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Soft Skills Series: Public Speaking

Steve Heisler

illustration of smiling woman pointing at presentation board

Public speaking boosts your chances for employment and promotions. Here’s how to kick off this skill development on the right foot.

A 1974 episode of “The Brady Bunch” offered what is collectively considered the golden piece of wisdom about public speaking. Mike Brady, concerned for his daughter Jan’s upcoming debate, suggests she imagine the audience in their underwear. No one looks intimidating when they’re stripped to their skivvies, he says.

The tip has maybe worked for some, but Mike Brady’s advice hasn’t aged with the modern workplace. Many conferences and presentations happen digitally nowadays, so it’s impossible to catch a glimpse of any participant, let alone the collective audience.

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Regardless of the medium, public speaking opportunities aren’t going anywhere. The BBC estimates that 30 million PowerPoint presentations are created each day around the globe. Despite the high likelihood of giving a presentation, 25.3% of the population reports being terrified of public speaking, according to The Washington Post. But the right amount of preparation can help you ease those fears.

Here’s more about what public speaking is and how you can improve and successfully execute an excellent presentation.

What Is It and Why Is It Important?

Public speaking means more than presenting to a boardroom of 20 or an arena of 20,000. The skills required to be an engaging public speaker come into play during client calls, internal discussions and team meetings.

“It could be 10 people, five people, three people,” says Carolyn Cohn, co-founder and chief editor at communications agency CompuKol. “At some point, and probably more frequently than infrequently as a marketer, you’re going to be standing in front of an audience.”

And when that time comes, excelling as a public speaker is paramount. A 2017 BBC piece reported that “oral communication” and “presentation skills” were the No. 1 and No. 4 skills employers seek in applicants, respectively. Of those employees who did use public speaking at their job, 70% said they found the skill “critical to their success at work.” The consultancy Magnetic Speaking further breaks down how crucial public speaking can be. Its founder, Peter Khoury, writes, “Fear of public speaking has a 10% impairment on your wages and a 15% impairment on your promotion.”

The good news is that you may already possess many of the important skills necessary to be a great public speaker. Francine Lasky, a business leader consultant and seasoned public speaker, explains that the ideas behind storytelling are directly transferrable to public speaking. “Be able to break an idea down into pieces,” she says. “If you’re good at figuring out a strategy, you can apply that to communication. … Put your audience into the story by giving them details—it may be by [introducing] a situation that would be familiar.”

How Do You Hone This Skill?

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

“Practice in front of a mirror and in front of your friends,” Lasky says—in both cases, you’ll be presenting to a forgiving audience. “Videotaping yourself is hugely painful [to watch] but has been amazingly helpful. You will never learn as much as you do after you watch yourself in videos. You will stop doing the things you don’t like. You’ll start doing things you do like.”

Cohn prefers that you train in front of people who may not already know you. She recommends seeking out organizations such as Toastmasters—a supportive group in which members practice giving speeches and receive feedback on their performance.

When you’re feeling somewhat prepared, it’s time to begin presenting in low-stakes work environments. Take the initiative by explaining to your manager that public speaking is a skill you are determined to develop, Cohn says. That way they’ll be excited to see you present and offer feedback and more opportunities.

Lasky offers some specific suggestions. “Present a new idea internally; go to HR and [ask to] do the presentation on the next 401(k),” Lasky says. “Give them a demonstration of how you speak, how you can engage an audience. You probably already know the message.”

Of course, nobody emerges as a brilliant orator on their first few tries. Otherwise, we’d all be at Carnegie Hall right now. Once your crowd grows large enough to include folks you didn’t know beforehand, Lasky recommends bringing along evaluation forms. Not all conferences distribute them, she says, but they’re a great way to receive nuanced feedback and make new contacts. “Lead people to say what they got out of [your talk]—not just that you were a great speaker,” she says.

While studies show that great speakers can engage audiences regardless of the message, don’t neglect focusing on the work itself. “PowerPoint is the best way to turn your written materials into a presentation,” Cohn says—but she recommends practicing restraint. “You don’t want to pack those slides with a million things. They’re launching-off points—a couple of bullets on a slide and some graphics.”

Set the proper tone by easing the crowd into your presentation with something light and interactive. “Inject some sort of humor into the very beginning because then people will start to pay attention right away,” Cohn says. “[Or] ask an engaging question. Everybody in the universe wants to know that they count and that their opinion matters. And if you ask a question … you’re opening the door for them to actually tell you what they think.”

Consider tweaking your message to connect with as many audience members as possible. “One of the major mistakes people make is they assume their audience, whether it’s small or big, all have the same communication styles they do,” Lasky says. Vary your presentation to include bullet points, sure, but also charts, graphs, audio snippets, short videos and interactive bits with the audience.

Think about the nonverbal elements of your presentation as well. Each contributes to the amount of confidence you’ll project. “You want to dress appropriately,” Cohn says. “You may have really individual taste, but there are certain times and places where that’s just not well-received. … You’re not going to be standing still, just by a podium holding onto something; you’re going to be walking around addressing the people in that audience. Always look them in the eye.” Cohn adds that eye contact is the first thing she notices when a new speaker takes the stage.

How Can You Demonstrate Your Mastery?

The best way to secure more speaking opportunities is to capture video of your presentation and share it with conferences or on social media like LinkedIn. Viewers will be able to observe your tone, mannerisms and engagement with participants. They’ll also develop a sense of how your audience reacts. Your phone or other device should suffice; you can even ask one of the conference staff in the front row to tape for you.

Don’t forget to pass out those evaluation forms when you’re done. The feedback you receive not only helps you improve but makes for a great résumé-booster. Keep tabs on each talk you’ve given and list them either directly in your résumé or in a cover letter, along with select testimonials, when submitting job applications or applying for more speaking engagements. You can include links to your videos in an introductory email.

And, most importantly, celebrate your accomplishment by purging all thoughts of underwear from your head.

Steve Heisler is staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at sheisler@ama.org.