Public Speaking 101
This article was written by Maanasi Shyno, a sophomore at Dartmouth College interning with Launch gURLs this fall. Maanasi is currently running the Launch gURLs social media and developing marketing strategy.
Public speaking has long topped fear lists, but it is also considered an art form! This interesting dynamic makes public speaking really challenging to work on, but also super rewarding! Luckily there are lots of ways to slowly improve your abilities. Check out the following guide to get started!
Eye Contact and Memorization
Eye contact is one of the most important elements to public speaking! When your eyes wander or are glued to notes, you are more likely to lose the audience’s attention. A speaker who maintains good eye contact appears confident in what they’re saying and their communication abilities. Eye contact also engages the audience, encouraging them to pay attention. Try to spend about 10 seconds looking at an individual in a general area before switching to another individual in another area. Add these shifts based on where they fit naturally with your speeches— where there are pauses, sentence ends, or idea conclusions. Also make sure your movements are smooth and gradual, only moving a little between each person rather than pivoting from side to side (that can look a little robotic or forced!). If you’re feeling nervous about looking people in the eyes, avoid looking at places where there aren’t people and look at people’s foreheads. It can look strange when speakers look above their audience’s heads!
It’s difficult to maintain eye contact when you have your speech written down and are reading off of note cards, but memorization is not always the answer! When we memorize things, sometimes our brains get used to hearing things in one way. So if we lose our place, our mind gets stuck, causing us to stumble. But at the same time, reading off your cards directly isn’t great, so what do you do? I have two strategies that I personally use to help me with this. The first is reading with good eye contact. Every few sentences or when you want to take a dramatic pause look up at someone. Try to say the sentence as you read and look up for the last few words when you do this. Make sure that the glance up isn’t too short or too frequent!
Another strategy I use is not actually writing my speeches. I used to love crafting elaborate speeches and memorizing them, but I spent so much time doing this and would often forget some of my lines. My Model UN Coach recommended that I try writing down bullet points and practice giving my speech ‘impromptu’ to see what wording comes naturally. After practicing this for a while, I realized that it improved my public speaking abilities greatly because I was less worried about perfecting my wording and more focused on what I was saying! Try it out for yourself! With some dedication, this strategy could dramatically change your public speaking abilities.
Enunciation and Projection
Enunciation, inflection, and projection are attributes that can really highlight your points when presenting. Enunciation is the practice of clearly pronouncing words when speaking. It can help make sure you don’t sound muffled and also helps your listeners stay focused when you speak. You can practice your enunciation by trying to speak with a pencil in your mouth. This activity will show you which sounds are important to pay special attention to in order to enunciate well.
When you project your voice, you are speaking loudly so your voice carries across the room. This is especially important if you’re speaking to a larger crowd and audience members in the back may not be able to hear you when you speak normally. The best way to project your voice is to speak from your diaphragm, a dome shaped muscle that allows air to be drawn into and out of your lungs. Speaking from the diaphragm is all about breath support and not allowing yourself to get breathless. Speak on the exhale and use it to push your voice farther. Try out some breathing exercises to learn to project your voice!
Inflection and Pace
Inflection is one of the more tricky attributes when it comes to public speaking. Inflection refers to the modulation of your voice while you’re speaking. When you don’t inflect your voice, your speech becomes monotonous. This can cause your audience to get distracted (or overly soothed and fall asleep!). There are two types of inflection: upward (when you end at a higher pitch) and downwards (when you end at a lower pitch). When asking a question or trying to convey suspense or surprise, use an upward inflection at the end of your sentence. When decisively ending a sentence use a downward inflection. Changing up your inflection makes you sound more interesting and makes your points clearer.
Pace refers to how fast or slow you talk. Talking at a steady pace is important in order to make sure you don’t lose your audience by going so fast that they don’t understand you or too slow that they get bored. It’s also important to make a few pauses when you speak to add variety to your speech. Choosing to pause dramatically can also help to emphasize certain ideas.
Dealing with Nerves
Dealing with nerves is the most difficult aspect of public speaking. One thing people tend to do when they’re nervous is jitter, stutter, or move their hands around too much. To address these challenges, I like to take a few deep breaths when I go to stand up and I take my time to feel good about my stance before speaking. I also tie my hair up into a ponytail so I don’t play with it when I get nervous. I also take my time with speaking to reduce stuttering and take a deep breath and restart if I mess up. The truth is, everyone gets nervous and it doesn’t ever fully go away! Even after doing public speaking for 8 years, my knuckles still tense up when I am about to speak in front of a crowd. The truth is that the only way to deal with public speaking fears is to practice as much as possible with people you trust and push yourself out of your comfort zone every once in a while. The more you practice, the better you will become and the more confident you will feel about your abilities!