were good; they had all that. In fact, they were so good that when it was over I had a hard time ranking them.

Yet, something was missing from every one of those presentations—something important. These speakers, who were excellent in every other way, all had choreographed their gestures and movements. Here, I step to the left. Here, to the right. Here, I lift my hand. And all kept their hands at their sides when they were not actively gesturing. Thus, many of the gestures and movements they made seemed forced and false to my eyes.

My guess is that when you feel strongly about something, you don’t rest your hands at your sides. You probably hold them up about belt or waist level so you can easily lift them to punctuate your point, to signal the sharing of information, or to invite the listener to consider your position. You do this without thinking about it. You radiate energy. And the higher your hands, the more energy you show.

There’s a certain balancing act we do when we present in front of an audience, akin to what professional actors do when they perform on the stage. We are “in character” and yet conscious of the audience at the same time. We feel something for real, but we also remember that we are there to get something across. Our gestures are informed by our passion. But they are aimed toward those we’re addressing.

These competitors had the aim right, but not the passion behind it. No one will believe you really mean what you say if you look like you’ve been choreographed. You have to be comfortable enough inside yourself to feel what you ought to feel and be unafraid to show it. When you make a gesture, make it natural and bring it from the heart. That’s one way to show ‘em that you mean what you say.

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Location, location, location

boardroomThere’s an important component of speaking logistics that can make or break your talk: knowing your location.

Where will you be presenting? With what kind of equipment? How will the audience be oriented? Where will you stand in relation to the screen? These details should be nailed down in advance of your actual presentation. If you are wise, you will go and nail them down yourself.

When you arrive at the venue, find out where the light switches are, where the electrical outlets are (will you need an extension cord?) how the room temperature is controlled, and whether there is Wi-Fi. Find out where the sun will be at the hour you present. Will it be pouring in through that south-facing window and landing on your screen? If so, you’d better know how to operate the blinds.

Check the lighting. How and where is it controlled? Is it just an on/off switch? Or will there be a dimmer? What quality of light is it? Strong fluorescent? Soft incandescent?  LED? Whatever it is, put an image up on the screen and see how the room lighting affects it. Adjust either the light or your visuals accordingly. And while you’re at it, make sure you are lit as you speak. Audiences must be able to see you.

Check the projector and connections. If you’re using your own equipment, that’s easy. But if you’re using an in-room projector, then you must test it. If you don’t, you may find when you begin your presentation that this projector’s color temperature is different from yours. You may find that everything looks yellow or magenta because a connecting cable has gone bad. Make a dry run using the very equipment you’ll be using and you can head off some awkward problems.

Finally, on the day of the presentation, bring a back-up projector. Bring every connector you have. Then get there early enough to switch out any equipment that’s malfunctioning.

My partners once walked boldly into a room in our State Office Building to check the venue for a presentation an important client would be giving the following day. They didn’t ask permission—they just went in and ran the slides through the in-room projector. They found that the mandatory corporate color used by the client was several shades too light when projected through in-room equipment.  They darkened the slides accordingly, making it perfect during the actual presentation.

There’s nothing like being prepared.

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Jargon: the Enemy Within

Do You Speak EnglishA partner of mine once heard a talk by a man preparing to open a new hotel. He talked about the clientele he hoped to attract and, almost as a throwaway line, said, “And of course, we will address the SMERF market.”

Everyone stopped listening. He continued to plow ahead as the audience tried to figure out the role little blue people had in a hotel’s market. My partner finally raised her hand and asked what he meant by SMERF.

“Social, Military, Ethnic, Religious and Fraternal,” he said with a detectable measure of scorn in his voice. How could anyone not know that?

For him, SMERF was a commonplace term. He and his colleagues in the hospitality industry probably use it every day.  But its meaning was obscure to the audience. The speaker broke the continuity of his talk with that single phrase, leaving everyone behind.

Yet, only my partner raised her hand to ask him to explain himself. Most audiences don’t bother. They suffer in silence. People don’t like showing ignorance in front of others.

That’s why insider language is the enemy. You are likely to waste everyone’s time, including your own, if you approach your subject from your level of understanding instead of your audience’s. Oh, no one will say anything. They’ll force a smile when it’s over, say “thank you,” and walk out in the same state of ignorance with which they entered. In the meantime, your efforts to raise awareness will have left only confusion. Your desire to foster acceptance will have brought indifference. Your mission for action will still be sitting on the runway. And all because you did not trouble yourself to see the world from their eye level.

Jargon is insidious. We swim in the jargon of our professions like a fish swims in water, natural and unaware. That’s why we must make a special effort to learn about our intended audiences—and then take an extra step. Give a version of your talk to people who have about the same level of understanding as your intended audience. See how many pieces of jargon they can collect, how many obscure references they find, how many mysterious acronyms crop up. Collect them all, examine them, and rewrite your talk so that a child could understand it.

That’s not dumbing down. It’s using words for their intended purpose—to foster understanding.

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So we now have the attention spans of goldfish. What’s that mean?

gold fish isolated on white backgroundThe goldfish comparison comes from a recent study. Microsoft wanted to learn the impact of digital technology on attention spans. It collected data from more than 2,000 Canadians, all 18 or older. It had the subjects play repetitive games—responding to patterns, spotting the differences in pictures, and classifying letters and numbers—to learn how long they could stay focused on task. It also examined 112 other subjects very closely, measuring the electrical activity of their brains as they interacted with various media while trying to perform other activities.

The outcome? Yeah, it’s apparently harder for us to stay focused now.  Back in 2000 we were good for 12 seconds of focus. Now we’re only good for 8. Goldfish are still good for 9. Could be worse; fruit flies are said to have an attention span of less than a second.

But wait a minute—there’s more than one form of attention span!

  • There’s transient attention, the attention span that applies when we’re uninterested and doing something we feel is unimportant. We’re easily distracted then.
  • Then there’s sustained selective attention, which most adults can manage for 5 to 20 minutes, and which applies to things we’re interested in or believe are important. That hasn’t changed. If you can present something that interests your audience, you’re probably good for at least 10 minute’s worth of their attention before they break off and you must get them to refocus on you.
  • And finally, there’s alternating attention, which has to do with shifting from one task to another and back again. That’s actually improved. So if we’re worse at focusing on a single, boring task, we’re also better at multi-tasking.

Now, here’s how this applies when you’re presenting: no one is going to be focused on you all the time. It’s not natural. What is natural is for your audience to refocus on you when you send up a signal.

So when you’re about to make a major point, put suspense in your voice. Make it sound as though you’re about to reveal a secret.

Or step away from the podium. Approach the audience. Remove your glasses, if you wear them. Pause. You’ll find they’re all looking at you.

Or make your point and then wait several beats. That signals you’ve just said something important.

Or just repeat yourself. Make your point, pause, and make it again. Or keep coming back to it, like a refrain in a song.

Learn how to emphasize the right things and it won’t matter if your audience has the transient attention span of a fruitfly.

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