December 28, 2018

How to Not Suck as a Speaker: 15 Ideas


When I was in eighth grade, I gave the commencement speech at my middle school graduation. I practiced hard, wrote and rewrote, selected my outfit, and delivered a powerhouse speech. Everyone from the teachers to my peers thought I’d surely pursue some sort of career in public speaking.

As the years wore on, however, I gravitated more toward writing. It started with creative writing, then turned to journalism, and finally became marketing and advertising. Banging out 1000 words on any given topic? That I can do. Put a mic in my hand or on my lapel, and I get sweaty, tongue-tied, and more than a little envious of my eighth-grade self.

I have been trying to understand public speaking for a long time now. It’s harder than I thought it would be when I first decided I wanted to speak on employer branding, recruitment marketing, and marketing in general.

What’s the deal? If I know the stuff, why can’t I say the stuff in a compelling way?

I don’t really know the answer to that question, but I am getting better! Here are the things I have done to see a little improvement in my public speaking:

1. Write It Out

I always write out the entire speech beforehand. A presentation can always go awry. If you write it out ahead of time, you have less to worry about when technical difficulties arise.

2. Start With a Story

I don’t know why this was such a blinding revelation for me. I have been starting stories for years now. I must have 27 first chapters of never-to-be-finished novels.

3. Give Your Team (or Yourself) Design Direction

Just because Powerpoints can go sideways doesn’t mean you should ignore great design. I go through my speech with design ideas for the team and highlight phrases I want spelled out on the slides. This accomplishes two things. First, it ensures I am not using every stinking word on the slides, as bad speakers are prone to doing. Second, it allows me to envision myself up on the stage with the visual behind me.

4. Listen to Yourself

Some people practice with notes. That never works for me. If I miss a word, it jacks up my whole flow. Instead, I record myself and listen to it over and over until I am sick of my own voice. This helps me with both speech memorization and cadence.

5. Watch Yourself

I swear on this green earth there is nothing more humbling than watching yourself give a speech. I have thousands of minutes of video on my phone that show me attempting not to sound and look like a moron. Most of the time, I record these videos right before I go on, which means I’m frantically putting on eyeliner and curling my hair in many of them.

6. Snap!

Are you an “umm”-er? Place a rubber band around your wrist and snap yourself every time you utter that dreaded filler sound. Your wrist will be red, but your presentation will be awesome.

7. Don’t Try to Be Something You’re Not

When giving a speech, I really want to stay behind the podium for many reasons. I love reading notes, and podiums hide notes really well. I am pretty clumsy and love high heels, so stages are dangerous places for me. However, I cannot for the life of me stay still during anything, and being on stage is no exception.

8. Find a Buddy or Two

I always find the people I am gonna creep out for the hour right up front. It can be hard to talk to hundreds or thousands of people, but it’s pretty easy to talk to four or five. When my mind has blanked, or I’m getting a little nervous, or I’m speaking too quickly, I will look at one of my “buddies” to collect myself. They can be anyone in the audience; you don’t have to know them.

9. Have a Joke to Tell

This is so important. Trust that the lights will go out, the presentation will fail to load, your mic will cut out, and the next speaker will be late. If you know a couple of great jokes, you can work the crowd until things settle down.

10. Shock and Awe 

That may be an exaggeration, but if you know a startling fact or an interesting anecdote, or you have space in your presentation to call someone in the audience out, use it. This instantly wakes people up and gets them into the groove — no easy feat in our smartphone-addicted age.

I have a presentation where I say, “And this is where people’s eyes usually glaze over — ARE YOUR EYES GLAZING OVER?” Wakes them up every time.

11. Sounds of Silence

Don’t be afraid of not talking. It’s okay to pause for effect, for a drink of water, to let a thought sink in, to let people take pictures of a slide, etc.

12. KISS

That is, “Keep it simple, stupid.” I know this is standard advice, but it took me forever to understand that my role on the stage is not to teach people everything I know; it’s to inspire them to learn more and give them a few tools to point them in the right direction. If every presentation could distill 20 years of knowledge into 45 minutes, college would not be a thing.

13. Practice in Front of Young People

The young will eat you alive. High school and college students can be rude; they’ll refuse to make eye contact and ask questions you might not have the answers to. They will also laugh when you trip or swear accidentally, which does lighten the mood.

14. Establish Who You Are

You have a reason to be speaking at this time, at this place, and on this subject. What is that reason? What do you want the crowd to know about you as a person? It’s easy to dismiss a speaker, but much harder to dismiss a mother of three who dropped out of high school and runs a multimillion dollar business.

15. Take It Personally, But Not Too Personally

I get feedback after nearly every event I do. Some of it is awful. In fact, a lot of it is awful. I know I was exceptionally bad when my friends compliment me too much. I need to take comments that come up time and again to heart. Those criticisms point to real failings that transcend subject and geography, meaning the problem is yours truly. However, when people criticize my hair, clothes, tattoos, or piercings, I don’t care. You shouldn’t either.

This article originally appeared on the Red Branch Media blog.

Maren Hogan is founder and CEO of Red Branch Media. You can read more of her work on Forbes, Business Insider, Entrepreneur, and her blog, Marenated.

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Maren Hogan is a seasoned marketer and community builder in the HR and Recruiting industry. She leads Red Branch Media, an agency offering marketing strategy and content development. A consistent advocate of next generation marketing techniques, Hogan has built successful online communities, deployed brand strategies in both the B2B and B2C sectors, and been a prolific contributor of thought leadership in the global recruitment and talent space. Hogan speaks and writes on all career and workforce related subjects. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies and SMBs around the globe. Red Branch Media was formed in 2006 as a simple consultancy. Today, the firm is a full-service B2B Marketing Agency that serves clients in the U.K., Africa, China, Israel, Europe and North America. Primarily focused on the Human Resources and Global Workforce vendors, Red Branch Media handles clients of all shapes and sizes.
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