Public speaking is the act of speaking to a live audience in a structured manner, in order to inform, entertain or persuade them. There are many aspects to public speaking, from picking a topic and writing a speech, to answering questions from the audience.
This guide is designed to describe all areas of public speaking, from developing effective communication skills, to understanding the types of writing principles, to understanding the tools and services available to help you improve. If you simply want to improve your speaking skills, or are nervous about an upcoming presentation, we’re here to help.
In the 21st century, you must communicate effectively to succeed. It can be the difference between landing your dream job, winning a multi-million dollar contract or delivering a moving speech at a wedding. More and more we are required to speak in public, at conferences, during business meetings, accepting awards, teaching a class, during media events and many other occasions.
Don’t let your fear of public speaking or lack of communication skills stop you reaching your goals in life.
Public speaking is one of the most common anxieties in the world. We overthink the consequences of messing up, deliberating over what people will think both of the speech and us as a person. It’s important to note that after giving a speech, most presenters think it has gone badly, when in reality it was well received by the audience.
Stressful environments cause the body to tense up and release adrenaline to all non-essential functions. This starves your speaking of resources. We also don’t breathe deeply enough due to the pressure, our breaths are short and shallow. This restricts your voice to a narrow range, making the presentation appear dull and uninteresting. Focus on taking deliberate pauses and deep breaths throughout.
Some speaking skills which will help your nerves before the big event:
Rehearsing many times is the key to reducing nerves. Remember, it’s never goes as bad as you think it has.
The study of public speaking began about 2,500 years ago in ancient Athens. Men were required to give speeches as part of their civic duties, which included speaking in legislative assembly and at court (sometimes to defend themselves). Citizens would meet in the marketplace and debate issues on war, economics and politics. Good speaking skills were also essential for a prominent social life and mixing with the wealthy.
Aristotle and Quintilian were among the most famous ancient scholars, giving public speaking definitive rules and models. Aristotle defined rhetoric as the means of persuasion in reference to any subject. Quintilian published a twelve-volume textbook on rhetoric and many of these references are still used today by politicians.
Throughout the 20th century, speaking in public has once again become crucial to succeed in many careers. Schools and universities started offering courses and lectures on communication skills. Online material and courses have also become popular with the rise of the internet.
Practicing is essential to develop your communication skills and confidence. Famously, the motivational guru Tony Robbins would book in multiple public speaking engagements every week so that he could improve his speaking craft. You don’t have to take it to this level, practicing once a month will improve your communication skills hugely.
There are several organisations available to practice and get tips, such as Toastmasters (a club for aspiring speakers of all levels). These clubs provide a low risk way to practice in front of a live audience, where it’s okay to mess up your speech.
If you prefer to practice alone, try recording yourself and reviewing your body language and tone of voice. You’d be surprised by how different we believe the speech has gone to how it actually went. We also recommend working with a colleague who can provide valuable feedback. Ensure the feedback is specific and impersonal, relating to what they saw in the moment of your behaviour.
There are many tools out there to help you practice, including virtual reality apps which place you in a realistic environment with an animated audience. You can also take training courses, seminars, listen to audiobooks and present to groups of friends.
Record yourself while presenting – it’s an excellent way to improve to critique yourself.