On Public Speaking

Public speaking is an activity that inspires fear in nearly every student.  Developing public speaking skills, however, does not require you to be active in the theatre department, committed to the debate team, or interested in a future of politics and speech crafting.  In this guide we discuss a few of the main components of public speaking and how every student can improve them.

A skill for life

A recent survey asked 3,000 Americans to list their ten worst fears.  The number one fear: public speaking.  This is a skill that presents difficulties for everyone in our society, from high school students to CEO’s and scientists.

The key to reducing public speaking anxiety is practicing it.  It is important to realize that gaining experience in public speaking does not require you to be active in theatre or debate – it can come from activities such as participating in discussions, being active in a club, or conversing with a teacher.

Effective Public Speaking

When dealing with a school presentation, most students think public speaking is only about the delivery.  Speaking well, however, does not guarantee you are effectively communicating your points to your audience.  After a ten-minute speech, an average listener will only remember about half of what was said. A few days later, only a quarter of the content will remain.

For this reason, it is important to keep in mind several key components of public speaking: Invention, Organization, Practice, and Delivery.  Below, we present some tips on how to create and give an effective presentation based on these four foundations.

Invention

Invention refers to the outline of thoughts you prepare before the presentation.  During this stage, it is critical to ask yourself some key questions:

What are my teacher’s expectations for the presentation?

  • Format (Lecture style? Roleplaying/acting?)
  • Subject (Specific material that needs to be covered)
  • Purpose (To inform/teach? To persuade? To entertain?)
  • Time limit (Does this include setup time? Will you get a warning?)
  • Intended audience (Speaking to classmates? Scientists? Businessmen?)
  • Use of supplementary materials (PowerPoint, handout, video, audio, etc.)

It is important to figure out how much background knowledge you will have to include, and to devise ways to capture the audience’s attention.  This is the time to brainstorm and let ideas mature, so make sure you begin this creative stage at least a couple of days before your talk.

Organization

Organization involves choosing which information is most vital and arranging it into a coherent presentation.  At this point, you must choose how you wish to present your material. Do you start off with an anecdote to pique the audience’s interest, and then move into the background of the specific topic you are discussing?  Do you discuss a historical event in a sequential manner, allowing the audience to see the step-by-step development of an event?  This is the time to try several arrangements and see which one flows best.

During this stage, you must also decide what the important points that you want your audience to take away from your presentation are and structure your material accordingly.  Skilled presenters will tell you that the worst section to place important information in is the middle of the presentation – at this point, the audience’s initial interest has worn off, and they have not yet been reawakened by the change in your tone of voice that tells them the talk is almost over.

If you have something you want to say, it is thus important to mention it at both the beginning and end of your presentation.  These information bookends are the most critical part of your talk, so make sure you leave enough time at the end to finish.  One of the biggest pitfalls students experience is rushing through all that they have left to say when they get a 1-minute warning.  If you find yourself in this situation, make a mental inventory of the most important points remaining, and finish slowly and confidently with this information.

Most of all, in the Organization stage you must strive to keep your information simple and clear.  Don’t try to impress the audience with how much work or research you did – impress them with how concise and effective your presentation is.

Practice

In the Practice phase, you must do exactly as the name suggests – find a time to memorize your material and try out your presentation on friends, parents, and classmates.  You’ll get valuable feedback from each of these individuals, and you’ll master your material, which is one of the key ways to reduce nervousness.  By the time the day of your talk comes around, you should strike a balance between being well-prepared and genuine.  Anticipate what questions you may be asked and mentally sketch out answers ahead of time.

Delivery

Delivery is the phase most people zero in on when they think about public speaking.  While it is important, it is just one component of an effective presentation, along with those discussed above.

There are some key components of delivery to remember.  First, you must decide how you are going to present (Note cards, memorization, PowerPoint slides, etc.).  While you are practicing, avoid fillers such as “like,” “ah,” “um,” or “uh.”  If you need time to collect your thoughts, simply stay silent for a second or two.  People will hardly notice these gaps and it will make you sound measured and confident.  Every student knows there is nothing more distracting than a “like” every other word.

Try to control your fidgeting, make eye contact, and otherwise have a sense of how you are projecting yourself physically.  Pay attention to vocal characteristics such as volume, clarity, tone, and inflection.  If you stand upright and square-shouldered behind the podium, scan the room for eye contact, and speak authoritatively, clearly, and slowly, you will command your audience’s attention, and all of the information you invented, organized and practiced will make its way into their memories.

Recommendations

  1. Become aware of opportunities to practice public speaking in everyday life
  2. Understand your teacher’s expectations and begin brainstorming several days beforehand
  3. Organize the most important information into a coherent and concise presentation
  4. Practice your presentation and get feedback on what can be improved
  5. Deliver confidently, with awareness of your physical and vocal presence

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