The Only Public Speaking Guide You Will Ever Need

Have you been asked to deliver a speech at an industry event? Have you been tasked to speak for your school or organisation at a conference? As a public speaker, I have made mistakes and learned a bagful of lessons over the years, and whether you’re a newbie at this or a weathered pro, I am sure you will find some of these tips super helpful.

How to Give Your Best Speech Ever

Public speaking is a necessary skill in life, and personally important in my line of work. I am, after all, in an industry where ideas must be presented to an audience.

Here’s my personal guide on how you can perform better as a public speaker. It’s a long read, perhaps the longest article I’ve ever written, but I promise you that it’s worth it.

Here we go!

Before a Talk: The Prep Phase

Know your 5Ws and 1H

Why: It might seem obvious, but you have to know why you’re there. Are you going to be on-stage because you’re an authority on the subject? Are you representing an organisation and its values? Or are you there for pure simple profit? There are no right or wrong answers in my opinion, but understanding why you will be taking the stage is hugely important. It sets the tone on how you approach a talk, and sets the mood of how you approach an audience.

  • Example 1: If you’re speaking as an expert, why you’re there is to impart knowledge or experience to your audience.
  • Example 2: If you’re speaking for yourself (i.e. recognition, achievement, milestone), why you’re there is to acknowledge the journey you’ve been through.

Who: It goes without saying that your talk is only as good as your understanding of the audience. This is why I enjoy speaking in front of a “niche crowd” much more; I know exactly who will be there. The best way to ensure your talk is as relevant as possible is to identify your audience’s “IAOs”.

  • What are they interested in? For example, speaking about creative campaigns for an airline does little to help a crowd of BPO professionals.
  • What are their attitudes? For example, speaking to a room full of doctors demands you know how they see brands, products, and platforms.
  • What are their opinions? For example, you can skew a talk to align with the audience’s current opinions on the topic – or you could rock the boat (a risky but interesting way to engage an audience) and present a contrasting or conflicting point of view.

What: Your topic is often dictated by the event’s theme; very rarely do speakers get to have complete control of their talk’s theme. However, you are not held slave to the topic; for example, I usually deviate slightly in order to skew my talks towards creativity (the lifeblood of my company) or my own worldview.

  • For example, you might be asked to talk about how agencies should adapt to a digital world. You can instead talk about how creativity is constantly the differentiator between great and mediocre work throughout marketing history – with digital simply an evolution of where/how this creativity is experienced.

Where: This part is divided into two, the venue and the local culture.

  1. The venue isn’t that important, unless you’re like me and want everything to be absolutely perfect. Some venues use old school projector screens that demands your presentations be in a 4:3 format to look at its best. Some use huge full-backdrop screens that require widescreen HD slides. You will want to ask this from your talk coordinator, to be one hundred percent sure.
  2. As for the local culture, do your best to find out the quirks of your host town/venue. This will help not only when you adlib parts of your talk, but in the overall look and feel of the presentation.
    • For example, my talks in Malaysia always use local case studies because having grown up there, I understand that Malaysian race dynamics play a part in how brands communicate with consumers. In contrast, I show more international samples to a far more ‘mixed’ audience in the Philippines.

When: This is more often than not out of your control, but it always helps to know the context of your talk down to the day when it would happen.

  • For example, speaking during the Christmas season in the Philippines opens up adlib opportunities on returning relatives, a spike in road traffic, and jokes about my holiday weight-gain.

How: Nine and a half times out of ten, you’ll need to present using either Powerpoint or Keynote. However, there are other ways to appropriately deliver a point and you must explore as many of them as possible.

  • Example 1: I often use a whiteboard in my classes when taking the audience through a consumer journey. Since they give me the answers and I write it down live, it makes for better engagement during the session.
  • Example 2: I use the audience’s own Facebook accounts to illustrate the point that social ads are highly targeted and customized.

The Personal Tech Run

You, the speaker, is why people have come to the event. In some cases, paid good money for. No one goes to a public talk wondering if they would enjoy your slides; they go because of the event topic with your name on the list has made them interested. Therefore, you must make sure that you – the speaker – are fully prepared. Here’s my PEP Talk Guide:

  • Physically: Dress well, and dress for the occasion. When in doubt, it’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed. For the love of God, press your shirt. Ask yourself, do you look like someone they can trust? Bonus tip: If you can manage to find the time and space to crank out 20-30 push-ups before you go on-stage, the wonders they do for your look and confidence is unbelievable.
  • Emotionally: You won’t always be happy or “in the mood” for each talk. If you’re feeling down and you’re about to head up, remind yourself that it’s your duty to be of value to your crowd. Slap yourself awake and remind yourself that this isn’t about you or your talk – it’s about them.
  • Psychologically: Confidence is a tricky thing. Sometimes it’s there, and sometimes it’s not. A trick I’ve learned throughout the years is to have a routine for calming your nerves.
    • For example, I go through a vocalisation drill I learned during my debate years, a habit that stuck nearly seventeen years on. I also bring a bottle of water on-stage; I take a swig when I’m nervous and it just calms me down immediately (should you attend one of my future talks: now you know!)
      • The vocalisation drill: [It will look silly, but it works] Repeat each ten times – ma, me, mi, mo, mu, la, le, li, lo, lu, ra, re, ri, ro, ru. Make sure to say each clearly, and roll your ‘r’s if possible.

Tools of the trade: your gear.

  • It doesn’t matter if you’re using your own computer or the organiser’s: always have two extra copies of your presentations. I keep a “physical” one in my laptop (I find that term hilarious) and “soft” one in the cloud (I use Google Drive).
  • If you’re like me and you use your own clicker, have a spare set of batteries in your bag. You just never know. I would also advise against using a clicker for the first time during a major presentation; the chances of misusing the buttons and spoiling your flow is far too great.
  • Also: Never skip the audio- and video run. Trust me.

During a Talk: The Presentation

Body Language and Presentation Style

Keeping your chest out does marvellous things. It straightens your back, helping you appear more confident and more reassured. You breathe better, helping you speak more clearly.

I generally don’t like presenting while seated, but when I am required to (such as during a television interview, or during a panel discussion) the chest-push trick still works but it can be slightly uncomfortable after a while.

I would also recommend not crossing your arms and looking disinterested. You must be the most interested person on the topic – otherwise, what the hell are you doing talking there? You can’t fake interest, and you can’t fake passion for the topic.

As a rule, I would always recommend not using a static microphone, and use the width of the stage as much as possible. I learned this during my dance years, as judges also score performances on how well the entire performance stage was used. Going from one end of the stage to the other even just once during a talk is a great way to keep your audience’s eyes on you.

  • In some cases, you would be required to stand on an ‘x’ or behind a lectern (especially for recorded talks). If so, scratch this part.

Interaction with the Audience

Believe it or not, I (still) get nervous in front of crowds. On big stages, spotlights help; all you see is a sea of black, and you don’t have to worry about hundreds or thousands of faces looking at you. On smaller ones, it’s a different story, so here are five tricks I’ve learned throughout the years:

  • “Quartering” the room. A mistake I see many speakers make is that some of them only address the audience members at the very front. I recommend dividing up the audience areas into quarters – then alternate looking at or speaking to each quarter. This way, your eyes – and more importantly, your body – is turned towards that section, making the talk feel a lot more personal.
  • The “news of the day” joke. Nothing makes a room warm up to a speaker more than humour. It’s not enough that you tell a joke; it must be extremely recent and genuinely funny. Warning: if this is absolutely not your style (ask a trusted friend), avoid.
  • The live survey. An easy way for me to gauge if a room is listening is to ask a yes/no question, then immediately ask the crowd to raise their hands up to agree/disagree. On the rare occasion that it’s a dead room and no one plays along, quip how perfect that is – you’ve something to bring to the party!
  • Pop culture references. This is why it’s super important to truly know your audience. When speaking to bankers, have some famous banker or money quotes. When speaking with elite real estate agents, reminisce with them their flyer days. When speaking with ad agency folks, gripe about late nights and hungover Saturday mornings.
  • Be on fire. Look, people are spending something they can never have again to listen to you and me: their time. You can’t fake passion, and audiences can smell B.S. ‘gurus’. Clench your fist, raise your voice once in a while, and stamp your feet if you truly believe in an argument. No one’s going on a loo break on your time slot.

Ending Strong: Kill it Quickly

Too many speakers end flat. “I only have a few minutes left, so I’ll hurry up.” You wasted precious seconds stating the obvious. When you’re ending a talk, end it in three steps.

  • It’s actually pretty tough to keep your energy up after talking for 30 to 60 minutes, so don’t belabour the point. Summarise your entire talk in bullet points (three to five is perfect).
  • Thank your crowd, because they spent money, brains, and time to be with you that day.
  • Give them an opportunity to contact you. Some will have questions, and a few will want to connect with you. Never turn down the chance to make friends and/or business partners.

After a Talk

A speaker is only as good as his/her last talk, and the challenge for you is to make sure the next one is better. It won’t always be, but you should always try. Learn from mistakes made from the last talk, and if there are none (which I doubt), figure out ways to make it even better.

So in conclusion:

  1. Prepare well.
  2. Make it feel personal.
  3. Be grateful.

On that note, if you like this article, share it to your friends – especially aspiring public speakers!

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