Honor These Rules of Good Public Speaking

The skills required for public speaking are the same ones you’ll need for networking and for interviews. The same rules apply no matter how small the task.

Honor these rules and you’ll be ready to excel in public speaking in any context–whether an in-class presentation, a job interview, a pitch meeting, a professional conference or a formal address:

Know your audience and make it all about them. In a formal setting such as a gradIMG_8216uation ceremony, you’re not just addressing the students on stage with you–you must also engage the teachers, families, and guests in the audience.

During an in-class presentation, your audience consists mostly of peers, but too often in-class presentations are directed exclusively at the teacher (and still often miss the mark with fancy vocabulary the presenter doesn’t even understand–or regurgitation of content already covered).

In a job interview, your audience is the select few people on the hiring committee or present in the interview, but you can’t just go in with your generic answers to commonly-asked questions. You have to have well-crafted answers (see “avoiding cliches” below) and you have to customize what you say to the particular industry and company where you are interviewing. This means that you must do your homework. You have to know what their needs are, what their pain points are–and then make an articulate case for you as the solution.

In a professional conference, the most common misconception seems to be that you are your own audience. There, presenters seem to be their own primary constituencies and they too often just read out loud as if the goal were to hear themselves speak.

Honor time limits. This is the easiest one, but the least honored. If you have 3-5 minutes (or 20 minutes or 60 minutes) to speak, practice with a timer.  Then edit and practice again. Then trim some more and practice again.  

ACTFL_2015At almost every professional conference I’ve attended the norm is presentations that would go double or triple the allotted time if allowed to run their natural course.  The presenters didn’t practice with a timer then edit; they never trimmed any fat. The result is almost always a combination of running over time and getting cut off before you’re finished. The former is unfair to other presenters who share your time slot (or are waiting to use the space in the next time slot) and the latter means you never get to present the “meat” of your speech.

Avoid cliches. This is a hard one. We all invoke cliches before we realize that they are cliches.  What constitutes a cliche can vary depending on the industry and the audience.  Within a single audience, what seems fresh and new to one person might be a tired old cliche to another.  If you have natural comic tendencies and are comfortable with public speaking, a joke will work better than if it’s a stretch for you. If you are an introvert, it’s okay to let that come through in your speech–just be short, sweet & articulate; say what you gotta’ say and get off the stage.

Given that cliches are hard to identify, here are few things that I think are safely cliches to avoid:

  • Opening with a joke. Try a smile instead.
  • Opening with a quote. Try a simple welcome or “thanks for coming” instead.
  • Opening with, “the dictionary definition of…”  Better to just jump right in.  

Be your genuine self. Don’t try to be lofty & grand–be you, but the most authentic, genuine version you can muster for the length of the presentation. If you’ve always been the class clown, definitely ham it up.  If not, avoid trying to be funny at all. Use vocabulary that you are comfortable with, even it’s more formal than your everyday speech.  It’s okay not to know everything; be ready to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you.” There’s no shame in that.

Practice, prepare and polish. This allows you to honor time limits (see above), but also to actively engage with your audience in more ways than one. If you’re looking up at your audience the entire time in instead of down at a paper, you can physically engage by making eye contact, smiling, nodding and otherwise using appropriate body language.  

And if you’ve truly internalized the content of your speech, it will sound like the most beautiful nugget of genuine, heartfelt spontaneous speech anyone has ever heard. 

Trim the fat. This really is the age-old wisdom to prepare multiple drafts far enough ahead of time that you can always get a good night’s sleep between each draft. It’s also where you’ll need a second pair of eyes.  

Think of this as taking your first draft and creating a “concentrate” out of it for your final draft.

My coaching and editing work involves trimming a lot of fat–which is easy for me to do since I didn’t invest in the initial writing.  In some contexts, editing means eliminating mentions of “I, me, and my,” in order to have a more engaging speech that sounds like it is about everyone in the room and not just the speaker and her experiences.  Other things to trim: inside jokes with a limited number of audience members, too many examples or examples that take too long to share.  

If you can honor the above tips as your prepare for any kind of public speaking, you will succeed. 

2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. To prepare for your next public  speaking engagement, schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy: darcylear@gmail.com
This entry was posted in Academic Writing, Career Advice, Careers for Humanities Majors, darcy lear, interview prep, presentations. Bookmark the permalink.

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