Date posted: 1/12/2016 3 min read

8 public speaking tips from the stage

Theatre director and actor John Bell offers these proven tips to speak in front of an audience like a pro

In brief

  • Know your audience
  • Speak as naturally as possible
  • Don’t think about yourself – think about what you are going to say

1. Do your homework

The more you know about your audience beforehand the better. Try and research who they are. Where are they coming from? What do they expect to hear? What would they like to hear? It’s very difficult if you have no idea who they are. So the more background you can get about the audience, the more reassuring that is for you — and the less chance you’ll get a nasty surprise on the day.

2. Think carefully about your script

If I’m planning a short speech, then I tend to learn it pretty much by heart. But if it’s going to be longer, it’s very difficult to get up and speak without notes (unless you are a very accomplished speaker who knows their subject matter inside out and back to front). People don’t mind you reading a script so long as you look up frequently at the audience. You can also allow for a few ad libs and throwaway lines that are quite spontaneous, so that it’s not all just read off the page.

3. Hold your nerve

Even professional speakers get nervous before they step on stage. I see it all the time. Some people suggest taking long deep breaths beforehand but I think you’re more likely to tense up if you do that. I recommend taking short, normal breaths. Don’t think about yourself; think about what you’re about to say. If you’re sure of what you’re saying and believe in it, then you’re well ahead of your audience because they don’t know what to expect.

4. Go on as you mean to start

You should walk to the front of the room confidently, take your place, and then pause. Look around the room to build up a certain amount of expectation, and look around at the audience. Then launch into it.

5. Speak in your own voice

It’s terribly important to speak as naturally as possible. The trap you often see business leaders and politicians fall into is jargon. So avoid language that is pretentious or obscure, and keep it simple.

6. Use your eyes

Look up at the audience. It’s important because otherwise the audience feels like you’re talking into thin air. You see a number of public speakers and business leaders who look at the ceiling or the wall or their notes and they don’t make any kind of connection with their audience. Even if you don’t meet them eye-to-eye, you should at least spread your glance around the crowd so that they know you’re talking to them and not the furniture.

7. Be careful with humour

A dash of laughter can be a terrific relief for your audience — but beware. Most people don’t tell jokes well in business presentations. So avoid trying to tell jokes unless you’re exceptionally good at it. For the rest of us, the best way to introduce humour is through personal anecdotes related to your subject matter. In fact, speaking from experience can be incredibly effective whether you’re trying to get a laugh or just illustrating a point.

Speaking from experience can be incredibly effective whether you’re trying to get a laugh or just illustrating a point.

8. Use your hands (sometimes)

Speakers often worry about what to do with their hands. That’s where notes can be useful because you’ve got something that can be held onto. Or a handheld microphone is always good too. Of course, using your hands can help to demonstrate something or tell a story — but don’t overdo it with hand gestures. You’re public speaking, not dancing.

This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of Acuity magazine.