Developing Confidence in Public Speaking: Some Dos and Don'ts

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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

This article will explain how to develop one of the key skills for postgraduate students and academics, that of public speaking. It is also something that jobseekers in other fields might find useful because public speaking skills can be put to good use in any job interviews and in presentations at work. So here are some dos and don'ts to help you improve your public speaking.

DO control your nerves

No one likes standing up and speaking in public initially (apart from a very few extroverted characters) so it is natural to be nervous. However people such as lecturers develop techniques to conquer nerves so that they can stand up in front of a classroom everyday and deliver clear, confident lectures.

How do they do that? Confidence comes from knowing your material thoroughly; if you are sure that your speech is relevant and aimed at the right level (i.e. not too complex or too simplistic) then you will feel better about delivering it. Similarly familiarise yourself with the room in which you will speak, so you know where the podium will be, how many will be in the audience and so on. Also it's important to realise that some nervousness is natural and beneficial to you: the adrenaline pumping round your body will help you deliver a better speech, although this should only kick in a few minutes before you are due to speak, not several hours or even days before! Some people find that deep breathing techniques work to calm them down; others avoid caffeine for the few hours before the ‘performance'.

DON'T speak too fast

Linked with being nervous is the problem of speaking too fast. One of the most common public speaking mistakes is to speak at a pace that your listeners find hard to follow. Think back to good public speakers you have heard or even brilliant orators from public life such as Martin Luther King Jr. The pauses and pace of delivery in their speeches are key to maximising the impact of their words.

To help you to deliver at a natural pace, try not to simply read from a pre-prepared script. Instead, prepare notes and bullet points and have the confidence to speak from these and your memory. You will speak more slowly and naturally. However, this is a high level skill; many lecturers don't have the confidence to deliver speeches in this way, so be aware that it may take you several years to develop the technique.

Along with pace, think about the tone and volume of your voice. Don't allow your tone to become monotonous and don't speak too quietly. It's worth asking for a microphone if you have a quiet speaking voice and you have to try to carry your voice across a large room.

DO plan ahead

The best public speakers are well prepared. They know their subject and their audience. They know that their speech fills the allotted time. They are prepared to answer questions about their subject.

This is especially important when preparing speeches for a job interview. You may be given only ten minutes in which to outline your research or teaching interests, this is a real challenge because ten minutes will go very quickly. So practise giving your speech at home to check that you do not run over your time limit. If you are preparing supplementary materials such as handouts, ensure that these are correct and that there are enough for your audience. In terms of the content of the speech don't try to do too much, keep it simple. Especially in a job interview presentation you want to offer an opening to discussion, not the final word. Find out who your audience is going to be; you will want to address a room full of postgraduate students in a very different manner to a room full of professors or administrators.

DON'T read from a script

As mentioned above, one of the key public speaking techniques to develop is that of moving away from a full written script. It will improve your delivery no end, as long as you do not start rambling and you stick to your notes. Also make sure you have tested your presentation for length. This is a vital skill for delivering good undergraduate lectures. The best lecturers are those who seem to be having a chat with their students and have a lot of material simply at their fingertips.

Many of the best speakers do not use notes at all, but this is a risky strategy for the inexperienced speaker who might go off on a tangent or lose the thread of what they are saying. The worst lecturers are those who bury their heads in their notes and deliver far too much material too fast. And this is the tendency when reading from a script, you do not speak at a natural pace and therefore it is harder for listeners to pick up on the important information.

DO make eye contact

The public speaker who doesn't make regular eye contact with his or her audience will soon lose their interest no matter how brilliant the material is. This is because in one to one conversation we would never dream of not looking at the person to whom we were speaking. All sorts of personal cues can be delivered in this way, conveying impressions such as humour and sincerity.

It is the same when speaking to a room of full of people. Try to look round the room, towards different people. Do not always only look up to your left or right. And no need to linger over this and stare at people, this too will look very unnatural. Eye contact is very important when delivering a vital part of your lecture or speech, people will react to this subtle cue and realise that this is information they need to take on board.

DON'T forget to use visual aids

Giving presentations or lectures is not just about what you have to say, it is important to present visual supporting material too. Depending on your subject, one of the easiest ways to do this is by delivering a PowerPoint presentation. This is a software package available in the Microsoft Office suite that allows you to present text and images in a slide format on a projected screen. It is less cumbersome and expensive than a slide projector and produces better quality images than an overhead projector. Another option is to prepare paper handouts for your audience to take away with them or to write on during your speech.

It is important to get your visual aids exactly right. Do not use too many or they will overwhelm your speech and people will forget what you are saying because they are so curious about the images. Use visual aids to illustrate your point and to break up large, dense sections of information delivery.

During undergraduate lectures it is good to provide summary slides of the key points in bullet point form that students should have derived from a lecture. However these summary slides are not appropriate for all public speaking scenarios: some audiences will find it annoying if you simply put up textual slides and then talk through them without providing extra information. After all, they needn't have attended you talk and could have simply read print outs of your slide. The whole point of delivering information orally is to provide a different slant on the data than you could have done by providing written handouts. Speech and visual aids should complement one another, not challenge one another.


More articles like this:

Presentation Skills

Succeeding in Academic Interviews


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