How to Improve at Public Speaking by Listening to Inspirational Speeches

Updated: Sep 23


Public speaking isn’t a new activity, in fact humans have been performing speeches since the development of the spoken word.


All the way back in 600 BC Aristotle developed and taught Rhetoric (Ethos, Pathos, Largos) the three pillars of public speaking and since then all around the world people have been using the platform of public speaking to convince, persuade, inspire, inform and entertain.


To one extent or another we all use and have to perform public speaking in the form of presentations, management, addresses or speeches. Some people find this easy and seem to have a natural talent for addressing an audience, whereas others dread any occasion where they have to stand up and speak in any capacity at all.



Whether you fall into either category or the other, one thing is certain, we can all improve and one of the best ways of doing this is to learn from the masters and their speeches.


Throughout history the world has seen some truly amazing orators, people who have inspired others to perform monumental tasks, achieve great feats or bring about change by enlightening even the most bigoted of opinions. So, what makes these presentations great, what sets them apart from the ordinary, and what lessons can we take away from these great preachers to improve our own presentations?

Composure



Every great public speaker has composure, Composure is calmness, being in control of our state of mind, our bearing, and even our appearance. However, composure doesn’t just impact our own state of mind, it also gives confidence to others.


For many people though the exact opposite is true, when someone feels the sensation of being scared or nervous they experience anxiety. According to a Harvard Mental Health Letter, “Anxiety usually has physical symptoms that may include a racing heart, a dry mouth, a shaky voice, blushing, trembling, sweating, lightheartedness, and nausea. It triggers the body to activate its sympathetic nervous system. So how can we stop this from happening?



The following strategies can help you combat speech anxiety and build confidence in your public speaking skills:



1. Prepare in advance: Inadequate preparation = higher anxiety; start working on your speech as soon as possible and draft an outline well in advance. After you have an outline, you can take other steps to improve your speech and build confidence.


2. Practice your speech with a mentor or your public speaking coach at least once a week. He or she will help you improve your speech and reduce the stress of not knowing how it will be evaluated.


3. Visualisation: Researchers have found that visualizing the occasion over and over with a successful outcome reduces anxiety to public speaking. The more detailed your visualisation about the space, the audience, the better.


4. Cut out all stimulants before at least one hour before you go on stage such as. Caffeine, Nicotine and alcohol. Although you may feel you need these to calm your nerves in fact they do the opposite, instead hydrate well with water.


5. The moments before your presentation, if you are starting to feel anxious, start wiggling your toes slowly, open and close your hands and even squeeze your thighs, this will steadily increase your blood flow moving around your body and disperse the excess of adrenaline.


6. Control your breathing, by taking steady deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth you will be able to calm yourself by supplying more oxygen to your brain and decreasing the chances of hyperventilation.


7. By far the most important thing to do is to be positive, a happy, positive attitude towards public speaking is the best way to convince your own defense mechanisms that you're fully in control and stave off the unwanted anxiety. Try telling yourself repeatedly that you are excited by public speaking rather than saying scared of public speaking, by reinforcing a positive mind set you will be able to change your anxiety habits.




Vocal Delivery





A professional presenter will be articulate with their pronunciation and have a clarity and depth to their vocalisation, treating each word as an individual, selected with purpose and delivered with assured belief and credibility.



So how do they do it?

There isn’t one technique to achieve the perfect delivery, moreover there are several minor considerations you have to take on board to portray yourself this way.

1. Diction: Correct use of your language will always boost your credibility such as saying “I’m not” instead of “ain’t” or “I’m going to” as opposed to “gonna”


2. Accent: You should never lose who you are by changing or dropping your accent, however some accents can be very broad and hard to understand, so softening your accent by pronouncing your vowels in a more open manor will allow you to be better understood.

3. Colloquialisms: They may make perfect sense to your neighbours, but may be misinterpreted and even offensive to someone from elsewhere.


4. Timbre: For me this is the most important and influential part of comfortable listening, what I mean by that is that some voices you can listen to forever whereas others will annoy you within two seconds. No one wants to listen to a scratchy or squeaky voice for over one hour so if you have one please for the sanity of the rest of us please try to change it. The sound or timbre of your voice is influenced by many things such as your age, what you eat and drink, smoking, weight, lung capacity, correct breathing and vocal cord elasticity. The good news is that there are hundreds of books and breathing exercises to help people change their timbre.


5. Melody: The pitch and inflection that you add to words can dramatically change the meaning of a statement such as. “The WORLD owes John a favour” makes it sound like John has done something great and we are in his debt whereas “The world owes JOHN A FAVOUR” makes it sound sarcastic and that John is expecting too much. Record your presentation and get a second opinion before you perform to ensure your pitch and inflection match your message.


6. Tempo: Changing the speed of your presentation and by adding pauses can highlight and emphasize the point you are trying to make, coupled with a change of pitch can press home an important message. Be conscious of your tempo as a monotonously slow presentation can put people to sleep whereas a lightning fast talk can get lost in translation.

Masters of presentation will have honed these skills to perfection, try performing their talks whilst copying their techniques, then once learnt perform it yourself using your own style.

Close



Every presentation concludes with a call to action whether it is a task to be completed, a message to be passed on or an ideology it needs to be clear and memorable.

The best presenters usually deliver their take away message in one of these ways.

1. The power of three The rule of three is a simple yet powerful method of communication and we use it often in both written and verbal communication. Using information in patterns of three makes it more memorable for the audience, so to translate a clear message to your audience group them into 3 and reaffirm them such as “I came, I saw, I conquered” - Julius Caesar

2. A surprising fact A surprising fact has the power to re-engage the audience’s attention, which is most likely to wane by the end of a presentation. Facts with statistical numbers in them work well – you can easily search online for facts related to your speech topic. Just make sure you remember the source for the fact in case you are questioned about it.

3. A short, memorable sentence It has been said that today’s generation has a twitter size attention span. So try to condense your whole presentation to just 5-8 words. Steve Jobs did this very well at his famous commencement address at Stanford University: where he finished his 1 hr address by surmising “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”

4. An interesting quote A relatively easy way to end your speech is by using a quote. For this to be effective, however, the quote needs to be one that has not been heard so often that it has become cliche. To access fresh quotes, consider searching current personalities rather than historical figures. For example, a quote on failing from J. K. Rowling: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.”



5. Repeat something from the opening Closing a presentation with a look back at the opening message is a popular technique. It’s a great way to round off your message, whilst simultaneously summing up the entire speech and creating a feeling of familiarity for the audience. Comedians do this well when they tie an earlier joke to a later one.

Doing this will signal to the audience you are coming to the end of your talk. It completes the circle - you end up back where you started.

There are a few ways to approach this technique:


  • Set up a question at the beginning of your speech and use your ending to answer it

  • Finish a story you started using the anecdote to show your message

  • Close with the title of the presentation—this works best with a provocative, memorable title

6. Thank the audience The simplest way to end a speech, after you’ve finished delivering the content, is to say, “thank you.” That has the benefit of being understood by everyone.


It’s the great way for anyone to signal to the audience that it’s time to applaud and then head home.



Last but not least

Finish with enthusiasm





It’s only natural that you’ll feel tired when you get to the end of your talk. The adrenaline that was racing through your body at the beginning has now worn off.

It’s crucial that the audience feels that you are enthusiastic and open for questions. If you’re not enthusiastic about the presentation, why should the audience be?

Make it clear that you’ve finished

Nothing is more uncomfortable than the silence of an audience working out if you’ve finished or not.

Your closing words should clarify that it’s the end of the presentation. The audience should be able to read this immediately and respond. As we mentioned previously, saying “thank you” is a good way to finish.




Don’t Run




So you survived to the end of your presentation and it went well, the adrenaline that was strong at the beginning, petered out during the middle but is now back with vengeance at the end and all you want to do is run off the stage. Well, don’t… The way you receive praise and recognition will be the last and probably the most important picture in your audience’s memory, so stand stall, wave and accept the applause with humility and gratitude.

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