In my last blog post I wrote about why it’s important to build our public speaking skills and how Aggie Toastmasters can be a helpful tool to help us improve those skills. Here, I wanted to discuss a few ways that we can consciously improve our speaking skills whether in the classroom, in a seminar, or giving a major speech in an auditorium full of thousands of eager, engaged, and excited audience members.
1.) Know your material
. This is pretty obvious, but I’ve been surprised at the number of presentations I’ve seen (research presentations, public lectures, and various non-technical speeches) in which the speaker didn’t really seem to have a complete and thorough grasp of the topics they were talking about. Know your material as thoroughly as possible, try to anticipate questions, and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know if someone stumps you with a question afterwards!
2.) Know your audience.
Are you talking to a group of fifth graders, or to a room full of PhDs at a research conference? Scientists are notoriously bad at adapting technical information for presentations to a more general audience. So, if giving a research presentation, don’t be overly technical unless there’s a specific need to be. Adapt your material to be the most useful to the specific audience on hand.
Posture is one of the critical components of confidence, which in turn is a major player in effective communication and public speaking. Keep a straight back, your head up, and remember that you belong up there. None of this slouching nonsense! Research has shown that even something as simple as improving your posture can have a positive effect on self-confidence. And when we’re up in front of a big group, sometimes we need all the help that we can get! Check out Amy Cuddy’s ted talk on body language if you’re in need of more motivation.
4.) Hand gestures.
Effective nonverbal communication is essential to all sorts of interpersonal interactions, public speaking included. When in front of a room, one tip to keep in mind is to keep your chest open, not closing yourself off with your body language. This makes you seem open and engaging with your audience. If you can physically move around, then don’t be afraid to use the available space to your advantage. Move around a bit (and don’t look down at the ground) and you’ll exude a surprising air of confidence. And of course, don’t forget to use hand gestures where appropriate too!
5.) Eye contact.
Admittedly, this can be intimidating if you are the least bit nervous. But fail to make adequate eye contact with the audience, and they’ll be able to tell. It’s easy to get up there and want to look at the floor or stare at the projector screen if you’re giving a presentation. But instead, try glancing out over the audience periodically- looking just above their heads if that feels more comfortable. It’s an age-old trick, but it works!
6.) Speak slowly and articulately.
One of my biggest struggles when speaking in front of a group has always been moderating the tempo of my speech. I believe this stems from a combination of excitement, anxiety, and wanting to finish as soon as possible. It takes a conscious effort on my part to moderate my speed! If in question, I always try and err on the side of speaking too slow rather than too fast. Not only does a slower speech pattern make you a better speaker and make it easier to articulate your words properly, but it can also carry an undertone of authority and make your words carry more weight.
7.) Filler words
. The “like’s”, “um’s”, “so’s” and “you know’s” of the world are so easy to use as a verbal crutch and slip in to buy ourselves a moment when we’re not sure what to say next. Many times, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. The next time you are up in front of a room teaching or giving a research presentation, try to focus on the use of these words and when you would normally use one, stop. Substitute a quick pause in there instead. If used correctly short pauses can actually be a great tool to lend the appearance of authority to what you’re saying, draw attention to a specific point, and moderate the flow of your speech/presentation (see #6 above). They’re a valuable tool that we have in our arsenal and don’t use often enough.
8.) Look happy!
Many of us are apprehensive or even terrified when we have to get up in front of a room and speak to a large group. But if you don’t want to be up there, it will show. Attitudes are contagious. Your audience will notice, and then they won’t want to be there either. Instead, be happy! Make your audience feel like they matter. Think of it as an opportunity to share your ideas with a multitude of people all at once.
Michael McCloy is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Wildlife & Fisheries Sciences