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5 Ways to Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

Whether you're presenting to a few colleagues over Zoom or speaking at a massive conference, these tips can help build your public speaking skills.

5 Ways to Improve Your Public Speaking Skills
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Back in my freshman year, I remember questioning why we were required to take a public speaking seminar.

How hard can it really be to get up in front of the class and tell your story?

Really, really hard. Nearly impossible for some, in fact.

The fear of public speaking is called glossophobia. Adverse reactions to public speaking can range from mild anxiety to full-blown panic, and some experts believe this general aversion to it affects up to 75% of the population.

Whether you’re uncomfortable or flat-out terrified, these aren’t good states to be in when you’re trying to speak confidently and entertain, inform, or win people over to your position.

In marketing and especially in search, our ability to communicate both in writing and verbally is huge.

You never know when you may need to present a report to a group of people or have an opportunity to share your knowledge and experience with peers at a search industry event.

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How can you reduce that discomfort and improve your public speaking skills to be a more compelling, engaging, and successful speaker?

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but these tips can help.

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

In Scott Berkun’s book, “Confessions of a Public Speaker,” he talks about letting go of perfection:

“If a disaster happens, something explodes or I trip and fall, I’ll have more attention from the audience than I probably had 30 seconds before. And if I don’t care that much about my disaster, I can use the attention I’ve earned to do something good with it – whatever I say next, they are sure to remember… If you’d like to be good at something, the first thing to go out the window is the notion of perfection.”

You’re probably going to mess up.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said the wrong thing, misspelled something on a report, or in one case, set incorrect timings on my SearchLove presentation. Whoops!

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Don’t expect perfection. Know that those around you don’t expect perfection, either.

One of the things we teach our team when it comes to communication is that it’s okay to say you don’t know.

If we are on a Zoom or client call and someone doesn’t know the answer to a question, that’s OK.

Improve your public speaking skills to be more comfortable on large Zoom calls and other online meetings.

Perhaps someone else can help – but if not, we simply say we’ll get back to them ASAP.

The fear of public speaking is often tied to the fear of failure.

As Berkun noted, the key is to keep going and don’t let that fear of failure get in the way of being good.

You can fend off some of that anxiety of failure by simply familiarizing yourself with the public speaking environment.

Whether you’re preparing for a podcast recording, expected to present in an online meeting, speaking at an event like SEJ eSummit, giving a toast at a colleague’s retirement party, or welcoming a crowd of hundreds to a real-world rally, it’s important to check out the venue/platform and any equipment you’re using ahead of time.

  • Check your mic and headphones.
  • See how you appear against the online or real-world backdrop. How’s the lighting?
  • Ask for feedback on your choice of clothing and accessories. Do they support the image you’re trying to convey?
  • Look for any obstacles, whether real-world or online. Are there stairs or floor coverings to watch for as you make your way to the stage?
  • Make sure you’ll have everything you need to stay comfortable for the duration of your presentation or talk. How’s the temperature? Will you need water? Will you be seated or standing, and can you move freely around the stage?

2. Practice. Practice. Practice.

I remember walking the hallways of MozCon (back when we could do such things in person) and coming across Wil Reynolds, headphones in, pacing the hallway, as animated as ever.

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His session was coming up and he was rehearsing his presentation.

If you’ve ever seen him speak, you know he is one of the best out there. What does that tell us?

If Reynolds has to practice, then so do we.

Whether you are giving a presentation in a conference room or a conference center, take the time to get it right.

Outline what it is you want to say, read your slides out loud, and go over it until you’re comfortable with the content.

Now, there are people out there who will tell you there’s such a thing as too much practice, and I don’t disagree (this is actually a pretty good article on that).

That being said, knowing your material is never a bad thing.

Want to take practice to the next level? Here are a few other ways to make the most of your practice sessions:

Record Yourself on Video

Yes, I realize that none of us like the sound of our voice or the way we look on camera but too bad. That’s what you sound like and that’s what you look like.

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Instead, focus on the presentation itself.

Is what’s being said clear? Were there any stumbles? What should you change?

Practice With a Friend or Colleague

Before a recent presentation, I sat down with a fellow speaker and we each went through our decks.

He caught a few things I hadn’t and I was able to adjust my messaging ahead of my talk.

Know Your Environment

If you are going to be giving a presentation in a large conference room with 25 people and an echoing phone, then practice as if you are in a large conference room with 25 people and an echoing phone.

Practice your public speaking engagement in the venue ahead of time.

While you may not be able to practice on an actual stage, you should practice standing up. It’ll give you a better feel for your body language and any hand motions you may use.

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If you are going to be giving a presentation via an online platform you’ve never used before, do a test run with organizers. In addition to the usual mic and camera checks, do you know how to private message an organizer if needed?

Can you see where audience members may be asking questions?

Are there any cues you’ll receive from organizers and have you checked out that those are functioning together?

Will you be able to insert poll questions or use other interactive elements to engage listeners/viewers in real-time?

3. Ask for Feedback

I’ll be the first to admit that feedback can hurt. After all, no one wants to be told what they aren’t good at.

The thing is, we aren’t going to get better living in a world where everyone tells us how amazing we are.

I love when conferences send feedback after shows. It tells me where I can improve and what I should change for the next time.

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If you’re speaking at a conference, will organizers share feedback from your session or keynote speech with you later?

Is there a post-event survey that could help improve your presentation the next time you give it?

Outside of speaking at events, you may need to be prepared to gather feedback yourself.

One of the things we do in our organization is to take notes during presentations. For example, when an account manager is reviewing a presentation, I note what they are doing well and what they can improve.

When the meeting is over, we then go through the specific points.

Don’t be afraid to ask people right at the beginning of your talk to take notes and share feedback with you.

4. Turn to the Public Speaking Pros

Remember AT&T’s Just OK Is Not OK commercial series? Here’s a refresher:

The commercials are pretty funny but the point is that we don’t want just OK – we want the best.

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And if you want to be a great public speaker, put in the time to learn from the best.

Here are a few places to check out:

TED Talks

A lot of people look to TED Talks as the best example of public speaking. This is who we aspire to be.

While the speakers truly are some of the best out there, what makes it so valuable to me is the way they communicate a story in such a short amount of time.

Getting your point across and keeping an audience engaged is key to being a successful public speaker.

Spend a lunch hour or two seeing how it’s done.

Toastmasters

Toastmasters is an international organization focused on building communication and public speaking skills.

They have been around a really long time and have local chapters in most cities.

I have several friends who swear by the meetings and we are actually using it to help grow our team’s skill set.

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Costs are minimal and it’s a great way to throw yourself into the fire.

Improv

Improv might be the scariest thing on this list but the great thing about it is you can take one or two classes and get a feel for the skills you need to be a good speaker.

Most require no commitment and it can be a fun way to learn.

Hey, if it’s good enough for Michael Scott, it’s good enough for me.

5. Do It Again. And Again.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outlier, he shares the 10,000 hours concept; that is, that it takes that much practice to become an expert in any given skill or topic.

Whether you believe it’s right or wrong, the idea that we can only become better at something by doing it over and over isn’t exactly shocking.

The same thing applies to public speaking.

I’ve watched team members go from sounding like nervous nellies on phone calls to leading presentations with CEOs.

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I have watched in awe as fellow search colleagues grew from panelists to international keynote speakers.

All of this was achieved by practice and repetition.

If you have a bad presentation, focus on being better the next time. If you received less than stellar feedback, focus on taking that feedback and integrating it into your next presentation.

It’s not unusual for people to give the same presentation to different audiences.

However, no two public speaking engagements should be exactly alike. Even when delivering the same story, make sure you’re incorporating feedback from your last public speaking engagement.

Read the room. Are there opportunities to speak directly to your audience; to make a connection and keep them engaged?

Public Speaking Perfection Is Impossible & That’s OK!

Despite what I may have thought my freshman year of college, I’ve come to realize that public speaking isn’t easy and certainly isn’t something most of us are born being good at.

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It takes practice and even the pros are likely backstage rehearsing.

Public speaking requires us to overcome our fears and be confident in what we know — something that’s certainly easier said than done.

If you are looking to get into public speaking or improve your communication, I highly recommend relying on those around you.

Ask your boss or colleague to give you notes. Ask a friend or roommate to watch you practice.

Remember, their feedback is only going to help you get better.

Most importantly, remember that perfection is impossible and if you mess up, it might just make you more interesting.

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Casie Gillette

Casie Gillette is the Senior Director of Digital Marketing at KoMarketing, a B2B marketing agency in Boston, MA. She has ... [Read full bio]

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