If the very idea of delivering a speech to a crowd of people starts making your palms sweat, take some solace in the fact that you’re far from alone. Time and again, study after study has found that public speaking is one of the most common phobias for people around the world.
But it’s also something that a huge number of us are called on to do on a regular basis, and while some people will understandably do almost anything to avoid these high-stress situations, the reality is that in many cases, and many careers, public speaking is an essential skill to master.
Whether it’s a small workplace presentation or keynote address to thousands of people, when it comes to our professional lives, being able to speak confidently in front of an audience can sometimes prove to be the difference between sinking or swimming.
Over the course of my career, I’ve found myself in these situations many times, and while I’ll freely admit that I used to dread any form of public speaking, the more I’ve done it, the easier I’ve found it. Partly this is just through sheer practise, but it’s also because over the years I’ve developed a system to help me prepare for these occasions - one which helps me to clarify my message, identify the best way of delivering it, and feel confident in doing so on stage.
This system is based on three principles, which I believe are the fundamental elements of any successful public speech: Clarity, Authenticity and Respect.
Clarity seems obvious - if you want to be understood, being clear is fairly self explanatory, right? But many people don’t realise that this clarity needs to start with your own understanding of what you’re standing up to say. What exactly do you want your audience to walk away with an understanding of after listening to you speak? Being able to answer that question in a sentence or two should always be your first aim in this process, because if you walk out on stage without knowing what it is you’re trying to say, you probably won’t end up saying it.
As well as this, it’s alarmingly easy to overestimate just how much information people can take in at once, and it can be tempting, especially when discussing a topic you’re intimately familiar with, to want to squeeze in every morsel of information you possibly can.
But it’s worth remembering that for every fact and figure you churn out, or every data-laden slide you flash in front of your audience’s eyes, you’re increasing the chance that they’re going to miss the core of what you’re trying to say. So to avoid this, first and foremost you need to clarify your message to yourself: identify your key takeaways, so that you can ensure that everything you say serves to communicate them.
There’s an old quote about public speaking which underlines this point nicely:
“Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.”
When speaking on stage, it can be natural for things to feel... unnatural. We do most of our speaking in conversation - constantly improvising, reaching for phrases as and when we need them, and responding to our conversation partners in a relaxed manner. But on stage, things couldn’t be more different - suddenly, the words you’re saying are all pre-determined, and the relaxed back-and-forth is nowhere to be found - you’re the only person talking! Add into that the stress of simply being in front of a large group of people, and it’s no wonder that in this situation many of us revert to a robotic state of ‘just getting the words out’.
The problem with this is that while your surroundings might mean that you’ve been forced to abandon this naturalistic way of speaking, the audience hasn’t abandoned its naturalistic way of listening. This makes listening to a robotic recital of a pre-written script incredibly hard to engage with, because it’s quite simply not how we’re used to hearing humans talk. As a result, you sound inauthentic - and this creates a barrier between you and your audience, because humans are very wary of inauthenticity.
The solution here is to find a way of delivering your speech which allows you to move away from simply reciting (or worse, reading) a pre-written script, and instead speak in a way that will both feel, and sound, more natural.
This is central to the method I use, and we’ll talk more about it later.
At a conference some years ago, I saw a presentation by a speaker who was clearly incredibly nervous. He’d been invited to speak because he was an expert in his field, and the huge size of his audience reflected how eager people were to hear what he had to say. But it was obvious that he just wasn’t accustomed to speaking to large groups of people - he spoke quietly, faltered over every sentence, and could barely even bring himself to look up from his notes at the crowd of people in front of him. As you can imagine, it was difficult to watch.
But after a few minutes of this, in a moment that’s hard to describe without it sounding like the emotional climax of an inspirational film, the audience elected to show him that they were rooting for him. What began as a small show of solidarity - a few individuals clapping from somewhere at the back of the conference hall - only took a few seconds to get picked up by the crowd and grow into a full-scale standing ovation, complete with rapturous applause and enthusiastic cheers. Clearly spurred on by the overwhelming show of support, he visibly relaxed, and while still nervous, went on to deliver an interesting and insightful presentation.
This incident stuck with me because I feel like it speaks to something intrinsic to any public speech: Generally speaking, your audience wants to be your friend, not your enemy. They’re there because they want to hear you speak, and by showing up and giving you their time and attention, they’re showing you respect. That audience made their respect for the speaker clear, and once he realised they were on his side, it gave him the confidence he needed.
The important thing to remember though, is that respect is a two-way street. To keep receiving it from your audience, you need to give it back to them. The primary way of doing this is through preparation - making sure you’re rehearsed, have everything you need, don’t overrun, etc. because it shows that you’re respecting their time and that you’ve taken your responsibility seriously.
It’s a pet peeve of mine to hear speakers open a presentation by saying something along the lines of “I just finished these slides five minutes ago”. While I think it’s generally intended to be a mildly self deprecating stab at relatability, the only thing I hear is “I didn’t respect you enough to prepare for this properly”.
So make sure you show your audience the respect they deserve - as long as they feel respected, they’re on your side.
So having introduced the three principles, let’s take a look at how I use them....
STEP ONE - LAY OUT YOUR MESSAGE
Start with the basics: Write a series of bullet points listing the most important ideas you want to convey. For the sake of this example, I’m preparing a presentation on a subject close to my heart - the ways in which Back to the Future is the greatest film trilogy ever made:
The level of subtle detail means it can be rewatched again and again
It manages to tell an emotive story without taking itself too seriously and maintaining a sense of feel-good fun
It originally played on audiences’ nostalgia for the 50s, but now plays on their nostalgia for the 80s
It has an inspirational core message, made explicit at the end of the third film but supported throughout all three films
It’s full of 80s music, and 80s music is objectively awesome
This is your first step towards clarity - establishing exactly what points you’re intending to make. With those bullet points written, create a table three columns wide, and then in column one, write a short sentence or phrase that sums up one of your key points.
And in column two, make notes on potential ideas for visuals which directly support that point - those are going to become your slides later.
STEP TWO - WRITE YOUR SCRIPT
With this outline in place you can begin to write your script in column three - a paragraph or two in each row. The trick here though, is that whatever you write in column three has to fit within the scope of that row’s one sentence summary. This way you always have an eye on the idea you’re trying to communicate, and can’t get too far off track - maintaining your clarity.
STEP THREE - SHAPE YOUR NARRATIVE
Once you’ve populated this table, the bulk of your writing is done and you can start to shape your narrative. Rearrange the rows into an order that makes sense and feels natural, then work on making sure the paragraphs flow into one another. Jumping between topics will be jarring, so it’s good to try and keep a thread running through it, and aim for a fluid narrative arc in order to maintain the clarity you’ve worked so hard to create.
Mine is below - note that I’ve moved some topics that were related into an order which will make it easier to move between them and altered the beginnings of some of the paragraphs to follow on from where the previous one might have left off.
STEP FOUR - GET VISUAL
Now it’s time to turn those visual ideas into actual slides, referring to what you’ve now written in column three to make sure they match up. Remember, your slides are only there to support what you’re saying, so don’t worry about making them too detailed or super slick. Also try to remember that how things look on a monitor one metre from your face isn’t how they’ll look on a screen in a conference hall. Simple is better.
STEP FIVE - TAKE STOCK
By this point, things are in pretty good shape - you’ve got your slides, and have written the majority of your script. But so far, you haven’t said a single word of it out loud! So now it’s time to start converting from the written word to the spoken word. Doing so is our first opportunity to focus on the ‘respect’ element we discussed earlier, as you’re making sure that what you present to your audience is a good use of their time.
The first step here is to think about length. Once you get on stage, the last thing you want to be doing is watching the clock, worrying about running out of time, so now is a great opportunity to make sure you’re not massively over or under-running. The best way of doing this is simply to read what you’ve written in column three aloud, and time it.
Don’t worry about perfect delivery yet - that will come later - at this point you’re just focusing on how long it takes to say aloud. Every 150 to 200 words will be equal to roughly a minute of speaking time, so it’s surprisingly easy to reach this point and find you’ve written too much, but this is actually a good problem to have - use it as a chance to focus on clarity, and remove anything not directly supporting your key takeaways.
I find that a good rule of thumb is to aim for 80% of your allocated time to give yourself some breathing room. If you’ve been asked to speak for 5 minutes, go for 4. If you have 20 minutes, aim for 16. This gives you a buffer, allowing for a late start or questions at the end, and will ultimately let you take your time. This is going to be important for clarity (as you’ll be easier to understand), but also for authenticity (as you’ll be able to focus on the words you’re saying, rather the speed at which you’re saying them).
If possible, recording yourself reading the script will be a great move here too, so you can watch or listen back and pick out specific moments that might sound awkward or unnatural. I often find it isn’t until I read something I’ve written aloud that I notice an unwitting tongue twister, or an impossibly long run-on sentence full of impenetrable technical language. If it’s tricky to say, it’ll be tricky to listen to, so do yourself and your audience a favour by cleaning up anything that just isn’t working.
STEP SIX - TAKE IT OFF THE PAGE
Ok - it’s the right length, in the right order, covering the right things: it’s time to really start saying it. First and foremost, I’ll say that I’m not going to suggest you memorise it word for word. This is definitely a viable route to take for some people, but it can be an absolute minefield, and is incredibly time consuming to do properly, so nine times out of ten it’s not going to be the best option.*
Instead, here’s what I’d recommend. Read it aloud a few more times to get it fresh in your memory, and then print it out, cover up column three, and try saying the whole thing again - but this time using only the one sentence summaries and slides as prompts.
Don’t expect it to be perfect the first time - it’ll take a few attempts to get a feel for the flow of what you’re saying - and when you first try it, it’s fine to peek at column three to see what you missed. But at the same time, consider this a good filter - if you’re consistently missing something, it might not be essential to what you’re trying to say. It’s never too late to make changes in the name of clarity!
If you do this a few times, you’ll probably notice that you word it a little differently each time, but this is fine. In actual fact it’s better than fine - it’s actually the whole point of the exercise, as this kind of semi-improvised delivery requires you to actually think about what you’re saying as you say it, and will sound infinitely more authentic and engaging.
After a few rehearsals, try relying on just the slides. If you’ve chosen them well, it should be more than enough to keep things moving, and if it isn’t, try going back to the one sentence summaries until you feel more comfortable. Once you have the whole thing flowing using just the slides as prompts - you’re done! Sort of, anyway. Inevitably, the more you practise, the better you’ll be at it, and the more comfortable you’ll be once you get on stage, so the more time you put into rehearsal, the better. This heightened level of preparation will ultimately play into both the respect you’re showing your audience, and also the level of authenticity you’re able to show by presenting in a relaxed and relatable way.
This method has seen me through literally hundreds of speaking engagements, and while different things will work for different people, I think it’s a great structure to work from.
More than anything else, I find that the benefit of working this way is by the time I reach the point where I begin rehearsing, the cycles of writing, revising, rewriting and rehearsing have usually given me a much clearer understanding of what I actually want to say, and the best way to say it. So while reducing the whole process to “Clarity, Authenticity and Respect” might seem a little over-simplistic, I’ve always found those principles to be the crucial ingredients of honest, productive communication - no matter the audience.
And good communication is an incredibly powerful skill, with countless applications, on stage or off. So the next time that you’re asked to speak in public, I hope this system gives you the confidence and the tools you need to face that fear, and rise to the challenge - viewing it as an opportunity to hone your skills and improve your communication.
*If you’re interested in when it is the right option, Tim Urban wrote a great blog post in which he talks about different degrees of memorisation for public speaking, and how they played into his experience preparing for his TED talk.