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April 2024
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Overwhelmed by Advice?

The five things you must know about public speaking.

By Douglas Kruger, CSP

Douglas Kruger speaking onstage using hand gestures

Try this experiment: Imagine a new speaker asks you for the most important things you’ve ever learned about public speaking over the past 20 years. “But boil it down to five things only, please,” he adds. “Otherwise I’ll just get overwhelmed.”

I’ve been a Toastmaster for just shy of two decades, and a full-time professional speaker for the past 15 years. The idea of condensing all the lessons I’ve ever learned, from generous past Toastmasters World Champions of Public Speaking and highly paid professional speakers, into such a tight answer intrigued me. Was it possible?

Here’s what I came up with. Boiled down, these are the five philosophies I’ve found that will get you the most bang for your speaking buck:

1Create Images that Move

Anyone who’s been around speakers for more than 20 seconds will have heard the advice: Tell stories. After two decades, I can vouch for that excellent advice. The best speaking is simply this: Make a point, tell a story, make another point, tell another story.

Story illustrations help your point come alive. And the best ones evoke images that move or scenes that progress in the audience’s imagination. If they can see it in their mind’s eye, and follow the action, that’s winning half the battle.

You can spend years studying how to tell stories well in speeches, and you can become a master at the form. But the starting point is simply to be aware that stories are the heart and soul of good communication. Try to turn every point into a story.

2Be Gandalf, Not Frodo

There’s nothing wrong with speaking about yourself. But it shouldn’t be all about you, as though the whole point were to show off. Instead, you should be guiding the audience toward a goal, showing them how to achieve the things they want. Be Gandalf, not Frodo. Be Obi Wan, not Luke.

Make your speeches all about how the audience can get to where they want to go. It’s the difference between “How I wrote a bestselling book!” versus “How you can write a bestselling book!” Same speech, same stories, different orientation.

3Insert Pauses for Drama

I prefer a natural tone of speech. In fact, there’s nothing worse than when a speaker sounds like he or she is (dramatic voice) “delivering a speech!” Conversational is always best.

But to truly elevate the level of mastery in your delivery, pause after important points. It gives you time to think, it gives the audience time to digest, and if you put your pause in just the right place, it can add goose-bump levels of drama. Pauses heighten everything and make you look masterful.

4Move Around for Stories, Stand Still for Points

When should you move? When should you stand still? I find an excellent rule-of-thumb is this: When you’re getting caught up in telling a story, feel free to move around the speaking area and become animated. But when you get to the point of that story, chat directly with the audience. Stand still in one place, and just connect with them.

5Smile and Blink

Little things can give away your nervousness. For instance, when most inexperienced speakers stand in front of an audience, their eyes tend to go wide, and then switch off in a sort of “deer-in-the-headlights” stare.

I once heard some excellent advice to solve this: “Imagine there’s a light at the corners of each eye. Now switch that light on.”

Most real smiling actually happens around the eyes, not the mouth. Charm and warmth come from switching your eyes on, smiling, and allowing the eyes to crinkle every now and then. Sometimes the biggest difference between someone who looks amateur and a pro, is just that the pro remembers to smile.

Keep those five ideas in mind, and you can carve years off your learning curve.

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