How to Become a (Better) Public Speaker
Learn how to land speaking engagements, prepare presentations, and deliver talks—whether you’re a pro or a beginner.
Standing on the stage, palms a little sweaty, with a PowerPoint presentation on the screen and a room full of people eager to hear what you have to say—this is the moment when a true public speaker comes alive. But getting to the podium to share your message of social change at a top-notch event takes more than just desire.
Consider this your primer: Tips for novices and seasoned speakers alike, from experts, faculty members, and alumni who know what it takes to win speaking engagements, present successful speeches, and leave their audiences with a lasting message.
Step One: Get the Gig
Conferences, community meetings, rallies, coffee klatches—opportunities abound for public speakers. If your goal is to share your scholarship, you can find an audience. Here’s how to land a presentation:
- Volunteer to speak at local events or teach a class in your community. Volunteering to speak at events large and small, and doing so without asking for a fee, can improve your visibility, give you valuable experience, and open the door to bigger—and even paid—speaking opportunities. “Volunteer to teach community education classes or speak at your church. Any opportunity to speak in front of five, or 25, or more people will help you become more comfortable,” says Dr. Gary Kelsey, a faculty member in Walden’s School of Public Policy and Administration.
- Market yourself through networking opportunities. Whether you’re engaged in daily tasks or attending a professional networking event, think about ways you can market yourself. “Let people know what you’re interested in and what you’re doing. Promote your agenda when you talk to people,” says Dr. Savitri Dixon-Saxon, associate dean of Walden’s School of Counseling and Social Service. Above all, self-confidence is key, says Gregory Parker ’09, a Master of Public Administration (MPA) graduate, PhD student, and commissioner of the Texas Commission on State Emergency Communications. “Believe in yourself. If you don’t, no one else will see that in you.”
- Promote yourself online. Build your credibility by networking with other influential speakers on social media sites, regularly writing compelling blog posts—or guest posts on well-known blogs—and developing your own information-packed Web site that offers examples of your writing, research, and speeches.
“I try to set myself up as the expert in a field by visiting social networking Web sites and posting comments that lead back to who I am,” says author and motivational life coach Pennie Murray ’06, MS in Psychology alumna. “I’ve also done little teleseminars and teleconferences for free, where I invite people to engage in an informal, relaxed conversation with me, virtually. It’s like a focus group experience, but online.”
- Write for a wider audience. Take your thesis, dissertation, or research and convert it into an article that can run in a journal, anthology, or other publication. Or write a book. This will build up your reputation as an expert, make you more attractive to event planners and organizations that need speakers, and give you a ready–made audience for your material.
“Getting published in your area of expertise can give you credibility as a speaker,” says Saul Farber, a program consultant with the speakers bureau Leading Authorities.
- Research a range of conferences. “Take advantage of opportunities with state, regional, and national conferences. They’re always soliciting proposals for conference presentations,” explains Dixon-Saxon. Start with professional associations you’re a member of and branch out into related conferences in your field. Another tack is to research the publisher of the professional journals you read. You might find the association behind it also runs a successful conference.
But remember that patience is a virtue. “Many companies and organizations book speakers far in advance and hold events just once or twice a year, so it may take a long time before you are chosen,” Farber says.
Sign up with a speakers bureau. Though signing up with a speakers bureau may seem like a logical idea, be aware that the competition is fierce. “Everyone on those lists wants speaking engagements, and it can be difficult to stand out,” Farber notes. The people who do stand out have proven track records of success as speakers and compelling stories to tell. If you want to compete on this plane, figure out what makes you unique and pitch yourself accordingly.
Step Two: Prepare a Polished Presentation
Great presentations are interesting, entertaining, emotional, intellectual, and connect with the audience through skilled storytelling, Parker says. “A good speech should pull in the audience, inform them, amuse them, and make them think,” he continues. Getting there takes more than a set of note cards and good enunciation. Here are some tips on proper preparation:
- Start with an outline. “Never underestimate the power of an old-fashioned outline,” says Dixon-Saxon. “It allows you to map out your journey. There’s nothing worse than a speech with no destination.”
- Boil it down to three big concepts and load it with real-life examples. When fashioning your outline, consider that most listeners can’t process more than three large ideas at a time. “A speech with broad concepts in it is good,” Kelsey says. “But broad concepts with specific life examples are even better. That makes your speech much more meaningful and helps people relate to it.”
- Avoid technical terms. Use clear, concise language. If you’re building your speech from your thesis paper, dissertation, or research study, “make sure you simplify any technical language or acronyms so that anyone can understand what you’re talking about,” Kelsey says.
Don’t assume your audience travels in academic circles. Instead, give the speech in the same tone you’d use to explain the basis of your research to a new acquaintance at a cocktail party.
- Tell stories. Making your content relatable is extremely important. What’s the best way to do that? Simply put: Tell stories. “Communicate your research in a way that will connect with your audience by putting it into a narrative framework—what is the story of your research?” says Dr. Eric Greitens, an accomplished speaker and author of The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, The Making of a Navy SEAL.
- Offer detail, but don’t overwhelm with statistics. Pick out the main points of each concept you present; don’t bombard your listeners with every last detail. “Figure out what it is that you really want your audience to know,” Murray says. Remember, it all comes back to your story. “People have a hard time remembering lots of statistics, but if you tell someone a really good story, they can often hold on to that and remember the facts,” Greitens adds.
- Tailor the speech to your audience. When creating your narrative, consider who your audience is and how your speech will sound. “Know what it is that they already know, so you don’t tell them too much or too little,” Farber says. “And tailor your speech to fit the venue and the purpose of the meeting or event. Try to hear what you have to say through the ears of the people you’re speaking to.”
- Practice, practice, practice. “I like to write a speech in silence, in a quiet room, and visualize the audience and what I’m going to say to them,” Parker explains. “Then I give my speech in front of a mirror and visualize where the audience might laugh or how it will be received.”
Practicing your speech alone or in front of a trusted and constructive critic can help you fine-tune your message and your delivery. “Practice will allow you to become really comfortable with the material so when you’re in front of the audience, you can concentrate on the mechanics of the message,” Greitens says.
- Include a call to action. Give your presentation lasting power. Provide a call to action for the audience to take home. “It’s really important for your audience to know what to do with your message,” Greitens says. “Ask the question of yourself and then communicate the answer to your audience—what do I want them to do now?”
Step Three: Deliver a Stand-Out Speech
So now you’ve got the gig and you’re standing in front of the audience. This is where the superstars are separated from the ho-hum. Conquer your fears, steady your hands, and keep your listeners on the edge of their seats by following these tips for giving a stellar, engaging presentation:
- Engage, inform, and amuse. As you’re delivering your speech, think of ways to keep your audience engaged. “Help your listeners be active, not passive, by asking them to think about how they’d handle a certain situation,” Kelsey says. “Put an idea out there and ask them to consider it. In some instances, it’s good to do small breakout groups. You can involve your audience in different ways.”
- Use your eyes and your voice to reach your audience. Even the best message will evaporate if you mumble and fail to project your voice to the back of the hall. “Make sure you’re speaking to all the corners of the room,” Greitens says. You’ll lose your audience if you’re always looking down at your notes or your hands. Maintain good eye contact and use your eyes to connect with individual people in the room.
- Incorporate visuals and video clips. Successful talks often incorporate visuals and alternate between informative slides and video clips, Farber says. “And err on the shorter side. People’s attention spans are much shorter than you’d think.”
- Complement your speech with a PowerPoint presentation. It’s always a good idea to adapt your speech into a PowerPoint presentation. “If you can put your research into a simple five- to 10-slide PowerPoint, that’s all you’ll need to say in the speech,” Parker says. “All the rest is fluff.” It also serves as a great set of visuals to give the audience something to look at—something relevant, instead of their phones—during the presentation.
- Read the audience’s physical cues—and adjust your presentation as necessary. As you’re presenting your speech, assess your audience for physical cues, Murray says. “Watch the audience’s body language. If you’re losing them, make sure you can shift gears quickly to get them back on track.” Adjust your tone, vary your pace, or rethink your body language—are you too animated? Too relaxed? You can also try to reengage your audience by asking a question. Once they respond, work their feedback into your presentation: It can be a great way to reconnect.
- Reinforce your main point. Throughout your speech, make sure to restate your point often, Dixon-Saxon says. “It will show that you have a clear message. It makes an impression. The best messages are the messages that are simply presented and allow the listener to come along with you on the journey.”
- Enjoy what you’re doing—passion is contagious. “You can’t just talk. You have to perform it and draw people in with good storytelling,” Murray says. “If they see you having fun, they’ll take their cues from you. You can know all the logistics and mechanics and still blow your opportunity to be successful in front of the room. Passion is key to your success as a public speaker.”
More Tips From the Pros
You can spend hours writing and preparing a speech and working to book engagements, but there are a few other points you should also include on your to-do list.
Here’s a cheat sheet with a handful of insider tips from the experts:
- Check out the venue’s acoustics ahead of time, and find out whether you’ll be using a microphone. Tailor the volume of your speech accordingly.
- Study your audience. What kinds of speeches have they liked? Which ones bombed? How can yours be one of the former?
- Know your intro. Find out how you’ll be introduced to the audience. Will it focus on just a few things from your bio or follow it word-for-word? What will the listeners expect from you based on your introduction?
- Get testimonials. Your work isn’t done when you step off the stage. Take time to get feedback from audience members—preferably in writing so you can share testimonials in your marketing materials.
Learn from the pros. Watch videos of past academic plenary speakers and alumni here.
Meet the Experts
Dr. Gary Kelsey, School of Public Policy and Administration faculty member
Dr. Savitri Dixon-Saxon, associate dean of the School of Counseling and Social Service
Saul Farber, a program consultant with the speakers bureau Leading Authorities
Dr. Eric Greitens, an accomplished speaker and author of The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, The Making of a Navy SEAL