Be Sincere, Be Brief, Be Seated: 15 public speaking tips I learnt over the years

I love to listen to people talk and engage in conversations with them but I wouldn't say I am fully over my stage fright, but at least I wouldn't hide behind people if I was asked to speak.

The first time I remember talking to a crowd was when I was 14 and a coward. I was basically like the last resort if either anyone backed out or if the usual outspoken students had exhausted their chances of speaking at the school assembly. One day I reluctantly got asked to speak. I would have easily declined, had I learnt the art of saying "no". But even if I did, I would have never declined. I badly wanted that opportunity.

To the outside world I didn't want to appear too excited about being asked to make a speech, because people do it everyday. But to me it meant the whole world. I wrote and rewrote the script for days and practiced the speech day and night. But despite all that, I had nightmares and honestly thought that I'd make a fool out of myself on stage.

I don't know if it was luck, but I managed to pull off a decent show that day. Students commended me about my speech and teachers confessed to me that they didn't expect the silent mouse to deliver a confident speech. It was a whole new experience and I never felt more appreciated in my life. The real appreciation came in when I later started appearing at speeches and other club related activities to speak. It was a feeling I could never express.

I took a great liking to writing scripts and speaking ever since. I started learning body language and would practice in front of a mirror at a stretch. Today I love to listen to people talk and engage in conversations with them but I wouldn't say I am fully over my stage fright, but at least I wouldn't hide behind people if I was asked to speak.

I am no Richard Branson, and I am still an amateur at speaking, but I want to help you out if you are just like the 14-year old version of me. I believe that speaking is a skill that anyone with willpower and courage can take up. I am hence going to jot down a few tips that I learnt along the way. This could apply both to speeches as well as presentations.

1. Learn to use your body efficiently

Your body speaks more than your words.

If you have ever noticed people being uninterested in your presentation, its because you are being very monotonous. If the place is spacious, try to move around a bit, and try to use your hands while talking.

Something I do quite alot is smile. You instantly connect with people and you would also end up finding others smiling at you, which could boost up your confidence.

Mentally also divide the audience in the room to four sections. And when you are delivering your speech, walk around and make sure your eyes meet every section in the room, instead of only staring up at the ceiling or looking at the back of the room.

(Body language itself is a huge area of study and I'd perhaps write another article on it sometime later)

2. Know your audience

Changing your tone accordingly could help. Don't ever assume that you could use a general tone for every audience group. For example, opening your speech with a joke in front of a professional crowd may not be a wise choice, but doing so with a set of students could be.

3. You are the master of the show

This is the most difficult task for me, but in order to effectively deliver a speech without getting nervous you need to understand this fact. My mother would always tell me, "When you are on stage, think of the audience as fools". Sometimes it would help, but not always. But the bottomline here is that, deliver the speech as if you are "the man"! It takes alot of practice, experience and confidence to reach this level and I am also gradually changing my mindset.

This doesn't mean you have to be rude and irrational. Always be humble. People instantly start liking you.

4. The opening and the closing is the real deal

The audience will always judge you based on how well you can captivate their interest with your first few words. Start it with alot of enthusiasm, a quote, or humor (if you aren't really humorous, better not try it without experience).

In the same way, end it with your vision, a quote or something that makes them want more. What I do generally is summarize the gist of the speech in a powerful quote that I either create or acknowledge, so that I give them something to mentally take with them at the end of the presentation.

5. Share a personal experience

Nothing can hook an audience like a real life story. Of course don't show off or overdo it. But a short motivational or emotional story would always keep the audience interested.

6. Engage in an interaction

I'm not saying you need to do those 'warm-up exercises' people do in order to keep the audience awake, but in the most simplest of ways, you could interact by simply asking rhetorical questions at the audience.

Connecting with your audience is very important because then there is a mutual understanding between both parties. Both feel obliged to be doing what they should be doing (speaking / listening).

7. Do your pauses well
Just after you ask the audience a question, leave a pause. This generally gets the audience to register in the fact that you are going to follow up with a brilliant answer which will stay in their minds for a long time. Generally a pause of 4-5 seconds is a good sign.

Also, you could pause at the end of each important point you mention and ask them if they have any questions regarding what you just spoke.

8. Capture attention

Occasionally people may start looking into their mobile phones at a stretch or break away from the flow of the presentation. You could grab back their attention by doing a few things. You could do a 8-9 seconds pause. Even the most uninterested person in the room will look up when the pause is this long. You could then continue from where you took over or...

... you could also be a little sarcastic and go all "Seems like some of us are more interested on Temple Run than this boring presentation" etc (I haven't ever resorted to it.) But keep in mind, you can only do this in an informal setting. You can't expect to wake up judges who sleep through your presentation

9. First the problem, then the price

If you are planning on selling a product, don't just start off your presentation by introducing your product. Delay it. I generally talk about the problem, build a story around it and then introduce my product.

10. Use visual aids

If its a presentation, go ahead with a simple, minimalistic slide deck with just enough graphics, animations and transitions. Never overdo your slides with a lot of text and too many images or inconsistencies (different font styles, colors etc). It is always good practice to keep minimal text as this eliminates the possibility of you reading off the slides on the presentation line by line (which is a BIG put off)

11. Face your technical difficulties confidently

When its a powerpoint presentation, technical difficulties are bound to occur and there's nothing you could do about it. Your machine restarting half way through your presentation should not get you all sad and demotivated to go on. Everyone makes mistakes. But if you do nothing about it, then it is your mistake. For example, I faced this situation in a conference room amidst distinguished guests, but I tackled it in a subtle manner.

You could try to joke about the technical situation, or apologize for the inconvenience. Another way to overcome this time wastage would be to hand over your flow to the next speaker who's waiting for their turn and return back when you have sorted your issues, depending on the situation.

12. Dress your best and dress comfortably

I have quite often made this mistake of wearing attires that were looking professional, but that which I was half heatedly wearing because I didn't like them. This makes a huge impact on your performance. If you don't feel confident in your attire, you are not going to be confident while presenting. Always choose dresses that make you confident to walk among people.

13. Practise, practice and practice somemore.

Unless you are a renowned Toastmaster I would hardly encourage you to step forward and talk without practice. Sure, impromptu speeches are a great thing, but, let's talk about presentations and prepared speeches for now. You need enough practice to appear confident on stage. People normally have the habit of stammering or being "blank" but this is generally the case of lack of practice. Everyone practices in front of a mirror or in their heads before a speech, but no one accepts the fact.

It's also okay to take a long time finalizing your script. I usually take a long time to perfect it, but its okay.

14. Keep it short and sweet

It's okay to say "I'm going to keep this speech as brief as possible" as long you keep up to your word. If you think you can't, simply don't mention it, because the audience has mentally prepared their mind to be expecting you to be done with your speech at any moment from now. Instead you are going to give them more reasons to secretly wish they'd never see you again on stage with another speech.

15. There are no strict rules when it comes to speaking.

Dont let anyone tell you otherwise. All I have penned down here are tips, which you can adopt, mix with your own or ignore. These work for me, and I hope it does work for you as well, but if it doesn't don't get disheartened.

Have you ever wondered why its so easy to speak to your friends, but not to a group of people? Speaking to one, or speaking to many is still speaking. But we often get nervous and stay away, because we are afraid of being judged simply assuming that we are not doing it the right way. But, change that mindset as there is no right or wrong in speaking. Do what feels comfortable to you. If you like being humorous, start off with a joke. If you are someone who wants to make a change, start off with a motivational story. You are the master of your show, remember? Why let the rest of the world make you nervous?

"All the great speakers were bad speakers at first." — Ralph W. Emerson

The real bottom line here : Practice. Practice makes man perfect.

Want to hear more from Kripa? She blogs quite a bit over here, check it out.