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The art of public speaking: How to lead the masses


Every business owner, whether just starting or experienced, should master the art of public speaking. Not only can you learn to give a memorable presentation, public speaking skills can also make you more effective in business communications, help you become known as a thought leader in your industry and allow you to market your business.

Public speaking skills are not just for giving speeches in front of a large crowd of people. It is equally important to know how to get your points across when talking to employees about their performance or having a difficult conversation with an employee.

Deliver a poor speech, and it can damage more than your personal reputation as an expert. It can reflect poorly upon your business.

Public speaking can be a common source of stress and anxiety in the workplace. Even confident leaders fear public speaking. It rarely comes naturally and takes preparation and practice.

Here are 15 tips to help you learn how to prepare your presentation, overcome anxiety and structure your content effectively.

What are the common pitfalls of public speaking? 

Once you accept a public speaking engagement, your preparation should focus on engaging and informing your audience. Create a visually compelling, thoughtfully composed message that you can deliver well.

Start by avoiding these pitfalls:

1. Don’t read to your audience

Avoid overly wordy slides. Keep your presentation visual. Write your speech before you create the accompanying visuals for each point. You will need to practice your speaking points for each image on a slide.

2. Don’t leave rehearsing your speech for the day of the presentation

The lack of practice will be evident in your delivery. Experiment using hand gestures for emphasis at certain points in your speech, and feel free to move about the stage intentionally to engage all sections of the audience. Avoid the temptation of last-second changes, as they often lead to lasting regrets on the stage.

3. Avoid “tunnel vision” in your talk by investing time on the creative process

Launch your research efforts with an open mind. Extra time and effort can translate into an original take on a familiar topic and help turn a predictable speech into a memorable talk.

4. Don’t get caught flat footed about potential objections to your talk

Research both sides of your issue so you’re familiar with potential reactions to the topic — particularly if it’s sensitive or controversial. Exploring the other side of the issue will give you the knowledge that can help you handle objections and be better prepared to address them

How can you effectively prepare a speech? 

Rely on time, research and a targeted focus to ensure the best possible results from your public speaking commitment.

1. Success starts with preparation

Allow adequate time for the creative energy to brainstorm ways that will make your speech memorable. Engage your graphics team early to create images and other visuals to get your points across.

Start by thinking about your objective. What is the desired mindset you want to achieve with your audience? Think of that desired result, then work backward as you gather your thoughts.

2. Do your research

Read thought leaders in your industry and experts on the subject you intend to present. Validate your ideas and arguments with the latest data and other evidence-based information.

3. Tailor your presentation to your audience

Look at the demographics of who will be attending your presentation to ensure your content and delivery relates to their needs. Too often, speakers make themselves the “star” of their talk. Make the audience the hero of the story by putting yourself in their shoes.

As you zero in on the content your audience needs, be ruthless in editing. The subject is new to them, so stick to a handful key points that will inspire listeners to learn more. Don’t overwhelm them. Distribute handouts or create a website to share additional details and ways to follow up, if necessary.

4. Start with writing the main body of your speech first

Once that is edited, create your introduction, closing and accompanying visuals last.

Your introduction should be compelling. It should grab your audience’s attention and tell them the main points you intend to cover. Your closing should reiterate your main points and finish with a call to action or conclusion.

Speech writing is much like a reporter writing a front-page story. The opening should make the reader want to learn more. Each section should seamlessly lead to the next point with a strong ending that emphasizes the main point or headline.

Great speakers (and writers) make every word count.

5. Present ideas that are consistent with your company’s values and culture

Every company has a culture, whether by design or default. Ideally, there should be strategic alignment between the values in your talk and the company’s culture.

This point is critical, especially when talking to your employees after a tragic event or a significant development that impacts your company. Ensure your speech is genuine and authentic by intentionally building upon the company’s values.

How can you become a better (and less nervous) speaker?

Audiences can be forgiving if you are a bit anxious in your first few moments onstage. The key is to show them you came prepared, know your speech well and can handle the unexpected.

1. Stress reduction comes with experience and rehearsal

Speakers become more confident with practice and preparation. Organize your plan of attack, and remain confident of your ability to execute your presentation well in front of the audience.

2. Expect the unexpected and have backup plans for when things go wrong

What can you do if the projector stops working, or you are asked a challenging question?

If the technology breaks down, have a good story to tell while the equipment is repaired. If you are unable to continue with your projected presentation, have a hard copy of your notes and forge ahead.

Take a drink of water to give yourself time to think if you are asked a difficult question. If you do not know the answer, admit it, and tell your questioner you can check and follow up with them later.

Do not be afraid to appear vulnerable. Admitting that the audience member asked a great question you cannot answer will show you are authentic and not trying to come across as a “know-it-all.”

3. Be natural and be yourself

If you’re vulnerable yet effective, you accomplished your mission. Focusing on your audience and message will help you “stay out of your head” where you are bound to think about on how nervous you feel.

What structure can business leaders follow to create a powerful speech?

There are three ways to structure your presentation, depending on your goal as a public speaker.

1. The “future vision” structure

This structure relies on presenting two to four strong main points that explain how adopting a change will result in a better outcome for the company.

The speaker alternates between talking about the status quo and outlining their vision for the future. By going back and forth between the present and the future, you can create excitement as the audience begins to embrace the change that will lead to a better tomorrow.

Nancy Duarte’s Ted Talk outlines this structure used in important presentations such as Steve Jobs’ iPhone launch presentation and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The benefit of this approach is that it lends itself to storytelling and works well for introducing new programs and products. However, it may not always be applicable for your goal, and the audience can get lost going back and forth between discussion points about the current and future conditions.

2. The “principle practical” structure

This is another way of making a case for embracing a rule or principle. The presentation should never have more than four main points, so as not to overload listeners with too many details.

Begin by describing the principled argument, then explain the practical elements for following that principle.

You can tell stories that validate the principle with each new point you introduce. The last main point should fundamentally change the direction of the speech in a strategic, creative way.

This structure is ideal for delivering persuasive, memorable speeches.

The rhetorical power of this approach can be experienced by listening to professor Randy Pausch’s last lecture on achieving his childhood dreams.

This method can be powerful, as it lends credibility to your concrete examples if they help validate something of importance like an enduring principle.

You can use this strategy for philosophically based talks, such as

  • The need to adjust corporate culture
  • Explaining the need for a new strategic direction
  • Introducing a significant change in your company

Such a presentation can help leaders rally employees behind the principle and bring them closer to your line of reasoning.

Edit your talk carefully and resist the temptation to get too deep, or you run the risk of losing your audience.

3. Aristotle’s persuasive structure

This is a straightforward format of presenting the “problem, plan and proof.”

Introduce the problem by using stories to explore the current conditions of the status quo. The plan should be your vision for the future, given in clear, concise steps to remove any ambiguity. You close by presenting your proof that validates your solution.

This structure is your opportunity to set forth your plan, discuss why it will work and how the audience will know it will work.

This is a time-tested method of persuasion that works well for detecting a need for change and implementing a clear path forward. It gives leaders the ability to talk about dealing with a problem, then how to move forward.

This persuasive structure offers the speaker a variety of approaches for making a case, from detailing logical reasons, to making listeners laugh or engaging their emotions with a heartfelt story. The goal is to engage your audience to persuade them to align with your proposed plan, so keep the plan simple.

This structure only works for persuasive presentations with a targeted call to action.

Summing it all up

Writing and delivering a powerful, motivating speech doesn’t have to be a task fraught with anxiety. With these simple tips, you can master the art of public speaking and become the inspiring leader that your employees enthusiastically rally behind.

If you want to learn more about how to become a stronger, more effective leader, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.