Here’s How to Be a Great Public Speaker

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“The good news is that everyone can become a pro.”

Public speaking doesn’t have to be a terrifying high-wire act. Here, in an excerpt from her new book On Brand, author Aliza Licht explains how to master the art.

I was nine years old when I first realized something was wrong with my speech. I came home from school crying to my mother that I was called on to read in class, but the words wouldn’t come out. My mother was swift to find an answer. It turns out that I had a stuttering problem. Not really the type where you repeat sounds, but more that I would hold my breath and get stuck on certain letters. Vowels were my enemy, and it sort of sucks when your name begins with one. My mother wasn’t going to let this issue become my defining character. Cut to endless hours of speech therapy throughout all my years of school and into college, and somehow, with great doctors, I overcame this. But while I was going through it, I shied away from any situation that would put me in a position to publicly speak.

If you told me back in third grade that I’d one day go on TV and speak in front of audiences of hundreds of people and enjoy it, I never would have believed you. Since then, I’ve spoken on the stages of the New York Times, Carnegie Hall, The Today Show, Good Morning America, and more. I’ve lectured on college campuses across the country and presented everywhere, from SXSW to companies like Instagram and Salesforce. I’m now skilled at this, but that said, there’s never a time when I head up onstage and don’t instantly flash back to third grade — stressing, for a brief moment, that I’ll stumble on my words. But I never let that stop me, and you shouldn’t let fear stop you, either.

While you may think you’ll never need these skills, I assure you that you’re wrong. The ability to deliver your message with poise and clarity is essential. The importance of being a strategic and dynamic communicator shows up in every aspect of business, whether speaking on Zoom, in a conference room, prepping for an interview, pitching a new business, or presenting to an investor. The good news is that everyone can become a pro — with these easy-to-employ tactics.

Be Human

Showing your human side allows people to connect with you. It doesn’t matter if you’re making a toast at a wedding or presenting at a meeting, because when people like the messenger, they listen to the message. But, says communications expert Jillian Strauss, you need to use that power carefully. She advises clients around the world on all aspects of public speaking and has prepped me for many appearances. Says Jilian, “I think what people assume when I say show your human side is, ‘Oh, I can just let it all hang out.’ That is not what I mean. And in the Zoom era, some people are doing that, right? They have too many things going on in the background. A good example of showing your human side is if you’re on a Zoom presentation trying to talk about the challenge of being a working mother. If you’ve got a laundry basket behind you that still needs to be folded, it perfectly demonstrates that you’re using your human side to make a larger point. But if you’re talking about the company’s earnings on a Zoom call, I don’t think the laundry basket behind you helps your message. So show your human side in a way that supports the larger story that you’re trying to convey.”

Tell a Great Story

People won’t remember a PowerPoint presentation or statistics you’ve rattled off, but they will remember a great story. Communicating in the form of a narrative captures your audience’s attention because if you open with a hook, their attention will stay with you, wondering what happens next.

Let the Facts Speak for Themselves

“You don’t want to tell people what to think or how they should think. You don’t want to twist or sugarcoat the facts,” says Jillian. “Facts do speak for themselves. Of course, there are always situations where the facts enhance our message, but other times, especially if you’re a boss having to convey layoffs at your company, the facts are less desirable to share.” She advises being straightforward about them anyway. “You can express your regret and emotion about it and even show your human side when having to relay those negative facts. But you must let the facts speak for themselves.”

Send a Clear, Concise, and Consistent Message

Say things succinctly in more than one way to get your point across. People don’t act on something you tell them until they hear it in at least three different ways. We must have clear, consistent, and concise messages that we repeat. We need to be clever in the way that we repeat messaging so as not to be boring, but there’s a way to reinforce what you intend to say without being redundant.

It’s Not About You, It’s About the Audience

It doesn’t matter if it’s a speech, an investor pitch, an interview, you name it: understanding and delivering your message tailored to that audience is the goal. “If you’re a female founder pitching a male venture capitalist, you might need to make them understand a product for women,” says Jillian. “Tailor the speech so that the audience will hear it.”

But there’s another ingredient essential for success in delivering your message: Passion! In a world where virtual interactions are more common than in-person, passion is expressed through your delivery of words, your facial expressions, and your hands. Says Jillian, “If you’re presenting to me on Zoom, you can’t walk toward me, and you can’t stand up and give me a power pose, but I can feel your passion through the use of your hands, in the way that they help convey your words and the tone and energy of your voice.”

Capture Your Audience’s Attention

Not to stress you out, but you need to captivate your audience within the first 10 to 15 seconds. If you fail to do so, they’ll start to tune out, check their phones, and it’ll be hard to regain their attention. What’s worse is that you’ll sense this happening, and that adds to the pressure of public speaking.

There are various ways to grab your audience’s attention. For example, start by asking a question or begin by telling a story. And since your audience is your most important constituent, you must also continuously read the room. Your most important role is keeping eye contact with the people watching. If you lose sight of the audience because your notes are getting in the way, it can be easy to lose that connection. When you’re presenting in person, you can identify one or two people around the room to whom you’ll direct your words. Remembering to smile is critical, but even more crucial is ensuring your words have a moment to land. Sometimes being nervous can make us rush through the content, but you need to give your audience time to listen and consume your words.

Now onto your outfit: Your clothing should reflect your goals, but also who you’re addressing. The wrong outfit can also be distracting: Busy prints, big sleeves, and mixes of bold colors might deter attention away from your words. It’s also a good idea to sit down in your outfit and take a quick picture. Your clothing will appear differently on camera than it looks in your mirror at home.

Next, you need to think about what your clothing looks like in the environment you’ll be speaking in. What’s behind you? Will we be distracted by that? Is the view you’re giving people supporting the image you want to project? Where is the light coming from? What chair are you sitting on? Are you behind a desk or in a director’s chair with your legs out there for everyone to see? That’s going to make you think long and hard about your choice of shoes as well.

Jillian suggests you ask yourself, “Am I forwarding my agenda with my Zoom background and the way I’m dressed? If I coach someone going on TV as an expert or an executive, I might tell them to dress very professionally. For example, wear a suit. But if they’re going on as a child psychologist, I would say, be more human, more friendly, wear a dress or a sweater and pants. So, it really must be consistent with whom you’re showing up as that day.” While it may seem calculated to plot your look like this, it’s part of the overall package. Just remember that your audience is consuming more than your words.

Excerpted with permission from On Brand: Shape Your Narrative. Share Your Vision. Shift Their Perception. © Aliza Licht, published by Union Square & Co. Follow the author on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.