10 Public Speaking Tips (Plus a Few Questions about Your Year of Speaking Dangerously)


orator 10 Public Speaking Tips (Plus a Few Questions about Your Year of Speaking Dangerously)For those participating in the Year of Speaking Dangerously: how’s it going so far? Last week’s assignment was to locate a Toastmasters group near you. This week’s is to attend your first meeting, if you haven’t done so already.

Please let us know how it’s going, whether you’ve done nothing more than visited the Toastmasters website online, or whether you’ve just delivered your 175th successful business presentation. The Year of Speaking Dangerously is for novice and experienced speakers alike.

This week, I’m planning to attend a “Toastmasters Enrichment Night,” in which we’ll watch videos of champion speakers and then discuss and analyze what makes them so effective. I’m really looking forward to this — it appeals to the perpetual student in me. I’ll report back next Monday.

In the meantime, here are ten public speaking tips:

1. For many speakers — and especially for introverts — preparation is key. Take your time crafting the speech so that it flows logically and is illustrated with stories and examples. Practice it out loud, until you’re comfortable. If it’s an important speech, videotape yourself. The main reason public speaking can be uncomfortable is that you have no idea how you’re coming across. As I wrote here, if you went to a job interview without fixing your tie or applying your lipstick in front of the mirror, you would hope that there’s no scarlet lip gloss smeared across your teeth, but how could you know for sure? Better to take the guesswork out of it.

2. Think about what your particular audience wants to hear. Are they craving new information? Insights? What problem do they hope to solve? Give them what they want and need.

3. If you haven’t spoken publicly in a while and feel rusty, watch videos of speakers that have shots taken from the speaker’s vantage point, where you can see what it’s like to face the audience. (Many TED talks have these shots.) As you watch, pretend you’re the speaker. Get used to what it feels like to have all eyes on you.

4. Similarly, if you can, visit the room where you’ll be speaking. Practice standing at the podium, looking out into the rows of seats.

5. When you listen to a great speaker or hear someone mention one, get a transcript of the speech. Study it. How was it constructed? What kind of opening and closing were used? How were examples presented? How did the speaker engage, inspire and educate the audience? Most people are not born great orators. They study, and practice. (This tip comes from Steve Harrison, the co-founder of Reporter Connection.)

6. Keep a video diary or video blog. I always enjoy my friend Gretchen Rubin’s weekly video posts on her Happiness Project blog.  And here is Susan Steele of The Confident Introvert doing her first video blog, inspired by the Year of Speaking Dangerously project!

7. Know your strengths and weaknesses as a speaker, and accentuate the positive. If you have a great sense of humor, use it. If you’re not a natural cut-up, don’t try to be. Instead, focus on what you do best. Do you have a great story to tell? An interesting idea your audience hasn’t considered? Information they need to hear? Frame your speech around your message — and around who you are as a person. Thoughtful and thought-provoking is every bit as powerful as dynamic and entertaining.

8. At the same time, public speaking is a performance, and that’s a good thing, even if you’re not a natural actor. Have you ever wondered why people enjoy costume parties? It’s because they feel liberated when interacting from behind a mask, from within a role. Dressing up as Cinderella or Don Draper removes inhibitions as effectively as a glass of wine. Think of your onstage persona the same way.

9. Smile at your audience as they enter the room, and smile at them when you begin speaking. This will make you feel relaxed, confident, and connected.

10. Here is a funny tip from a reader of the Happiness Project. It’s probably not the best advice, but it will make you laugh:

“My eighth grade teacher told us all to pretend the people [in the audience] are heads of cabbages. I never quite got that one as making much sense, but to this day (40 years later) I still say that line to myself before I speak. And I laugh.”

Did you find these tips helpful?  Why or why not? Also, please don’t forget to weigh in and share how you’re doing with your own Year of Speaking Dangerously — even if you haven’t really gotten started. What emotions has the project kicked up — excitement? apprehension? a mixture of the two? What are your personal goals for the project? Where do you hope to be a year from now?


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  1. Tim Larison on 18.07.2011 at 17:33 (Reply)

    These are good tips Susan. I especially found #4 helpful for speeches I have given (“visit the room where you will be speaking”). In Toastmasters I would arrive early and stand at the podium picturing what it would be like to give a speech during the meeting.

    Another tip that helped me was not to write out my speech, but instead list bullet items on notecards for the key points I wanted to make during the speech. I then practiced with the notecards. When actually giving the speech I often didn’t even have to look at the notecards, but if I got a temporary brain freeze a key word on a notecard would refresh my memory and get me going again. For me the speech comes off more conversational this way rather than reading it word for word, or memorizing it word for word.

  2. Paul on 18.07.2011 at 20:00 (Reply)

    I have been to several Toastmasters meetings, and only discovered their existence 3 months ago. I have not been able to commit to joining the group, but going to the meetings gave me an idea of what they are about and getting info from the website. My city, St. Louis, has a number of different Toastmasters Chapters to choose from that meet regularly. A couple of the local chapters have been active since the 1950′s, which i thought was amazing. I hope to get the group fit into my schedule, as I could use the practice speaking in front of groups.

  3. Darren on 19.07.2011 at 04:52 (Reply)

    Just found your site Susan and it is great. The tips you give above are very valuable. Oddly enough I have no problems public speaking - what does freak me is the occasional dinner invite from an audience member or the organiser. This interpersonal stuff is far more scary to me than talking to 100 strangers who I’m never going to see again!

  4. Karen on 19.07.2011 at 12:43 (Reply)

    I understand the importance of #1, but there lies my problem: as an introvert who hates to be caught off guard, I prepare obsessively, I over-prepare. A looming speech or presentation can completely take over my life. As a result, any speaking engagement (including teaching) becomes a huge time-suck. I recently spent five hours putting together a casual fifteen-minute presentation to a young writers group (and it would have taken more time if I hadn’t defensively procrastinated). How can I prevent my Year of Speaking Dangerously from becoming the Year of Constantly Fretting about Speaking Dangerously?

    1. Susan Cain on 19.07.2011 at 13:06 (Reply)

      Now that is an excellent (and funny) question. How about giving yourself an allotted time for preparation, a time limit that you’re comfortable with in advance, and tell yourself that you’ll do no more and no less than that allotted time? Also, have you signed up for Toastmasters yet? The advantage of practicing there is that it’s not “real” — i.e., there are no consequences if you screw up. So you could safely experiment in that context with preparing for, say, only an hour, and seeing how it goes. You could even tell the group that that’s what you’re doing, so they’ll understand if you do end up forgetting your “lines.” But I bet you’ll find that you do perfectly well. And once you prove that to yourself over and over again within the TM context, you can start applying it elsewhere.

      That said, for a real-world, super-important speech, over-preparing is not a bad thing. (On the other hand, I agree that five hours for a casual 15 minute talk to a writers group is too much — you’ll never want to speak if the preparation process is so arduous.)

      Do others want to comment on their ideal preparation time-to-speaking time ratio?

      1. Charity on 19.07.2011 at 22:44 (Reply)

        I just went to my first Toastmasters meeting tonight. I even got up to do a Table Topic, which surprised and terrified me, but I survived. I blogged about it (to be posted tomorrow), if anyone’s interested in checking it out.

        As far as prep time for speaking, I tend to err on the side of too little preparation so I don’t get myself too nervous. It limits the types of talks I give and probably how professional I appear giving them, but it ensures that I actually give them rather than working myself into a tizzy and then cutting out at the last minute.

        1. Susan Cain on 19.07.2011 at 22:54 (Reply)

          That’s great, Charity! What was the Table Topic on? Also, want to explain what Table Topics are, for people who have never been to Toastmasters?

          And finally, what’s your url — so people can read more about your experiences?

          1. Charity on 19.07.2011 at 23:04 (Reply)

            Thanks for asking for my URL…I thought it might link from my name, but didn’t want to be pushy and and put it in the comment. It’s http://imperfecthappiness.wordpress.com

            So, a Table Topic is a question or prompt that’s given to someone on the spot. They have no more time to prepare than it takes to get to the front of the room. If they don’t like the topic, they can speak on whatever they like. The time for this speech is 1-3 minutes.

            All of the topics tonight dealt with jobs: elevator speeches about your job, what to put on a resume if you’ve had a lengthy period of unemployment, should you be 100% honest on a resume, and, my topic: how do you socialize with your coworkers enough to network but not too much? As a stay-at-home mom, I found this question amusing and went for the funny with it. I kind of jumped in and started talking, and when the timekeeper indicated that it had been a minute, I kind of lost my train of thought and ended it there. Which was probably best for effect anyway, but I didn’t plan it that way.

        2. Tim Larison on 19.07.2011 at 23:03 (Reply)

          Table topics were the hardest for me (an impromptu question during a toastmaster meeting). You did great, Charity. I would be interested in reading your blog too.

          When I first joined Toastmasters my club members were kind, and they could see I was terrified of table topics. I went 3 months without getting a table topic question, and then they threw me a softball question (“what is your favorite movie?” they knew I liked movies). In my opinion you got one of the toughest Toastmaster speaking assignments out of the way at your first meeting! (I’d rather give a prepared speech than answer a table topic)

  5. And Now…a Toast | Imperfect Happiness on 19.07.2011 at 23:17

    [...] her blog, QUIET: The Power of Introverts, she has the Year of Speaking Dangerously challenge. Week One’s challenge was to find two [...]

  6. Ashley F on 20.07.2011 at 15:09 (Reply)

    I never even knew what a toastmaster club was. Surprisingly there is one in my town!

    1. Susan Cain on 20.07.2011 at 20:45 (Reply)

      That’s great! Have you made an appointment to attend as a guest?

  7. Brittany on 20.07.2011 at 16:17 (Reply)

    Hi Susan, I like all your tips, I actually do those things on my own so it’s good to know that what I do is what you’re recommending! I do often over-prepare for speeches like Karen said she does, and I understand how she feels like a speech can take over her life for a little while. When I was younger I often couldn’t sleep the night before I had to give a speech, and the days before I would always have the speech in the back of my head, worried about it. I’ve gotten better I think, but still I don’t like having a speech scheduled. I joined Toastmasters back in June 2011 and I think it is going to be a great, if not life-changing, experience for me. I’ve been blogging about the various roles I’ve already done, the table topics, and soon I’ll post how my icebreaker speech went. I have some videos up too. For those who say that they don’t want to do it because they don’t have a problem with public speaking or they don’t really need to be good at giving speeches, I think they should know that Toastmasters isn’t just about giving speeches. You develop skills that help you in every day life like thinking on your feet, communicating with friends and coworkers, building self-confidence, etc. It can help you with job interviews too. Even if you are already super confident and love public speaking, I think you’ll find that there’s something you can improve on or learn from Toastmasters. In my club there’s one guy who’s been in Toastmasters since I was born (1993), and he still comes every week and still finds things he wants to work on! It’s amazing how long so many of the people in my club have been going to Toastmasters, and it really shows with their speaking. It was scary at first to join, but it’s gotten better each week and I think confronting my fears now is going to be so helpful for me in the long run. I told myself if I can do this, then I can do anything, and that is a powerful statement for me.

    1. Tim Larison on 20.07.2011 at 19:15 (Reply)

      Brittany - you are right that Toastmasters isn’t just about giving speeches. In my time in Toastmasters I found the evaluation sessions very helpful, too (both giving and receiving feedback). When giving feedback I learned to give a good balance of praise and constructive criticism in evaluating another’s speech. In receiving feedback I learned to accept both the positive and negative comments with equal value.

  8. Donna on 20.07.2011 at 16:43 (Reply)

    I do find the public speaking tips very useful. I particularly like #s 2, 4, 5, and 7. I especially like the idea of studying excellent speeches as way of learning what works from the standpoint of writing them and actually giving them. I also find it particularly useful to focus on my own strengths rather than comparing myself to other speakers and judging myself for not being like good speakers I have heard. I can develop my own style that is good, yet different. I have a problem with the acting part. I don’t even like costume parties. Once I develop my own style, then maybe I can address playing roles. On the issue of Toastmasters, I have done some research about different groups in my area and when and where they meet. I have not been able to attend any meetings yet.

    1. Susan Cain on 20.07.2011 at 20:50 (Reply)

      Good luck with it, Donna. I have found that one thing that helps with developing your own style is to find speakers who are good role models for you — speakers you admire, but who you could imagine yourself being like once you’ve practiced a ton and grown into the role. I spend a LOT of time browsing http://www.ted.com and thinking about all the different styles out there…

  9. Maria on 03.03.2012 at 12:35 (Reply)

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m a very introverted person but am very interested in education and feel that lecturing and other such public presentation is a great way of spreading important ideas. You can see the tension there. At the moment I’m doing a masters so I’ve had the chance to practice public speaking but rarely. I’ve been trying to think of ways I can practice but the fear of being in front of an expectant audience has been very difficult to overcome. I had no idea that Toastmasters existed and have found a very local and active club which I will join (with difficulty but I’ll do it!). I think it’ll be an incredibly important and positive step for my future development and I’m not sure I would have found it otherwise. Thank you!

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