How to improve your public speaking skills

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To be a success in your profession, the chances are that sooner or later you will have to do some public speaking. That is something that makes a lot of people nervous. Even if you’ve done it a few times already, you may worry that your skills are not as sharp as they could be. Although many people worry more than they should, there are always things you can do to improve the impression you make on an audience.

Practise with a mirror

If you worry about how you’ll look when you speak, practise in front of a mirror until you’ve seen it so often it doesn’t look odd any more. Although you might feel like a teenager miming to pop songs, this is in fact a really effective way to improve the way you stand and the way you project your voice, because even without conscious effort, you’ll be making small adjustments each time. You’ll begin to feel less uncomfortable about being looked at, and you can move on to practise in front of friends and family members who can give you useful feedback.

Choose your words carefully

Putting together a good speech isn’t just about producing something that looks okay written on the page. It’s about using words you won’t trip over and keeping your sentences short enough to let you pause for breath. Shorter sentences also tend to have more impact. There are certainly contexts in which using long words and clever phrases can make a good impression, but always be mindful of your audience – using words that are heard less often is not such a good idea if you’re talking to primary school pupils. If you prefer, you don’t have to read from a script or try to memorise a speech at all – it’s okay to improvise and a simple set of notes is usually enough to jog the memory if you should find your mind suddenly going blank.

Understand body language

When you’re speaking in public, it’s not just your words that matter – it’s also what your body language has to say. Standing straight at your full height, but without looking too stiff, will make you seem more confident and authoritative. Practise standing straight against a wall and drawing your shoulder blades together at the back. That will help you assume a natural but authoritative position on stage. Don’t move your hands around too much as this will make you look nervous. Make eye contact when you speak, especially when responding to direct questions. Follow Clint Eastwood’s first rule of acting: don’t just do something, stand there.

Remember that you’re wanted

If you worry you won’t make a good impression, remember that you’ve been invited to do this. You’re there because people want to hear from you, not somebody else. They’re already confident that they’ll find you interesting, so perhaps it’s time you tried trusting yourself the way they do. Bearing in mind that they chose you, it’s also time to stop making negative comparisons between yourself and other people. Every speaker has a unique style, and you have yours. All you have to do is find it.

Learn from the best

If you feel you still need a bit of extra help, there’s nothing like watching a great public speaker in person to help you pick up the art of it.

Dr Robert Ryan, Dundee microbiologist and medical writer, is well known for his erudite and entertaining presentations. With his love of chess, photography, astronomy and the great outdoors, he always has something to talk about even when the topic strays away from his work, and he’s happy to provide beginners with tips. Dr. Ryan is a good role model for aspiring public speakers.

Iain MacWhirter, political journalist and broadcaster, is an experienced commentator who speaks on a wide range of subjects and possesses the skill to make financial subjects sound interesting even to lay people. He draws on his experience as a television presenter to speak in person, and he’s always ready with a bit of helpful advice.

Despite using all these techniques, some people never manage to become fully confident about addressing crowds. That’s okay. Keeping in practise makes it easier, and the more you do it, the more you will come to understand that a bit of nervousness or the occasional mistake doesn’t matter all that much – in fact, audiences sometimes find it endearing, and a good recovery can be impressive. You don’t have to be perfect. In the end, what matters most is your belief in what you have to say.