3 Surprising Ways to Instantly Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

Most people hate public speaking, don’t they?

Anecdotally, we hear that people would rather die than have to get up in front of a group of other human beings and make a presentation.

I sure can relate to that! People who know me now might not believe this, but I grew up very shy and I was shaking in my shoes the first time I had to deliver a report in front of the class in school.

But as of today, I’ve conducted 1,893 presentations, classes, workshops, and keynote speeches to groups ranging from only a handful of people to grand ballrooms with many hundreds of people.  I’ve also authored 3 books on public speaking skills.

Public speaking can actually become quite addictive! – But we can all stand to improve our skills.

So come along with me on this fun and adventurous blog post to discover some seriously rad skills to instantly – yes instantly! – improve your public speaking & presenting skills.

I am going to point out some common things I see people doing wrong, and outline exactly how to fix it, instantly of course!

More importantly: don’t just learn these skills, use these skills and you’ll definitely become a much more dynamic, masterful, and effective presenter.

Instant improvement #1: No stage prowling

What you’re doing wrong:
That random prowling around the stage you’re doing, that pacing back and forth? – that needs to stop.

I know it makes you feel better and you just “like doing it” but it’s highly distracting. Moreover, it’s detracting from your presentation’s effectiveness. Leave the stage prowling to Chris Rock, okay?

How to fix it:
Map out several spots on the stage and assign an “audience state of mind” to that spot.

Also assign a single spot where you’ll stand and generally present (call that your “sweet spot”).

Those other spots you map out and present from could be an “audience intense curiosity spot” or the “revealing juicy secrets spot.”

You have probably never considered the fact that you should be consistently eliciting specific states of mind in your audience, and that those specific states can be “set and recalled” by using this technique.

Stand still in each spot, and do not mix them up.

Don’t let the seeming simplicity of this technique fool you; it’s extremely powerful. Decide on 2 or 3 audience states (more only if appropriate) that will be useful or important to elicit in your audience, and map those spots at least 3 or 4 steps away from your “sweet spot.”

Pro tip: Get yourself into the state you want your audience to be in when you’re in each spot, or tell a story that elicits that state.

Super-pro tip: You can’t do this if you’re stranded at a podium. Instead, use very specific gestures, facial expressions, and voice tones to delineate and elicit specific audience states.

Super-duper pro tip: Build a chain of states into your presentation that makes sense, such as: intense curiosity, then strong fascination, and then burning desire.

Instant improvement #2: Your voice speed

What you’re doing wrong:
Different people listen at different speeds but you’re only speaking at one speed. That means you’re not “getting through” to 66% of the audience, and frankly you run the risk of annoying a lot of people as well.

How to fix it:
First, you need to understand that not everyone processes information the same way. For brevity’s sake I’ll sidestep the relationship between voice speed and visual vs. auditory vs. kinesthetic information processing.

Just know this: some people prefer to hear a speaker talk quite fast, some prefer a speaker talk quite slowly, and others prefer a more medium voice speed. Vary your voice speed periodically during your presentation. Doing this ensures you reach all listening types in the room.

Pro tip: Varying your voice speed will dramatically increase your charisma.

Super-pro tip: You can combine voice speed variance with eliciting audience states of mind.

Super-duper pro tip: When speaking fast, hold your head still and do not gesture; when speaking medium-speed, bob your head and gesture a lot.

Instant improvement #3: Reaching the 4 processing styles

What you’re doing wrong:
You’re not designing your presentation to systematically include the “why people,” the “what people,” the “how people,” and the “what-if?” people.

How to fix it:
Generally, each person in your audience cares about why, what, how, or what-if information ahead of all else.

For example, the “why people” want to hear about the what and the how, but they badly need you to tell them why they should care, or else all of the what and how info will have no purpose, no meaning, no context.

Similarly, “what people” want the data and facts, and are less interested in the big picture or exactly how to use the data.

The “how people” want to know how to make things work; they don’t care as much about context or the raw data.

The fix here is to be sure to structure your presentation to include data and facts for the “what people,” steps and procedures for the “how people,” and big picture context for the “why people.” A simple Q&A session will cover the “what-if people.”

Pro tip: Always start with why – it sets context and the “how” and “what” people don’t mind waiting through that.

Super pro tip: Sometimes you can combine the why and the what by presenting facts, data, and statistics as the reasons why people should care about the rest of what you have to say / present.

Super-duper pro tip: Realize that “what-if people” will be looking for where things don’t make sense in what you say – they’re not necessarily mismatching you for the sake of being contrary, they’re a valuable asset to you because they’ll help you find holes that you may need to fill in later.  If they stump you with questions, or what-if scenarios you don’t know how to address, thank them and promise to look into it. Then get back to them and you both win.

Made it this far? – Here are a few bonus tips

Bonus tip #1: Scale way, way back on the PowerPoint slides. Only put 2 kinds of things on a PowerPoint slide:

  1. Something that will visually explain something that otherwise would take many words to explain – for example, a line chart showing how mobile phones are taking over desktop computer purchases / searches.
  2. What you absolutely want your audience to remember. Let me repeat because this is so easy to slide-by: Only, yes only, what you absolutely want your audience to remember.

Frank Sinatra once said “if you need anything more than a microphone and a spotlight, you’re an amateur.”

Make the focus of your presentation you, not the slides we’re busy reading while we’re not really hearing what you’re actually saying. After you put up that slide or chart, blank the screen so people focus on you, so we don’t daydream while looking at your current slide.

Bonus tip #2: Have a single, concise, clear call to action at the end of your presentation. Tell people exactly what you want them to do.

One and only one thing.

Pick what you most want – call me, follow me on Twitter, go buy my book at the back of the room –whatever it is, tell them clearly and concisely what they should do now, do next.

Bonus tip #3: No meta comments

Keep your internal soundtrack to yourself. Avoid saying stuff like “wow, it sure is hard to see you all with the bright lights in my eyes” or “this remote clicker is so sensitive”. Keep that kind of stuff to yourself, and stick to what you want to present.

Bonus tip #4: Assume you have too much material and not enough time

I know for sure someone crams too much into their presentation  when they say things like “wow, I’m running out of time. I’ll have to blast through the next 136 slides I have left” (see bonus tips 1 and 3 above). Sure, you’re trying to deliver as much value as possible, but if you can’t spend adequate time on everything, then you’re short-changing – and frustrating – your audience.

If you don’t read anything else, read this:

One of the top objections I hear from speakers about these skills is “If I do that stuff I’m not being myself / not being authentic.”

I have quite a lot to say about that (aside from how that’s just not true) but for now I’ll leave you with 2 important considerations:

  1. Your presentation is about your audience, not about you.
  2. If you speak only English and you move to Japan, are you going to insist that everyone speak your language? That’s arrogant and short-sighted. By incorporating these skills, you’re demonstrating behavioral flexibility and you’re putting the needs of your audience ahead of your needs.

What to do now?

In the comments section below, please tell me all the reasons why you think I’m right or wrong! Have a question? Feel free to ask here.

Thanks for reading; I hope you’re buzzing with excitement to incorporate these skills to improve your next presentation!

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  1. David! A generous and smart post, really helpful to speakers at all levels.
    I’d add that there’s a lot to be said for:
    a. never putting words on slides, not one
    b. using the presenter display in Keynote to see your NEXT slide before the audience does, so you can talk to them instead of to the slides
    c. don’t do Q&A unless you can make it the centerpiece of your work.

    1. Hey Seth – thanks much for your kind words and for offering some additional helpful tips!

    2. Presenter display is a MUST. I’m always amazed when, at conferences, they don’t have their computers set up for this. Nor do they have any way to allow for it.

  2. What a fantastic post. I’ve only had a few public speaking adventures, but my goal is to have a lot more. These tips are definitely getting printed and saved. Seth’s comments are great too.

    1. Thanks Troy – I hope these tips help your future public speaking adventures to be even more successful, and fun!

  3. I dislike public speaking. My nerves are making me digress from what I’m suppose to talk about and that’s really embarrassing especially if you’re in front talking to smart people.
    That’s why I really like articles with tips on how to overcome such a weakness. I like how the tips are divided into three parts. Definitely a post to bookmark!

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Riza. One way to frame these skills is that by using them you will be taking the focus off of yourself, and that can go a long way to reducing or even eliminating nervousness – a happy by-product of utilizing these techniques.

  4. This was an intense post. My head is reeling. Thanks for the “audience state of mind” info. Definitely can get them eating out of your hand with that.

    1. Glad you found the post useful, Ray. I always liked the phrase “influencing with integrity” – when we get up and speak we’re going to be influencing people anyway, so if we set our outcome to win/win and provide the group with a set of experiences that support that outcome… ’nuff said, eh?

  5. Wow, Seth Godin chimed in! He was my best guide for “how to use PowerPoint” in recent years.
    When I saw Seth present, he directly contradicted your bonus tip #1. He used a new slide every 30 seconds. But his slides were very carefully designed to enhance each point he was making… almost each sentence. And, if I remember right, they were ALL images. So it was like he was saying the captions to the images.
    I have, of course, seen far to many boring and redundant PowerPoint presentations, and understand why you recommend minimalist slides. But maybe that’s a recommendation for public speaking noobs, while the pros will benefit from experimentation.
    Assigning different parts of the stage to different audience states of mind is brilliant. I’m giving it a shot next chance I get.

    1. Glad you liked the idea of using spots on the stage to set and recall states. PowerPoint has it’s place but “death by PowerPoint” (and just plain over-reliance on it) seems far too common and I also have seen a lot of people putting too much focus on “really awesome slides” with stuff like kittens and Lego creatures… I can’t remember what the speaker talked about but I remember slides had kittens and Legos. I wonder if that’s what they really wanted me to remember? (wink wink)

  6. Thanks for the tips. I’m a big believer in not pacing on stage but I still catch myself sometimes moving more than I should. Picking our specific audience spots is a great idea. I can’t wait until my next speaking engagement.

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