5 Public Speaking Tips for Anyone Who Left Their Cape at Home

Some people are born with a superhero-like power to captivate an audience. Every word they speak to any audience is gold.

In sixth grade, I gave my first public speech. “My name is Courtney Drew,” (they already knew my name) “and I think you should vote for me to be your class representative on student council.” I imagine every kid in that room had to inch their desk closer to the front in a desperate attempt to hear any word I was saying. My hands shook so badly that the speech I held ruffled, my palms were sweaty, and my face was brick red. I didn’t need to see it – I could feel it.

To say I didn’t win would be a kind understatement.

In seventh grade, I had to do a report on crayfish. This assignment conveniently came with a “brief 3-5 minute class presentation.” I died a little inside. Brilliantly, I attached my notes to the back of the poster board on which I’d created a detailed image of the crayfish. In my mind, I saw myself casually referencing notes and pointing to various key features on the board. In reality, I spent 3 and a half minutes reading from my notes… directly into the poster board. For all intents and purposes, I’d become a human body with a crayfish head.

Between seventh grade and my college years, I survived presentations like most teenagers: completing the minimum amount of minutes required, quickly squeezing back into my seat, and pretending the whole thing never happened.

I was not born a presentation all-star; that is certain.

At 34, I love public speaking – I can’t get enough. Leading a group of people, whether 5 or 500, gives me energy, confidence, and reminds me to seize the moment. So how does one move from simply surviving public speaking to thriving at it?

It’s about finding your mojo – discovering your style – learning what really works for you.

We each have our own story to tell. We are diverse individuals with unique personality characteristics and identity factors. Harness this knowledge as you progress in your own journey to greatness.

1. You are your best when you feel your best. Trying to emulate someone else’s presentation style with no regard to your own is a rookie mistake. You may pick up a few things here and there from speeches you’ve heard and workshops you’ve attended, but what’s most important is your own comfort level. Relax into your own world. If you like to walk around, clear a space and do so. If you feel more comfortable with a podium, request one. If you need reference notes, use them. If you like music, incorporate it. You do you, boo. Make yourself comfortable and your presentation will flow more smoothly.

2. Think outside the [text]box. Whether you are preparing for a meeting, a workshop, or a speech to a crowd, create a visual map of what you want to cover. Use powerful, engaging images. In my experience, about 92.6% of presenters choose Microsoft PowerPoint as their go-to software for presentations and roughly the same percentage use Microsoft Word for agendas. If these tools make you feel comfortable (see rule #1), they may be best. Be careful not to fall into the monotony trap though – it’s the quickest way to lose your audience (and your confidence). Challenge yourself to try a new platform like Prezi or Haiku Deck (two of my favorites), and to think about new ways to create agendas for meetings like top 10 lists, Venn diagrams, and timelines. If you’ll be working with a small group, ask them how they learn best and mesh your style with theirs.

3. Tell a story… preferably one of yours. Connecting with your audience is paramount. Find out information about your audience before you speak: where are they from? What do they do? Why are they there? Put yourself in their shoes – why would you attend your own speech? Tell them a part of your own story that relates to your topic. When your audience knows you, they invest in what you’re saying.

4. Involve your audience. It’s not always easy to plan for audience participation, but technology is on our side. Sign up for a Poll Everywhere account (or similar) to get real-time feedback from your audience members. If you’re feeling brave, ask them to “oooo” and “ahhhh” at any picture you show on your screen, to clap once every time you say the word, “awesome,” or tell a quick story to their neighbor for one minute. One of my favorite stories to tell during a presentation tricks the audience into singing Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On a Prayer – one minute their listening and the next they’re belting out lyrics to 80s power ballads. This may not be your style and that’s ok! The important key is to intentionally create moments for audience interaction that fit your style.

5. Keep learning. There is an enormous amount of information available on public speaking – keep exploring! I try something slightly different every time I present to keep my skills fresh without jumping directly into discomfort. I also look for opportunities to be inspired by outstanding presenters and watch what resonates with audiences. TED Talks are a great resource for all of us. Watching and listening to other people speak reminds me of rule #1: for every personality type out there, there’s a slightly varied method of presenting (and receiving) information. Three recommendations to get you started:

  • Nancy Durante has an incredible TED Talk on “The secret structure of great talks” which specifically addresses the construction phase of speeches relative to a presenter’s call to action. From Martin Luther King to Steve Jobs, this talk is quite inspiring.

  • “Before Public Speaking…” is a phenomenal playlist of 8 separate TED Talks aimed at helping individuals find their confidence in the public speaking arena.

  • If you’re looking for something more consistent to add to your routine, consider listening to the TED Radio Hour on your local National Public Radio station (or via their podcast.

Whether you’re just starting out or you need a complete overhaul, find yourself a public speaking ally or two (preferably a few folks you trust the most) and ask them to be your testers. Try a few different methods with them and see what feels right. Once you own your style, you’ll be on top of the world. Well, you’ll at least be in front of the room. We’ll work on that world part next.

About the Author: By day, Courtney Drew (who goes by Drew) works with the programs for young leaders at Rotary International, a non-profit organization focused on joining leaders to exchange ideas and make the world a better place. Her background is in student development and education; she earned her MA in Liberal Studies from Stony Brook University and her BA in History and Secondary Education from St. Norbert College. Drew’s superpowers include writing, speaking, and training on topics she cares most about: LGBTQ advocacy, leadership development, and inclusivity. She adores her partner, loves cats and live music, and sometimes pretends to like running. Connect with Drew to follow all of her fun adventures. All views and opinions presented in her posts and presentations are her own.

Courtney Drew

Rotary International