The 17 Public Speaking Tips You Can’t Afford to Ignore

(Photo: John Liu/Flickr)
(Photo: John Liu/Flickr)

Not everyone needs to be on a stage, wants to be on a stage or will ever be on a stage. But people from all walks of life need help in everyday performance situations: asking for a raise, nailing an interview, closing a deal or leading a team meeting. No matter what kind of major presentation—job interview, sales pitch, industry conference—you’re preparing for, take a few moments to review the items below. Think of it as a checklist to ensure that you’re ready to steal the show.

1. You don’t have to tell them what you’re going to tell them. You’ve heard the old adage “Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them.” It makes perfect sense and is perfectly appropriate in some situations and can even be helpful. However, not all speeches need to open with a “here’s what we’re going to do today.” In fact, sometimes taking the audience on a journey that they don’t expect can be exciting. If the speech is good, you don’t need to tell them what you’re going to do. When you go to see a movie it rarely starts with the cast telling you what’s going to happen for the next 90 minutes and that everyone dies in the end. And I am sure you’ve seen a movie trailer that has ruined the movie for you.

2. Cut, cut, cut! I often see (and you often see) extraneous detail added into stories and speeches that disrupts the flow. Cut to the meat. Cut to the chase. Include specifics at critical parts of the story. You don’t need to pad out your speech to make an impact. Instead, you need to focus — with intention — on what’s important. Your audience needs a lot less information to get to the “Aha!” moment than you might think.

3. An entire story is designed to serve the end. Whatever precedes the punch line must serve the payoff. Do I need to know what color socks you’re wearing? Or how long it took you to get here today?

4. The speech starts with your bio, before you walk onstage. That means that your introduction (known as your bio in the trade) should be powerful and impressive. Don’t worry about sounding too proud of yourself: you can immediately disarm the audience with something sincere and self-effacing in the opening of your speech.

5. Establish right away that you know what the world looks like for them—and what it could look like. Vividly paint the picture. All world-saving performances are transformational experiences for the audience. Start out by showing “Here’s what you’ve got today,” and “Here’s how it could be.” This builds immediate rapport and hooks the audience’s interest. You know them. You understand them. You’ve got their backs…and you’ve got a better way.

6. Reward your audience for participating or contributing in some way. Now, you don’t need to throw treats into the mouths of audience members to get their attention. But they are sentient and intelligent living beings who need simple acknowledgment if you want them to interact and contribute. Imagine being asked to participate in something — whether it’s holding a door open for a friend or running a major project — and not even getting a nod of thanks in return.

7. Use open hands with your palms up instead of your finger for pointing. Sometimes the pointed finger looks like a gun. It’s also a rude gesture in some cultures. Instead, extend your hand with the palm up as if offering up alms. It’s more gracious, more inclusive, and more giving.

8. People say yes when we’ve affected them intellectually, emotionally or physically. Can you include those three elements in your presentation? Can you give them intellectual gristle to chew on? Can you make them gasp or cry or laugh with an emotional connection? Can you get them physically engaged (you can tell by the way they’re sitting) with your ideas and message?

9. Outline your content and then unpack it. If you’re teaching content (which is distinct from a message-type speech), outline your material first, then go back and unpack it. This isn’t the same as “tell them what you’re going to tell them.” It’s a learning plan for what’s coming next. It serves as both a high-level overview before you get granular and a teaser for the exciting content still to come.

10. Use props. What can you show or demonstrate or depict with objects rather than words? Can you stimulate your audience visually as well as auditorily? Props aid recall: If you want to be remembered, you can be visually arresting (without dying your hair) by using props to drive your points home. Most speakers don’t do this. That’s just one of the reasons why you should.

11. Use contrast and extremes to create excitement and keep attention. Contrast can be emotional, physical, and structural. This basic story-arc technique is integral to every great play, every great film, and every great piece of music. Consider your performance like a roller-coaster ride. Can you take me to the edge of a cliff before artfully lowering me, with love and care, to a safe place? Can you make the highs higher and the lows lower?

12. Keep moving forward. Never let your energy drop. You’re on stage to take your audience to their final destination. Keep your foot on the gas pedal. You’ll have uphill moments when your speed slows but the power and intensity increase. You can be both calm and energetic simultaneously.

13. Audiences like to think that events on the stage are happening spontaneously. They like to be surprised. The great actor does this brilliantly. You, as a speaker, need to do this as well. The best way to be effortlessly spontaneous is to rehearse to the point of mastery. How often do you have to stop and think about “spontaneously” adjusting your shoelaces? Never. When you know your material, you can deliver it like it’s the first time every time you perform it.

14. Stand and land. Let your punch lines, point lines, and purpose lines land. That means you don’t move while you’re delivering them. You remain physically rooted to the spot so that your body reinforces the gravity of your words.

15. You can move and talk at the same time. People do it all the time in real life. The idea that you can’t walk and talk at the same time is ridiculous. But don’t sway, and don’t move when you’re landing your most important points (see number 14 above, Stand and land).

16. Don’t say, “I’m glad to be here.” Show them that you’re glad to be there instead. Your audience should see it in your actions and hear it in your words. Besides, what’s the alternative? That you’re not glad to be there?

17. Don’t tell them you’re going to tell a story. Just tell the story.

Called “an uncommonly honest author” by the Boston Globe, Michael Port is a NY Times bestselling author of six books including Book Yourself Solid and his new release, Steal the Show. For more free tips on public speaking or to buy the book, Steal the Show, go to The 17 Public Speaking Tips You Can’t Afford to Ignore