Hear hear: how to be a better public speaker

Whether it’s delivering a speech or simply presenting a pitch to colleagues, talking to a group can be a stressful, and often scary, experience. But is our fear misplaced? We talk to a leading expert about the need-to-know secrets of public speaking.

If you feel that speaking in front of an audience is a fate worse than death, you’re not alone. A recent survey of common phobias found that public speaking was the second biggest fear among its 2,000 respondents, second only to losing a family member and ranking above dying, claustrophobia and visiting the dentist.

But, for many businesspeople, public speaking is an unavoidable part of working life.

According to public-speaking coach and consultant Lisa Wentz, apprehension is natural. ‘As a professional, you tend to have learned the skills that you need for your job, or be well on the way to learning them, before they are tested or scrutinised, says Wentz. ‘But we don’t do that with public speaking.’

‘As you advance in your career, suddenly you’re expected to have skills that you’ve never acquired. On top of that, you’re being watched by lots of people while you learn on the job.’ What’s more, Wentz adds: ‘Public speaking has become more popular, largely because of the TED talk circuit.’ Not only has this made it possible to build successful careers based on the ability to talk well in front of an audience, it also means that ‘people are holding themselves to a higher standard than maybe they were 20 years ago’.

Wentz believes that part of the secret to good public speaking is taking the focus off yourself and putting it on to the message you’re trying to get across, or the work that you’re doing. That’s a strong foundation on which to build. In her forthcoming book Grace Under Pressure (external link): A Master Class in Public Speaking, Wentz identifies three elements of public speaking that can be learned and improved.

1. Overcoming inner obstacles

‘We all have an “inner critic”, to a degree,’ says Wentz. ‘This inner voice can be debilitating, so needs to be silenced.’ Even successful people at the top of multinational companies can be held back by this ‘nagging voice in their head’ that tells them they are not good enough, or that they’re making mistakes.

One solution, says Wentz, is to ‘voice the inner critic’ – to practise your speech and then break it off and say out loud any worries or concerns as they arise. ‘It becomes clear that the criticism isn’t based on reality. The other thing I’ll do is have the speaker address those thoughts and tell [the inner critic] to leave the room and that it’s not welcome back. At the end of the session people even look different – like they’ve had a weight lifted off their shoulders.’

2. Vocal exercises

Public speaking is not unlike being a professional athlete, says Wentz. Just as a professional football player or ballet dancer prepares for a performance by going to the gym or stretching at the barre, a speaker must also exercise their voice.

Wentz advocates ‘controlled breath’ exercises that help to hone and prepare the voice. These can also be done immediately before giving a speech or presentation to reduce the physiological response to nerves. ‘It helps to get oxygen to your brain, slows down your heart rate and should allow the audience to focus on what you’re saying.’

3. Focus on delivery

Getting the content of a speech, pitch or presentation across to an audience can hinge on perfecting the delivery. Pausing after key statements, ‘when you really want the audience to hear what you’re saying,’ is simple but powerful. Wentz also advises speakers to record themselves delivering a speech and then to play it back, transcribing exactly what they said, ‘not what they think they said!’.

Body language is important, too, and can be a stumbling block even for seasoned orators. ‘Are you fidgeting? Are you looking down quite a lot? Look at Barack Obama, when he didn’t really feel like giving a speech, you could tell because he would look down. And he’s a great speaker.’

Tone also matters, advises Wentz, who says it’s possible to ‘turn up’ certain elements of your personality, according to context. ‘You might be funnier at a fundraiser than when you’re talking to your board, but you’re still going to be authentically who you are.’

But what if it all goes wrong?

When you’re up on stage, it is possible for things to go wrong. At the Conservative Party Conference in 2017, Theresa May’s speech was beset by disaster. She had a persistent cough. The lettering on the wall behind her, displaying her party’s slogan, began to fall down. At one stage, a prankster made his way up to the lectern to hand her a P45, indicating that she would soon be out of a job.

If the worst happens, Wentz says, the thing to remember is that ‘the audience always roots for who they’re watching’. If you acknowledge it, laugh it off and move forward, you can even create rapport with the audience. ‘Actually,’ she adds, ‘it might be a brilliant moment, when something spontaneous happens.’

In fact, the prime minister did manage to turn the P45 stunt into a joke about her political adversaries – and hang on to her job.