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Take 5: How to become a better public speaker

Rear view of group of business people at business seminar.

Want to ace your next speech or presentation? Then follow these five public speaking tips from Mary Cheyne, senior training and communication consultant for Information Technology Services. Cheyne is the faculty advisor of Northeastern’s chapter of Toastmasters International, the runner-up in the 2009 World Championship of Public Speaking, and the founder of Magnetic Podium, an organization aimed at helping people communicate effectively.

Eat light

Before a presentation, stick to light foods like fruit and veggies or lean protein like chicken and fish. You don’t want to eat a heavy meal that’s going to cause you to feel sluggish because your digestive resources are consuming too much of your energy—you want to feel energized while on stage. Carry a light protein bar with you in your bag in case you’re feeling hungry before a presentation and always have a bottle of water with you.

Tune out your inner critic

Here’s what I would suggest to minimize your public speaking nerves:

  • Prepare your presentation as early as possible so you have time to become familiar with what you’re going to say.
  • Rehearse with a test audience. The more times you hear yourself say your material out loud in front of other people, the better.
  • Be aware when your inner critic is talking so you can ignore it. A simple way to identify the inner critic is to ask yourself, “Would I say what it’s saying to my best friend?” If the answer is no, why on earth would you say it to yourself? One of the biggest misconceptions I clarify is that people’s No. 1 fear is not public speaking. It’s public judgment. So get out of your own way to become the speaker you’ve always wanted to be.

Tell stories

A presentation is not just about imparting information and regurgitating everything you know about a topic. It’s about “edu-taining”—educating your audience while entertaining them at the same time. A great way to do this is to use stories and examples to illustrate your points and make you more relatable to your audience.

If you just lecture to your audience in a “thou-shalt-do-this” kind of fashion, you’re bound to have some people nod off. They might physically be in their seats, but mentally they’ve tuned you out. They’re thinking of what they’re going to have for lunch after your presentation.

It’s also good to keep in mind that a speech or presentation is not a monologue—it’s a dialogue. You can ask your audience questions, both of the rhetorical and interactive variety. Use lots of “you” words to make them feel included and part of what you’re saying. A speech is not just about you. In fact, it’s about what your audience can take away from it.

Being comfortable with silence and ‘shutting up’ while on stage is in itself a skill, a muscle you can develop.
— Mary Cheyne

Make eye contact with one person at a time

Don’t think of public speaking as a one-to-many activity. Instead, think of it as having many one-on-one conversations. In practice, here’s what you would do on stage. You look at Fred in the audience, say a few sentences just like you’re having a one-on-one conversation with Fred. Then you look over to Susan in your audience, say a few sentences like you’re having a one-on-one conversation with Susan. Repeat the process throughout your entire speech. In this way, you do not have to feel the “pressure” of pitting yourself against the entire audience. Why put that kind of pressure on yourself? When you think of your speech as a presentation comprising many one-on-one conversations, your “eye contact” feels more natural both to you as well as the person you’re looking at. The added bonus is that it helps to reduce nervousness and anxiety during your speech.

Harness the power of the deliberate pause

If you pause at the right moments, you will increase the impact of your delivery. Being comfortable with silence and “shutting up” while on stage is in itself a skill, a muscle you can develop. The more often you pause, the more natural it feels.

And be sure to pause a little bit longer than you feel comfortable with. When you’re on stage, a one-second pause feels like three to five seconds, and it’s usually not enough for the audience to notice it. You’re better off pausing for slightly too long than slight too short.

Here’s are a few instances when you should incorporate the deliberate pause into your presentations:

  • After a question. Pause immediately after asking a question. You need to give the audience time to process your question and then think about their answer before they respond, just like you would if you were asking someone a question in a one-on-one conversation.
  • To give the audience time to digest your point. Especially if the content you’re covering would be unfamiliar to the audience, you want to pause after you make a point to give them time to chew on what you’ve said and to make sense of it in the context of their own worldview.
  • For dramatic effect. This is my favorite pause to deliver because it enhances the effect of the moment. It’s like a double exclamation point that you might use to exaggerate the drama of a story or example within your presentation. For example, you might say something like this: “Stop thinking too much Fred. You have analysis paralysis. It’s time to stop thinking and take ACTION. Some action, ANY action.” Then you’d take a big long pause here as if to make the double exclamation point come to life.

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