15 tips to improve your public speaking skills

These 15 public speaking tips may help people who dread speeches, even introverted tech workers, become confident presenters both at work and beyond.
Written by Matthew Sweeney, Contributing Writer

If you're in tech, you may hope to avoid the anxiety that accompanies speaking in public for work. However, tech and business positions alike occasionally require giving presentations. 

In situations like these, you may need public speaking tips to help develop skills you've rarely used. That's where we come in.

Read on to learn how to become a confident public speaker at work and beyond. To supplement these tips, we spoke to Marla Cormier, president of Emerging Leader Training. Like many, Cormier once feared public speaking but overcame her fear through practice.

1. Start practicing when you're not under pressure.

Because jobs that don't require public speaking are few and far between, you need to improve your public speaking skills to make yourself competitive. You can do this by practicing your skills in venues where you are not under pressure, which could include:

This kind of informal practice allows you to develop these new muscles in a controlled, nonjudgmental environment where you can pick up public speaking tips and get live feedback.

"Like any other skill, public speaking improves with practice which means that to improve your skills, you'll need to get up and speak again and again," Cormier suggested. "Seek out opportunities from leading project meetings to sitting on community boards, but find reasons to speak in public so that you can get comfortable leading conversations and sharing knowledge."

2. Understand the assignment — and your audience.

Before you start working on your presentation's content and structure, you first need to understand what people expect from you. What scope does this assignment encompass? Who will be watching your presentation?

Speak with bosses, coworkers, event coordinators, previous presenters, and previous attendees to learn about the following:

  • How long of a presentation is expected?
  • Has the topic already been determined, or will you be choosing it yourself? 
  • Is there information your topic must include?
  • Will you be presenting remotely or in person?
  • What technology will be available to you?
  • Is a slide deck expected?
  • Does the audience expect handouts? 
  • How familiar is the audience with the topic? Should you avoid technical terms?
  • Is there an expected tone for your presentation — formal, informal, somewhere between?

3. Keep your structure simple.

To create an effective presentation, start by formulating a clear structure. A well-structured presentation offers the following advantages:

  • Holding an audience's attention
  • Organizing complex information
  • Allowing you to avoid awkward silences and stay calm

You may follow a conventional presentation structure, such as:

  • A pitch structure, which attempts to convince your audience of the merits of an idea/product/service
  • A situation-complication-resolution structure, which attempts to convince your audience how to solve a problem
  • A drama structure, which adapts Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey to show how an organization can change

Choose a structure that fits your presentation's intended aim. For example, if you want to gather support for your new product concept, you may want to use a pitch structure.

4. Craft a strong opening and conclusion.

Effective presentations quickly grab your audience's attention and conclude with a memorable, thought-provoking, or motivating takeaway. Though the meat of your presentation comes in the middle, the ends can leave the strongest impressions.

Generally speaking, your intro should take 10-20% of your presentation's length. It helps to start with a 30-45 second hook, which can take the form of a:

  • Relevant statistic
  • Description of a current problem/situation
  • Provocative rhetorical question

During your conclusion, pull together the story you've told or point you've argued. To do this, try:

  • Making a call to action
  • Describing the possibilities you can envision
  • Quoting a public figure who inspires you

5. Practice by yourself — and record yourself practicing.

You can start perfecting your presentation by practicing on your own. 

"Reading over your notes and looking at your slides won't cut it," Cormier explained. "You must speak your presentation out loud, every word, to build confidence through muscle memory.

"The goal isn't to memorize the content but to build those brain connections that help you navigate from your opening comments through each talking point, on to your conclusion," she added.

Record yourself giving the presentation solo and review the video with a critical eye for: 

  • Presentation length
  • Your tone and vocal inflections
  • Your body language/appearance

By seeing yourself from an audience member's perspective, you can look for room to improve.

Watch out for the following common and distracting mistakes:

  • Too much or too little gesturing
  • Poor eye contact
  • Monotone/disinterested delivery
  • Filler words like "like" or "um"
  • Informal/inappropriate word choices
  • Stumbling/stop-start rhythm

Genuine emotion and an engaged tone, volume, and speaking pace will allow you to drive your key points home.

6. Be mindful of pace.

The ideal talking speed for a presentation is close to normal conversation. Speaking too quickly will confuse and overwhelm your audience. Too slowly, and their attention will begin drifting. Either way, they may end up not retaining much of your speech.

You can perfect pacing by setting a timer to your presentation's ideal length and giving your speech before it goes off. You may be speaking too slowly if you must speed up halfway through. If you end too early, you may have rushed.

7. Loosen up.

Remember to relax. Classic interview tips apply here: Memorization isn't worth much if your delivery is stilted and robotic. While you should take care to memorize your intro and conclusion for the sake of structure, the middle section benefits from loosening up.

As you get more comfortable with your material, you may find yourself adlibbing better word choices and phrasing. This is a sign that you are becoming more confident.

8. Practice in front of an audience.

You can iron out issues in your presentation by running through it in front of a live audience of friends, families, or even colleagues who also need to present. Ask for constructive criticism. Colleagues both know your audience and will not soften their feedback to save your feelings.

9. Minimize your notes; maximize their effectiveness.

To maximize your presentation's effectiveness, try minimizing your reliance on notes. Your notes should cue you to stay on track and hit every main point. Over-reliance on them looks bad and will hurt your confidence. Try structuring them as tiered bullet points to create a hierarchy.

If you're using a slideshow or other visual aid, you can incorporate cues for yourself, including:

  • Graphs
  • Tables
  • Stock imagery

Go with whatever works for you.

10. Take care of your bodily needs before the presentation.

Take care of basic physical needs before your presentation. Imagine your embarrassment at bungling a presentation due to a grumbling stomach! Get a good night's sleep the night before. Then, thirty minutes before you present, make sure that you've:

  • Had something to eat
  • Visited the restroom
  • Drunk enough water to avoid dehydration

Caffeine is a diuretic, so avoid it immediately before a presentation.

11. Prepare your mind in whatever way works best for you.

We all have unique ways of getting into the right mental state before doing something potentially stressful. There is no one-size-fits-all way of "getting in the zone" before a presentation; instead, do something that will regulate your heart rate and ease your nerves. 

This could include:

  • Meditating
  • Walking in nature
  • Listening to calming music or ambient sounds
  • Reading a book
  • Listening to a speech you find inspiring

12. Look for familiar faces in the audience.

You need a non-adversarial picture of your audience to give a successful presentation. Your audience is at worst neutral and at best hungry to understand your perspective.

"Greet them at the door," Cormier suggested. "To help reduce the fear of speaking to a group, connect with your audience as they enter the room. Shake hands, smile, introduce yourself. When you get up to speak, take a moment to scan the audience and find the people you met."

Direct your eye contact towards familiar faces, whether you are in a virtual or in-person setting. It can help to imagine addressing them directly.

13. Overcome the adrenaline rush.

According to Cormier, presenters' nerves are at their worst when they first begin to speak.

"That's why so many people sound breathless at the beginning of a presentation and often fumble for their words — they're fighting against their physiology," she said.

Cormier suggested starting with an ice-breaker to engage the audience and give your mind and body time to settle. You could ask audience members to raise a hand if the situation you're addressing has affected them or turn to a neighbor and rate how helpful a certain process is.

"Any question related to your topic will do," Cormier added.

14. Don't fear pauses.

Dead air and a staccato, stop-start rhythm can ruin a presentation, but this does not mean pauses are your enemy! Well-placed pauses lasting a beat or two can give your words weight. 

Try adding a pause whenever you need to allow the emotional impact or deeper implications of a statement to sink in for your audience.

15. Be willing to say "I don't know."

Q&A time allows you to share your knowledge — but don't feel the need to know it all. If someone asks a question that you cannot answer, own it. You don't need a public relations degree to know that a statement like "Let me get back to you on that" is better than accidentally misleading your audience.

In conclusion

Even the least stressful tech jobs may occasionally call upon you to give virtual or in-person presentations. The key to public speaking is to practice, be aware of the impression you give, and trust yourself to succeed.

Learning public speaking skills can increase emotional intelligence, confidence, and professional pride in one's work. The good news is, anyone can do it!

More about Marla Cormier

Marla Cormier, a white woman with glasses and reddish-brown hair, smiles in a professional portrait.

Marla Cormier is president of Emerging Leader Training, specializing in training programs for high-potential employees to help companies increase retention and develop and maintain an internal talent pipeline. 

With over 20 years of experience in learning and development, Marla has developed training programs for industry leaders including MGM and The Venetian, as well as high-tech internet startups and national insurance organizations. She lives in McKinney, TX with her husband and two dogs, Peanut and Boomer.

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