How to become a better public speaker

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Want to ace your next presentation? Then tune out your inner critic, make eye contact, and utilize deliberate pauses, says Mary Cheyne, the faculty advisor of Northeastern's chapter of Toastmaster's International and the runner-up in the 2009 World Championship of Public Speaking. Photo by iStock.

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News at Northeastern

Want to ace your next speech or pre­sen­ta­tion? Then follow these five public speaking tips from Mary Cheyne, senior training and com­mu­ni­ca­tion con­sul­tant for Infor­ma­tion Tech­nology Ser­vices. Cheyne is the fac­ulty advisor of Northeastern University’s chapter of Toast­mas­ters Inter­na­tional, the runner-up in the 2009 World Cham­pi­onship of Public Speaking, and the founder of Mag­netic Podium, an orga­ni­za­tion aimed at helping people com­mu­ni­cate effectively.

Want to ace your next presentation? Then tune out your inner critic, make eye contact, and utilize deliberate pauses, says Mary Cheyne, the faculty advisor of Northeastern's chapter of Toastmaster's International and the runner-up in the 2009 World Championship of Public Speaking. Photo by iStock.
Want to ace your next presentation? Then tune out your inner critic, make eye contact, and utilize deliberate pauses, says Mary Cheyne, the faculty advisor of Northeastern’s chapter of Toastmaster’s International and the runner-up in the 2009 World Championship of Public Speaking. Photo by iStock.

Eat light

Before a pre­sen­ta­tion, stick to light foods like fruit and veg­gies or lean pro­tein like chicken and fish. You don’t want to eat a heavy meal that’s going to cause you to feel slug­gish because your diges­tive resources are con­suming too much of your energy—you want to feel ener­gized while on stage. Carry a light pro­tein bar with you in your bag in case you’re feeling hungry before a pre­sen­ta­tion and always have a bottle of water with you.

Tune out your inner critic

Here’s what I would sug­gest to min­i­mize your public speaking nerves:

  • Prepare your presentation as early as possible so you have time to become familiar with what you’re going to say.
  • Rehearse with a test audience. The more times you hear yourself say your material out loud in front of other people, the better.
  • Be aware when your inner critic is talking so you can ignore it. A simple way to identify the inner critic is to ask yourself, “Would I say what it’s saying to my best friend?” If the answer is no, why on earth would you say it to yourself? One of the biggest misconceptions I clarify is that people’s No. 1 fear is not public speaking. It’s public judgment. So get out of your own way to become the speaker you’ve always wanted to be.

Tell sto­ries

A pre­sen­ta­tion is not just about imparting infor­ma­tion and regur­gi­tating every­thing you know about a topic. It’s about “edu-taining”—educating your audi­ence while enter­taining them at the same time. A great way to do this is to use sto­ries and exam­ples to illus­trate your points and make you more relat­able to your audience.

If you just lec­ture to your audi­ence in a “thou-shalt-do-this” kind of fashion, you’re bound to have some people nod off. They might phys­i­cally be in their seats, but men­tally they’ve tuned you out. They’re thinking of what they’re going to have for lunch after your presentation.

It’s also good to keep in mind that a speech or pre­sen­ta­tion is not a monologue—it’s a dia­logue. You can ask your audi­ence ques­tions, both of the rhetor­ical and inter­ac­tive variety. Use lots of “you” words to make them feel included and part of what you’re saying. A speech is not just about you. In fact, it’s about what your audi­ence can take away from it.

Being com­fort­able with silence and ‘shut­ting up’ while on stage is in itself a skill, a muscle you can develop.
— Mary Cheyne

Make eye con­tact with one person at a time

Don’t think of public speaking as a one-to-many activity. Instead, think of it as having many one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions. In prac­tice, here’s what you would do on stage. You look at Fred in the audi­ence, say a few sen­tences just like you’re having a one-on-one con­ver­sa­tion with Fred. Then you look over to Susan in your audi­ence, say a few sen­tences like you’re having a one-on-one con­ver­sa­tion with Susan. Repeat the process throughout your entire speech. In this way, you do not have to feel the “pres­sure” of pit­ting your­self against the entire audi­ence. Why put that kind of pres­sure on your­self? When you think of your speech as a pre­sen­ta­tion com­prising many one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions, your “eye con­tact” feels more nat­ural both to you as well as the person you’re looking at. The added bonus is that it helps to reduce ner­vous­ness and anx­iety during your speech.

Har­ness the power of the delib­erate pause

If you pause at the right moments, you will increase the impact of your delivery. Being com­fort­able with silence and “shut­ting up” while on stage is in itself a skill, a muscle you can develop. The more often you pause, the more nat­ural it feels.

And be sure to pause a little bit longer than you feel com­fort­able with. When you’re on stage, a one-second pause feels like three to five sec­onds, and it’s usu­ally not enough for the audi­ence to notice it. You’re better off pausing for slightly too long than slight too short.

Here’s are a few instances when you should incor­po­rate the delib­erate pause into your presentations:

  • After a question. Pause immediately after asking a question. You need to give the audience time to process your question and then think about their answer before they respond, just like you would if you were asking someone a question in a one-on-one conversation.
  • To give the audience time to digest your point. Especially if the content you’re covering would be unfamiliar to the audience, you want to pause after you make a point to give them time to chew on what you’ve said and to make sense of it in the context of their own worldview.
  • For dramatic effect. This is my favorite pause to deliver because it enhances the effect of the moment. It’s like a double exclamation point that you might use to exaggerate the drama of a story or example within your presentation. For example, you might say something like this: “Stop thinking too much Fred. You have analysis paralysis. It’s time to stop thinking and take ACTION. Some action, ANY action.” Then you’d take a big long pause here as if to make the double exclamation point come to life.

(Published with permission from News at Northeastern.)

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