Perfecting the art of public speaking

In 1984, a New York Times survey on social anxiety found that people’s top two fears were walking into a room full of strangers and speaking in public. Death came third. (That means most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.)

Being able to speak in public is an important skill to develop, as it has so much impact on how you are perceived and the influence you have on others. It builds your personal brand, helps you promote your department, and ultimately, benefits your career. It can inspire and shift mindset, and set the path for success by engaging the audience (maybe your organisation) to a new direction or initiative.

Once you’ve reached a certain level in your career, you’ve probably had some training to improve your presentation skills. So you might think you know it all already, But, like anything, best practice evolves over time.

This article explores the latest thinking on presentation skills, and is written in conjunction with one of my associates, Jackie Barrie. A professional member of the Professional Speaking Association UK & Ireland, and co-founder of the South East region, Jackie is an expert in getting your message across, whether on paper, on screen, or face-to-face.

Objectives of your presentation

As I’m always saying, it’s best to start with the end in mind. First, you need to know the purpose of your presentation. Here are some suggestions (it may be appropriate to tick more than one):



Before you start planning your presentation, you need to find out who your audience is, what they know already and what they need to know. Discover whether anything is going on with them that you need to address (maybe there’s an ‘elephant in the room’). You also need to uncover any cultural implications you should be aware of.

Top tip: Rather than guessing what they need to know, or simply sharing what you want to tell them,  Jackie suggests interviewing a few audience members in advance so you can tailor your talk exactly to their needs. It’s a simple idea, but rarely done – and it really works.

The answers will guide the style and length of your talk. For maximum impact, it’s usually best to keep it short and simple (remember the acronym, KISS). Although it’s tempting to share every single thing you know about the subject, less is always more.


It’s wise to practice your talk, even if you do it in front of a mirror. Better yet, try it out with a trusted friend who will give you honest feedback.

Get yourself videoed, if possible, even on a smartphone. When you watch it back, you will instantly see what went well and what you might like to try differently next time.

Plan to speak for a little less time than you’ve been asked. On the day, chances are that you will start late, talk at a different rate, or get interrupted. Ask someone to give you a discreet five-minute warning, or use your own timer (there are plenty of timer apps to choose from).

Never ever ever run over time – especially if you’re due on stage before a break. It’s disrespectful to the event organiser, the MC and the other speakers. Even more importantly, the audience will thank you for it.

Try to sleep well the night before so you are fresh and at your best.


No matter what you say, and how brilliant you may be, people won’t remember more than one main takeaway, so you need to focus your talk around that.

A simple structure for a talk of any length is:

  • Beginning
  • Key point 1 supported by evidence and stories
  • Key point 2 supported by evidence and stories
  • Key point 3 supported by evidence and stories
  • End

A flow like that is easy to remember, so you won’t need notes. Notes distract the audience and make the speaker seem unprofessional. You can always have them in your pocket or on the lectern, but only refer to them if you get stuck – and own up to the audience when you do; they will respect you for it.

Your first and last lines are most important, because the opening grabs attention and the ending reminds the audience of your main message. You may need to learn a script for those, while being more freestyle with the content in the middle.

Write an introduction for the MC to read out that gives your credentials and benefits to the audience – then you can start with a wow, not a biography. A confident opening is crucial. In the first few seconds, the audience will decide whether or not it’s worth listening to you.

Don’t panic if it seems the audience are on their phones and not listening to you – they may be double-checking your content online, or tweeting your most quotable quotes.

Top tip: If you take questions at the end, you have no control over what’s asked and might find your key point is derailed. That’s why Jackie recommends you end with a summary after answering the questions.


As well as giving facts and evidence to support any claims you make, storytelling is an important part of a good presentation as it connects direct with the emotions of your listeners.

However, there are stories that have been told so often they have become clichés, such as the starfish on the beach tale (“I made a difference to that one”).  You don’t want to bore the pants off your audience, or lose authenticity!

To keep people’s attention, it’s best to tell your own stories. Telling personal stories will help you connect with an audience of any size.  When storytelling, it’s not wise to make someone else the butt of the joke as you risk causing offence. Rather than bragging, it’s preferable to show vulnerability. The more humble and self-effacing you are, the more the audience will warm to you.

This links to my articles about using storytelling in business, the power of vulnerability and the role of a leader.

Visual aids

We’ve all heard the expression ‘Death by PowerPoint’. It could also be called ‘Death by bullet point’ as it applies to all presentation software, including Keynote and Prezi.

Slides are not there as a memory aid for the speaker, and they are not the same as a handout. If you need to give out lots of information, print it, offer a download link, or send it by email afterwards. Don’t try to put everything on your slides.

Never turn your back on the audience and read off the slides. This is not as unlikely as you might think!

Consider whether you need to use slides at all. If you need a visual, using physical props can be more memorable and interesting.

If you are using slides, the current trend is to ‘think poster’. Visual images will be remembered more than text. You might have a title slide, but you don’t need the logo, title, date and branding on every slide after that – by then, the audience already know who you are, where you are, and what you’re talking about.

For more on this, Jackie recommends these good books about slide design, written by professional speakers she knows:


I wrote recently about managing generations X, Y and Z, and made the point that millennials have a shorter attention span. They like to be involved rather than just sit and listen to a chalk-and-talk style lecture.

To engage them, you need to mix up your delivery style. One of the things Jackie does is ‘gameify’ presentations with creative icebreakers, energisers and activities.

For example, she was asked to suggest a new breakout session for a speaker in the Far East. He’s an adventurer and explorer, so, as you can imagine, his talk is full of inspiring stories and images. However, in his breakout sessions, he asked the audience to fill in boxes on A4 paper, which wasn’t really congruent with the rest of the experience.

Jackie suggested something completely different that would be really memorable for his audience and unique to him. The C-suite executives will be invited on stage to put up – and put away – a pop-up tent, perhaps while wearing gloves and sunglasses to replicate his experience in the wild. He can then draw out lessons about leadership, team-building, communication or whatever, while the audience delight in their leaders fumbling, or rejoice in their success.


Get to the venue early so you become familiar with the space where you’ll be presenting. The event organiser will be relieved to know you’re there in good time, and it will reduce your stress levels too. Make time to introduce yourself to the technical team (if any) – they can make or break your talk. Use the time to check the room is laid out as you would like, and that you can be seen and heard from every seat in the room.

If you’re wearing a microphone, you need time to set it up and test the sound. Also, microphone battery packs are seemingly designed to suit men’s tailored clothing, as they’re too heavy for softer fabrics. Men can simply hook the battery pack over their waistband/belt and clip the mic to their tie or lapel. Women, take note of this so you can plan what to wear!

Be aware that it takes a while to adjust a headset mic comfortably under long hair. If using a handheld mic, remember to move the mic with you as you turn your head, and practice turning it off and on. Either way, ensure the mic is not so close to your mouth/nose that it picks up each puff of air as you exhale or say words containing the letter P.

What to wear

Women – don’t wear jangly jewellery or let your hair/scarf dangle over your mic. Men – don’t stuff your pockets with bulky objects, as they ruin the outline, while keys and coins may rattle.

You need to dress one level up from your audience. If they are smart casual, you need to be smart smart.


Jackie’s rockstar jacket

Jackie likes to wear a bright colour so she stands out when she’s presenting, and can easily be recognised in the coffee breaks. In fact, she has invested in what she calls her ‘rockstar jacket’, and says it gives her confidence as soon as she puts it on.

If you’re speaking on a stage (or ‘platform’ for our US readers), be sure to wear smart shoes that are not scuffed, as they may be directly in the eyeline of the front row. Beware clacky heels that will be distractingly noisy.

If your presentation is being videoed, I was advised to wear a dark colour. Don’t wear stripes as they ‘flicker’ on screen. In the old days, you couldn’t wear red as it caused ‘flare’, but that’s no longer the case.

Some presenters hold a flipchart pen or laser pointer as if it’s a sword – note that it won’t protect you from the audience, so put it down when you’re not using it. The same applies to the clicker.

If you keep the clicker in your hand, get comfortable with using both arms to gesticulate, otherwise the natural instinct is to keep your clicker-hand still, which looks oddly one-sided to the audience.

Watch out for nervous habits you may have, such as starting every sentence with ‘So’, or rocking from foot to foot.  Jackie remembers attending a conference with a Q&A panel of board members. One of them was bouncing his hand up and down in his lap. This nervous twitch looked entirely innocent to half the audience, but the other half couldn’t stop giggling.

More information

This article links to my previous articles:

Jackie specialises in content and structure. If you’d like her help to build your presentation (or to receive constructive and specific feedback on a video of you presenting), please let me know.

As well as being a coach and facilitator, I’ve been creating these regular leadership insights since 2011. I speak about all the subjects I’ve ever covered, to help benefit leaders, teams and organisations. For more information (and to view my showreel) please see my new speaking page.

Next month

Running your team using virtual facilitation.