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  • James Walton

Three Principles to Radically Improve Your Public Speaking

Public speaking is the single most effective way to communicate your idea because the human brain is wired to respond to story and storytellers. The mediums through which we communicate constantly vary, but the principles that underlie effective communication are as old as our brainstems.


Here are three principles to keep in mind the next time you get to communicate to a group:


Be Humble: this is not the same as a being bashful, apologetic or unprepared. Too many speeches begin with a statement of the presenter's unworthiness, "I'm not really good at this type of thing..." or "Bear with me a moment, I'll try not to crumble before your very eyes."


Yes, you may be trembling. No, you don't need to mention it. The audience will forgive your nervousness, they'll be less gracious with wasting the opening 45 seconds of your time with a disclaimer of your ineffectiveness.


Being a humble speaker means acknowledging the sacredness of gift that is the attention of your audience and working hard to be worthy of that gift.

Being humble means offering your expertise as a guide to others, not proclaiming yourself as the hero they need.

Being humble means recognizing the platform you've been given (both figuratively and literally) to address the audience is a privilege, not a right.


The world has its fill of charlatans and the self-obsessed; differentiate yourself by dedicating your craft to being of value to your audience. It's about them, not you.

Be Humorous: this is not the same as being comedic. If you're not already an accomplished joke teller, the start of a speech is not the time to become one. Humor in speeches, executed judiciously and related to the topic at hand, can create a powerful emotional connection. Personal stories are best. Jokes told at the expense of others are worst.


Sometimes what you hope will be humorous will be lost on the audience. Make a mental note and change your approach the next time.

Sometimes the audience will find humor in something you didn't. Let the laughter own the room for a moment, and continue on before the last of it dies out.


Even if you don't plan a laugh line, aim to present your speech with a smile on your face. We learn best from people who seem to enjoy being with us.


Be brief: Sims Wyeth says,

Speaking to an audience is like feeding applesauce to a two year old. The more you try to give them, the more ends up on the floor. A speech is complete when there is nothing left to take out.

Beginning public speakers usually fall into one of two camps:

  1. the nervous types who forget all the connective tissue in their talk, and finish in moments after they began, having jumbled through a disjointed set of talking points

  2. the nervous types who overcompensate by saying everything that comes to mind in the moment, rambling on far beyond their allotted time.

The antidote to both is the humble stopwatch. The only way to know if you're going too long is to practice repeatedly ahead of time with a timer.


For instance, if you're given 10 minutes to present last quarter's numbers at the next all hands meeting, book the conference room out ahead of time, start a timer, work through your material, and check your time. Then do it again and again and again until you're confident you're saying only what must be said in the time allotted.


Why it Matters

The chance to speak to others is a chance to create change. It's a gift to influence how others see the world (or last week's customer service data). Those who are generous and prepared enough to be humble, humorous, and brief will be more effective.