Tips for Public Speaking

Once a particular senator read a speech to a lunch group and succeeded in boring everyone. Afterwards a feisty old lady came up to him and said, "How do you expect us to remember your speech when you can't remember it yourself?"

-- From All Politics is Local by Tip O'Neill

So, you’ve been asked to give a talk. While it can be scary, it can engage others in advocating on your issue, making all your voices stronger. Fear of speaking to a group is very common and natural. Preparation and practice are the keys.

First, get the details.

  • What do they want to hear about? What questions do they need you to answer?
  • What is the purpose of the talk? – a lecture for students who will be tested on the content or a light speech for a senior group meant to entertain?
  • How much do they know about your topic? Don’t insult experts by over-explaining but don’t confuse non-experts by assuming they know the basics
  • Time and date – when you should arrive, the time of your talk and how long they want you to stay
  • Place -- Get the address and room
  • Contact person – who you call with any last-minute details (snow storms, illness, etc.)
  • How should you dress?
  • How many people are likely to attend?
  • Who are they? – demographics, parents?, seniors?, people in one profession or industry?
  • What do they care about? – a PTA group will care about the impact of your issue on students and families
  • Can you bring materials to hand out or leave behind?
  • Will you be part of a panel of speakers with only 5 to 10 minutes to fill or are you the only speaker for an hour?
  • Are you the first speaker or last? What are the topics of the other talks?
  • What equipment will be available? PowerPoint, white board, flip chart, microphone, etc.
  • Who recommended you as a speaker? You should thank them.

Preparation separates great talks from the others.

  • Is your topic one you are comfortable with or do you need some more research?
  • Can you re-work a prior talk?
  • Do you have materials to hand out or do you need to develop some? How to create effective fact sheets Can you update something you already have? Handouts are good because you don’t have to say everything and the audience doesn’t have to remember specifics.
  • Prepare your introduction or bio – Usually someone else will need to describe you to the audience before you begin.

Write the talk.

  • Have a beginning, a middle and a conclusion
  • Try to make only a few points. Most people will only remember one or two messages from your talk, so choose them carefully.
  • It is helpful if you give them an action step at the end. When you have them convinced of your message, what can they do about the issue? Be constructive about the action step. Not “Work for world peace” but “Call your Senator about tomorrow’s vote. His number is   _________”
  • You don’t have to give every detail in your talk. You can refer to your handouts for more information if time is an issue.
  • Build toward your conclusion.
  • Use language and concepts that are appropriate to the audience. A talk on tobacco prevention will be different for third graders than for a group of doctors.
  • Speak from your heart. Your own experiences and analysis are extremely compelling. No one else can tell your story.
  • If appropriate, look for quotes or examples that add to your point.
  • Leave time for questions and/or discussion.
  • Consider using visuals.
    • Sides are a great visual cue that can complement your words.
    • Writing your main points on an overhead or wipe board adds emphasis and provides natural breaks in the talk.
    • Having your main points in a visual means you won’t miss anything.
    • Visuals help make complex or technical information understandable.
    • PowerPoint or other presentation software programs can be useful tools, but are not a necessity.
  • Print the final notes for your speech large enough for you to read at a glance.

Remember to bring with you:

  • Your notes
  • Your introduction/bio
  • Any visuals you will need
  • Handouts – bring more than you think you’ll need
  • If you are using PowerPoint, bring your slides on a flash drive
  • Your glasses, if you need them
  • Directions
  • Your contact information – business cards or brochures
  • Water – nothing bubbly

To help relax:

  • Remember that everyone there has been in your situation and can identify.
  • Practice your talk – as often as you need to, so you feel comfortable with it.
  • Practice in front of a gentle critic, then listen to their feedback.
  • Check out the setting ahead of time.
  • Arrive early, introduce yourself to the audience and other speakers as they come in.
  • Practice using microphones or other equipment. Fix problems before the talk.
  • Check yourself in the restroom mirror before starting. You’ll feel better knowing that your appearance won’t distract from your message.
  • Take a breath. Those empty moments seem much longer to you than to them.
  • Speak slowly. Don’t race through to get it over with.
  • Smile
  • Be as casual as is appropriate.
  • Stand behind something (a podium, a table, etc.) or wear your glasses.
  • Refer to your notes.
  • Don’t mention your nervousness – maybe they didn’t notice.
  • Know that an hour from now you will be relaxing after a job well done.

After the talk:

  • Evaluate. Did you get your major points across? Were there questions? What was the feedback from the audience and the organizers? How did you feel?
  • Save the information from the talk and any thank you message. If you ever invite a speaker, but sure to write and thank them after. You may want to follow up with the group later with action steps from your talk or for coalition building.
  • Remember that the next time will be easier.

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