How to Be a Good Public Speaker?

January 1, 2000

By Coco May, Careers Editor

What is it about standing before an audience that seems soooo daunting? Why are some of us literally paralysed by the thought of it?

A few years ago I took an evening class at TAFE, part of the course involved presenting ideas and pre-prepared information to the rest of the group. Our class was split up into small working groups and we were given several weeks to put together our material. On the evening of our presentation, one of our group was quite literally incapable of presenting his section of the project. He choked. It was the first time I’d seen anyone react in such a way, and was quite an eye-opener as to the degree of fear some of us experience when confronted with a sea of faces staring at us.

I think no less of this particular chap because he physically couldn’t present to the rest of the group. There are many of us who are not entirely comfortable with public speaking – even those who you think do it so well. Most people get nervous when they have to present to a group. The difference is that those who present well have learned to manage and control their fear.

As well as learning to manage your fear you must also prepare yourself for your presentation. Toastmasters International, which runs courses to improve your public speaking skills, teaches that preparation is the key. Their five-P mantra reads: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Presentation.

Giving a good speech or presentation is very much like writing a report; there are three main sections: the introduction, the body and the conclusion.

The introduction: tell your audience why you’re standing before them and what you’re going to tell them.

The body: present your information with enthusiasm and conviction. If you exhibit neither, then neither will your audience. You don’t have to punch a bible and threaten damnation a la Billy Graham, but you do need to sound like you’re interested in what you’re saying and believe in it. Involving your audience and being animated is a sure-fire way to keep your audience interested. Also, never underestimate the power of an anecdote: people’s attention can be easily held when they’re listening to a short ‘story’.

The conclusion: wrap up what you’ve just told them in a few powerful and key points. Finish on a high note and make it obvious you’ve finished – there’s nothing more embarrassing than a long pregnant pause at the end of your speech before people realise you’ve finished.

More recently than my TAFE experience, I witnessed probably the worst presentation of my career. I was in the audience at an industry awards night (I’d love to tell you more, but fear recriminations if I give you names!) Clearly neither the MC, nor the presenter were prepared. It looked to me (and the people I was sat with) as if they had been handed their respective tasks only 10 minutes before the event – which, I was told by an insider, was not the case.

These two clowns broke every rule in the book: they were not prepared, they did not know what was coming up next or what they should be doing. They were pitiful! In addition to being unprofessional and incompetent, they were also very unfunny! Humour is a difficult thing to pull off if you don’t really know your audience. Just look at the frequency with which professional comedians die on stage. Your presentation needed not be dull just because it has no laughs, as long as you are passionate and entertaining you’ll win over your audience without needing to pull out a gag.

When you’re preparing your speech or presentation, think about what will ‘fire up’ your audience. If they’re there to improve their life somehow, then tell them how wonderful they’ll feel if they follow your advice. If you’re presenting to a group of smokers, don’t bother to tell them their lungs will be black and their breathing capacity will be affected. In words, paint a picture of how well they will feel if they give up, get them to imagine their life as a non-smoker. Build emotion into your presentation. Tell them what good can come from quitting, not what bad is already happening to them. People want to be inspired and motivated, not depressed!

Finally, the ultimate sin when it comes to presenting to an audience is to fall into the trap of droning on and on! Nobody wants to listen to copious amounts of statistics or facts and figures. Be selective in how much data you present – you might find it fascinating, but will your audience? Remember, we all have a fairly short attention span, if the audience starts shuffling in their seats, they’re bored and you’ve probably lost them. Better luck next time!

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