How To Be a Better Speaker – The Short Honest Truth

For any skill, the only way to improve is through practice. Reading about that skill is not practice. Watching other people do something is not practice. Reading and watching can only help you develop a skill if you apply what you learn while you are practicing. Most people do not practice, which is why most people are bad at most things, including public speaking.

The most important thing to practice is thinking. Think about these questions:

  • Why is your audience there? What problem are they trying to solve?
  • What 5 questions do they want you to answer on the topic?
  • What work do you need to do to give great, practical answers?
  • What simple outline best expresses your answers, and gives a sense of progression?

Many speakers don’t spend enough time crafting the central message of their talk. Instead, most get lost in superficials: trying to look good and sound. But the reason people show up to a conference or presentation is rarely for superficials – it’s to get answers and encouragement. The experience is not about the speaker, it’s about the audience.

At any event, the one lecture that solves the most problems for the most people will be the best remembered. If you give the audience ways to solve their problems, they’ll overlook many superficial mistakes. This requires hard work. Good public speaking is always based on good private thinking.

Speaking is actually comprised of several skills: writing, storytelling and performing. A good presentation combines them all into one experience. To be a good speaker requires studying and practicing all three.

People worry the most about performing. The best possible way to improve performance is to (surprise!) practice. Take a few minutes of your material, before you make any slides, and do a practice run. Record it on video. Then watch it. Ask friends you know who will give you tough feedback to watch it too. Take notes on places where you get lost, where your points can be clearer and any distracting habits you might have. Then do it again. Revise and rewrite. And practice again. Practice is the only way to improve habits, improve your thoughts and get comfortable with your own material.

When you see a presentation that is smart, polished and looks natural, never forget how much effort was required to make it seem so effortless. There is no magic trick or secret despite what some books promise – there’s only thoughtful effort.

Related:

(Note: originally posted on Quora)

9 Responses to “How To Be a Better Speaker – The Short Honest Truth”

  1. Janice Giffin

    I teach a course (series of workshops, really) Professional Communication Skills in several Master programs at an Italian university. None of my students are native English speakers. Public speaking is one of the main skills emphasized and evaluated in the course. I will certainly forward this post to all of my students…it sums up the lessons and the experience of presenting to an audience.

    Reply
  2. Sean Crawford

    As Janice points out, this piece is a summary, and a very good one. I have nothing to add, except in the sense of a “sidebar.”

    I will never forget Dale Carnegie’s image of the greatest magician of his age standing in the wings, before going on stage, repeating, “I love my audience.” Obviously the great magician didn’t need to do this, yet I am sure it helped.

    To me the “take away” is that public speaking is a gift to the audience—implications:
    Secondly, as Scott would say in his paragraph after the bullet points, “It’s not about you”
    Firstly, as the Holy Bible would say, “Perfect love casts out all fear.” Meaning, by focusing on the gift I feel less stage fright, and I feel good. I can say that because I have been public speaking for years in Toastmasters International.

    Reply
  3. Sean Crawford

    A related skill that takes practise is that of commenting in a public meeting, or commenting on a blog. Sometimes people have stage fright, or are afraid that 20 minutes after they comment they’ll feel like idiots going, “Why did I post that?”

    I have two bits of advice:
    First, think before you speak.
    As they tell radio operators in the armed forces, it is OK to plan out, or even write down, what you are going to say.

    Second, check motivation.
    Exactly how is your contribution going to help the group? Sometimes we don’t have any true reason to speak.

    Equally important, check yourself by asking, “Is this for me or the group?” Mixed motivations are OK, we all want to get attention, and to serve our ego, but if our motivation is not mostly for the group, then it is best to keep silent. There will be other chances to shine.

    No guarantees: If I think and check I might still feel like an idiot after 20 minutes, but at least I’ll know I tried to do the right thing.

    Reply
  4. Wouter Spoor

    Hi Scott, This is exactly what I tell my listeners all the time. As a presentation specialist, people hope that I will tell them a short cut or give them a magic line that will help them present better. Regrettably for them hard work is the only solution. I leave them often quite disappointed. Your short essay gives me some more handles how to engage them and leave them with more than just hard work. Thanks for that. I also will have a closer look to all your publications. There is still so much to learn.

    Reply
  5. Nancy M Ruff

    “The experience is not about the speaker, it’s about the audience.”
    Sadly, so many talks are about the speaker. The speeches I most enjoy are the ones that inspire me to think differently, act in ways outside my comfort zone, and/or become a better person.

    Reply
  6. Ryszard

    Hi Scott, thank you for your lessons in the subject of the public presentation. I think that the article is very useful for all. Everything depends on our training and audience. Last week I presented the lecture at the university. It was the challenge. I was well-prepared for speaking but everybody wanted to show me that I should have changed everything. Without training before the event, it will be difficult to win this battle.

    Reply
  7. Wyatt Jozwowski

    Definitely agree with this: “The experience is not about the speaker, it’s about the audience.”

    Most of the “bad” speeches I’ve listened to were ones where the speaker was continuously talking about himself/herself.

    Reply
  8. Arnout Drenthel

    Hi Scott,

    You nailed the main point in preparing a presentation. While it sounds so simple, it hardly is applied unfortunately. We love spreading the word and having people suddenly getting it and turning around their presentations!

    Thanks for your efforts in leading the way!

    PS Loved the book!

    Reply
  9. Lale Byquist

    Every speaker is dreaming of becoming a better speaker. You can achieve success when you know how to deliver a great speech that looks ‘effortless’, and you’re 100% right that it requires much effort. I agree that practicing is a key to success, but sometimes you can face other unpredictable factors. For example, stress…

    To keep on speaking without making a bad impression on your audience, you’d better know how to fight against stress, and here are some tricks and tips: http://presentationskills.me/stressful-factors/

    Being a successful speaker is a hard thing to do, and your primary task is to get ready to face different obstacles without worries.

    Reply

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