19 Ways To Improve Your Public Speaking

Most of us will be called upon to deliver a presentation or speech at some stage in our lives, whether it be at work, a public meeting or a social gathering. And for many people this can be a daunting prospect.

Yet by following some simple tried and tested techniques you can dramtically improve your confidence and delivery. 

Here are my 19 top tips on how to write and execute a knockout performance. 

​​​​​​​Good luck!

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By Milly Ellis

1. Should you speak at all?
It is always flattering to be asked to speak but being asked doesn’t (always) mean that you have to say yes.

What is the topic?  Ask yourself if you have the knowledge and expertise that is required, the time to deliver the speech and the much greater time to prepare it. How long are they expecting? Who are the audience? What is the upside and what is the downside? Politely saying no may sometimes be the appropriate response.
2. Know your audience
Their age, their sex, their backgrounds, their interests, what they already know, what they don’t know and what they are hoping to know – in short why they are there.  Showing that you took the trouble to find out about an audience will help win them over.   Your speech must grab their attention, it must entertain, it must inform and it must be memorable but for all the right reasons.

Knowing your audience will help you develop your message and hit the right note.   It’s not unusual for the mother of the bride to be at her daughter’s wedding so how is it that so many best men think that locker room stories about the groom are going to be met with approval.  Be funny but be appropriate.

3. Get Started  
Got a speech to write, don’t procrastinate. Start now. Even if you don’t have to deliver it for weeks or months (or even years). Start a note book, create a word document and start thinking. What is the central theme? How might you structure it? Jot down ideas and jokes and stories.

That perfect quote – write it down, that feeling – commit it to the page. That brainwave that comes to you in the bath – text it to yourself. You might remember it later but then again you might not so don’t leave it to chance. Do you need to do research or gather information from other people?  Research is time consuming and other people are sometimes slow so Get Started Now.
4. Get Writing
Jotting down notes and quotes and anecdotes is the easy bit. There comes a point when you have to do the hard yards of pulling it all together. Don’t leave it too late. The devil of displacement activity will be on your shoulder suggesting TV programmes to watch, cupboards that need cleaning, old friends to hook up with. Banish that devil and fire up your computer.

Start with structure. What are you trying to say, what is your over-arching message, your one important theme? Once you’ve got it hammer it home. Remember the show biz formula -  you need an attention grabbing opening, a great ending and then the boring stuff goes in the middle but it doesn’t have to be boring, not if you put the work in.


5. First Words - Five ways not to start your speech
Do not admit you are afraid of speaking in public (you should have called Be Heard). Do not admit you are not prepared – that’s lazy and rude. Do not say you would rather be somewhere else – that’s also rude. Do not apologise for your speech – don’t give the audience ideas, your speech might actually be quite good.

6. First Words - Five ways to start your speech
Start with an anecdote. Anecdotes and stories, especially personal ones are memorable and create connections between the speaker and his audience. Start with a question. Questions create a knowledge gap that the listeners will want to fill. Start with a quote but make sure it is short and ideally one the audience hasn’t heard before. Start with a startling statistic or fact – they will grab the listener’s attention and stop people falling asleep. Start with an historic or an historical event.


7. Be yourself
Your audience wants to know who you are, why you are giving the speech and how you got to be there. Only by letting people get to know you will you truly connect with your audience. It is vital to tell your truth and allow the audience to benefit from your experiences, your valuable lessons, your successes but especially your failures. Your failures will make us all feel so much better about ourselves.

8. Rhetorical devices
Keep the language simple and the sentences short – beware the tendency to use words that are more complicated than necessary and bring your speech to life with classical rhetorical devices. You will probably be familiar with the rule of three, contrasts, rhetorical questions, comparisons, contradictions, similes, metaphors, analogies, oxymorons, hyperbole and paradox.

But how about:

  • Epexegesis - adding words or phrases to add meaning or clarification. “Well, he’s kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace “accidentally” with “repeatedly” and replace “dog” with “son”, “Lionel P Hutz” or “The Simpsons”.
  • Antanclasis - the repetition of a word or phrase, the meaning of which changes with the second repetition. “Your argument is sound, nothing but sound” (Benjamin Franklin). Or even ...
  • Antonomasia - the substitution of an epithet or nickname for a common name: ‘The Iron Lady’ for Margaret Thatcher.

9. Paint pictures
Make your speech visual by ‘painting pictures with words’. Martin Luther King’s ‘great beacon light of hope shining’ across America allowed his audience to immediately ‘see’ his point. Imagery enables us to encapsulate complex ideas in brief economic ways: Sometimes a single word, phrase or sentence gets across an idea that might otherwise take much longer to explain.

Try using a deliberately altered clichéd idiom for comic effect as Ann Richards did on George Bush Snr.:  ‘He was born with a silver foot in his mouth’ or ‘the grass is always greener over the septic tank’.

10. Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite
The importance of preparation cannot be overstressed. Read your speech aloud – the written word doesn’t always sound the way you imagine or flow the way you hope it will – and keep polishing. Why not follow Churchill’s example who rehearsed in the bath, rehearsed in front of the mirror and rehearsed in front of his butler. Those to whom public speaking seems effortless are those who expended the most effort writing and re-writing, honing and polishing and rehearsing in front of their butlers. The impression of spontaneity is the product of practice.


11. Anecdotes are incredibly useful
Story telling is engaging and the implied personal nature of an anecdote encourages the audience to empathise with you, as they start to feel more familiar with you.

12. Slides
If incorporating slides, use them to illustrate your point and not to repeat your text. Don’t be a slave to PowerPoint.

13. Clarify your goals
Establish to yourself what the purpose of the speech is and what is the ideal outcome. Clarity of purpose assists keeping you on course. When dealing with complicated situations the secret is to know why you are there and who your audience is. Remember, you will not be able to please everyone all the time.

14. Remember the rhetorical term ‘chronos’
What do you want and what are the steps you need to take in order to successfully deliver your message? Set a clear outcome that is achievable, measurable and pleasurably challenging. In other words, break it down.

15. Timing
Be clear about the expected/appropriate duration – and when it’s written read your speech aloud to check its running time. Audiences have an attention span of about 15 minutes, after this, it is best to err on the side of brevity.  Clearly, if people expect you to deliver a fifty minute lecture, make sure to add humour and repetition but most of all keep it to fifty minutes.
16. Audience needs
It is essential that we recognise listeners’ needs: speak clearly, with an interesting dynamic range; slowly enough for your voice to reach the back of the room; end words, so that they carry; make jokes; tell stories; use interesting ideas.  In short mumbling, lack of energy or simply monotonal voices will result in the audience disconnecting.

Equally the pedantic or overstepper - fills us with too much information and that also puts up barriers.  It is a general rule that you let them know what you are going to say, you say it and then you summarise the important things to ensure they are absorbed.  You can let them know the duration up front. Less is more. Have ONE important theme, hammer it home.

17. Repetition
If you want people to remember things have three important things and repeat them three times in different ways but with the tagline, clearly underlined.

18. Logical structure
If rhetorical techniques, imagery, anecdotes and other tools are to succeed in underlining and elevating your main theme and points, you need first, to build a structure. Prepare an outline with a logical narrative and structure – if audiences become confused they will stop listening. The structure accommodates your 'ladder of thought' so that you flow effortlessly from one idea to the next, which helps your audience to stay on track with you.

19. Seven steps
There are seven steps that are recognised to be the inviolable process to creating masterful presentations or speeches and they are as follows:

  • Analyse the audience
  • Brainstorming the topic
  • Create the structure
  • Say it creatively
  • Create visual aids 
  • Rehearse and time it 
  • Prepare for question time

Create an attention grabbing opening

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Milly Ellis  Voice Coach

Milly Ellis is a voice coach and speaking adviser. After many years honing her craft as an acting coach for film and stage, Milly began concentrating on the voice in 2010. She has worked with business leaders, managers, professionals, public figures, actors and drama students and offers one-to-one and group coaching sessions from her studio in Westbourne Grove. More about Milly >