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How to Make a Good Presentation Great (Part 3): Speaking in Public

This is the third in a three-part series about making a good presentation great. The first part is about organizing your ideas. The second is about designing the slide deck.

Nothing beats experience for improving your public speaking chops. Not public speaking exercises, not practice runs in your office for your colleagues, certainly not reading a blog article (except this one, of course).

If you want to get better at speaking in public, you have to speak in public.

That said, you can arm yourself with some public speaking hacks and tactics—an assortment of things to try out the next time you step to the microphone. Here are a few:

1. Speak Without a Mic

Unless you’re in a massive ballroom with several hundred people—or unless you’ve got laryngitis—you do not need a microphone. You may think you do, but you don’t … as long as you project.

Projecting your voice isn’t yelling; it’s speaking from a place deep in your belly. In theater parlance, you’re trying to speak to the person in the “back of the house,” that little kid in the last row. If you work on projecting, you’ll get it in no time. Even the meekest voice can become something powerful with a little practice.

But why eschew the microphone? Two reasons. First, they often work poorly, especially if your conference doesn’t have top-notch A/V support. They crackle, hiss, cut in and out, and create screechy feedback. Second, microphones are unnecessary barriers between speaker and audience. Your actual voice, unamplified, is far more compelling.

Note: Conference organizers may insist that you hold or clip-on a mic, especially if they’re filming or if they’re trying to ensure a high level of accessibility (and rightfully so).

2. Move Around the Room

As we mentioned in part one of this series, your first job as a public speaker—even at the most austere professional conferences—is to entertain. How often do entertainers stand perfectly still? I can’t think of any instances. Even the “human mannequins” busking on the Vegas strip blink now and then.

Moving around—or “using”—the space offers a number of benefits to the speaker:

  1. You calm yourself by working out some of your stored-up kinetic energy
  2. You won’t do the dreaded “speaker sway” that happens to most stationary presenters, in which they unknowingly rock to and fro on their heels
  3. Your voice gains natural dynamism (as opposed to forced or scripted “emotion”)
  4. Your hand and arm gestures become more natural (as opposed to robotic or distracting)
  5. You will stumble upon improvised moments in your talk because you’re more “in the moment”—and these are often wonderful nuggets you can weave into future versions of your talk

For example: It’s not unusual for me, in a room with 30 rows of chairs, to do my entire talk standing in the middle aisle, moving forward and backward from rows 1 to 10. I try not to go too deep into the crowd because then half of them feel like they have to crane their necks to keep an eye on me.

Pro tip: If you are using a slide deck, make sure you have a powerful hand-clicker to advance your slides from far away. Nothing worse than having to scurry back to the front of the room because your clicker is “out of range.”

3. Warm Up

I spent three years competing on my college speech team. Almost every weekend, we’d travel to another college campus and spend all day delivering speeches, performances, and impromptu talks, only to be judged and ranked.

It was thrilling, and I still argue that nothing—nothing—contributed more to my personal and professional growth than my years in speech and debate.

But it could be weird at times.

For instance: The moment we arrived at the tournament—usually at the break of dawn—the entire team, all 25 of us, would file into an unused classroom and do a half-hour of warm-ups. To the outside observer, we looked like a cult or children in daycare: screaming, moving randomly through the room, singing, etc.

But warming up so intensely and intentionally was what allowed us to win those tournaments. Next to our competitors, who hadn’t warmed up (or not as intensely), we were crisper, more engaged. Our eyes were brighter, our diction sharper, our breath fuller.

Here are some of my favorite warm-ups. Try them out. Pick which work for you.

The Stuttering Alphabet

  • Start by saying “Ba” nine times in a (fairly) quick rhythm.
  • Immediately jump to the next consonant, C, by saying “Ca” nine times in quick rhythm.
  • Proceed through the rest of the alphabet in order, skipping vowels and skipping “Q” and “X.”
  • Repeat a few times.

“Doe a Deer”

  • Sing the song “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music.
  • But when you get to the final word of each line, hold the vowel sound as long as your breath will allow.
  • For example, the first line would be “Doe, a deer, a female deeeeeeeeeeer…”
  • When you get to the end of the scale, start again, but sing a little faster.
  • Repeat several times, each time singing the line faster and holding the last note shorter, until you’re “singing” the lines at light speed.

Big Face, Little Face

  • Make the biggest face you can. Open your mouth as wide as possible, bug your eyes out, etc.
  • Quickly shift to the smallest face you can: purse your lips into a tiny circle, scrunch your eyes up, pull your cheeks in etc.
  • Repeat, back and forth, a dozen or so times.

Bad Accent

  • Do the opening 1-2 minutes of your talk in a foreign accent. (My favorite, because I’m so terrible at it, is an Irish brogue.)
  • Don’t worry if you’re bad at accents. In fact, if you’re good at an accent, don’t do that one. Choose an accent you’re bad at, and go.
  • You’ll laugh at yourself, but you’ll also find that it has a remarkably calming effect and helps you take yourself less seriously.

Note: Do your warm-ups as close to your talk as possible, but not in front of the attendees. They’ll think you’re a weirdo, and they won’t be totally wrong.

4. Use Silence

It’s called “public speaking,” not “marathon speaking.” And yet, especially among newer or nervous speakers, there’s a tendency to speak nonstop. It’s natural. After all, once you pause and silence takes over, it can feel awkward. The audience is there to listen to you, so what happens when you’re not speaking?

Silence isn’t as awkward as it may feel; in fact, it’s a crucial component of a winning presentation. ​​

But here’s the thing: What actually happens when you stop speaking is the audience catches their breath and reflects. You want them to leave having learned something, but if you don’t give them moments to let your lessons sink in, they’re less likely to remember what you said. Silence isn’t as awkward as it may feel; in fact, it’s a crucial component of a winning presentation.

Plus there’s the slide deck. If you don’t ever stop talking, the audience will choose to either (a) read your slide and therefore not hear what you’re saying over it, or (b) listen to you and miss what’s on the slide.

In a couple of my conference presentations, I tell a story about advertising giant David Ogilvy. The end of the story includes an emotional gut punch—a reveal that happens on a slide. I had to learn to let the slide, more or less, speak for itself. So I shut up when it pops up. The impact of that moment is multiplied by letting it sink in without me yammering over the top of it.

In short: Silence doesn’t let your audience’s attention drift; silence snaps them back to attention.

5. Know Your Talk, But Don’t Memorize It

It’s called “public speaking,” not “public reading.”

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Remember, your first job is to keep the audience engaged. Otherwise it doesn’t matter how brilliant your content is, they won’t listen or remember it. It’s far more important to display some vocal dynamism and naturalness than to make every single point. If you forget to make a particular point because you were “shooting from the hip,” who cares? (That’s why you send your attendees your presentation afterward.)

Besides, to keep the audience engaged, you have to keep yourself engaged. You may deliver the same presentation multiple times. If all you do is recite your presentation notes, you’ll grow bored (and the audience will notice).

Lean on your slide deck to keep you on track, not a script. You’ll have more fun and, along the way, you’ll find yourself improvising: making new points, inserting asides, telling jokes, discovering an insight you hadn’t thought of before, etc.

6. Smile

Smile. It’s more pleasing to watch a smiler than a frowner, and it’ll help you trick your brain into feeling even more confident. Our facial expressions really do influence our internal state.

The truth is…

Few things are as inspiring (or refreshing) as seeing a truly exceptional public speech, especially at professional conferences (where they tend to be dry, confusing, or overly long).

If you organize your ideas with some panache, create a show with your slide deck, and practice the heck out of your speaking skills, you—yes, you—can inspire your colleagues and complete strangers to be, even just a little bit, better at work and life. Good luck.

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