What you have learned about writing also applies to public speaking: Both are processes that you can learn and master, and each results in a product. The major difference, of course, is that although you write a paper and a speech, you also have to present the speech to an audience. Because many people believe that fear of public speaking ranks up there with fear of death, you might be thinking along these lines: What if I plan, organize, prepare, and rehearse, but calamity strikes anyway? What if my mind goes completely blank, I drop my note cards, or I say something totally embarrassing? Remember that people in your audience have been in your position and will understand your anxiety. Your audience wants you to succeed. Just accentuate the positive, rely on your wit, and keep speaking. Your recovery is what they are most likely to recognize; your success is what they are most likely to remember. The following guidelines can help you improve your speaking skills significantly, including losing your fear of speaking publicly.

Guidelines for Successful Speaking

Just as with writing, there is a process to developing a good speech, and some of the steps mirror those of writing a well-developed essay.

  1. Clarify your objective. Begin by identifying what you want to accomplish. Do you want to persuade your listeners that your campus needs additional student parking? Do you want to inform your listeners about the student government’s accomplishments? What do you want your listeners to know, believe, or do when you are finished?

  2. Analyze your audience. To understand the people you’ll be talking to, ask yourself the following questions: What do they already know about my topic? What do they want or need to know? Who are my listeners? What are their attitudes toward me, my ideas, and my topic?

  3. Organize your presentation. Now comes the most critical part of the process: building your presentation by selecting and arranging blocks of information. One useful analogy is to think of yourself as guiding your listeners through the maze of ideas that they already have to the new knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs that you would like them to have. You can apply the suggestions from earlier in the chapter for creating an outline for writing to actually composing an outline for a speech.

  4. Choose appropriate visual aids. You might choose to prepare a chart, show a video clip, write on the board, or distribute handouts. You might also use your computer to prepare overhead transparencies or dynamic PowerPoint presentations. As you select and use your visual aids, consider these rules of thumb:

    Make visuals easy to follow. Use readable lettering and don’t overload your audience by trying to cover too much on one slide.

    Explain each visual clearly.

    Allow your listeners enough time to process visuals.

    Proofread carefully. Misspelled words hurt your credibility as a speaker.

    Maintain eye contact with your listeners while you discuss the visuals. Don’t turn around and address the screen.

    A fancy PowerPoint slideshow can’t make up for inadequate preparation or poor delivery skills, but using clear, attractive visual aids can help you organize your material and help your listeners understand what they’re hearing. The quality of your visual aids and your skill in using them can contribute to making your presentation effective.

  5. Prepare your notes. If you are like most speakers, having an entire written copy of your speech in front of you may tempt you to read much of your presentation, but a speech that is read word for word will often sound canned or artificial. A better strategy is to memorize only the introduction and conclusion; then use a minimal outline, carefully prepared, from which you can speak extemporaneously, which means off-the-cuff, spontaneous, or unplanned. You will rehearse thoroughly in advance. Because you are speaking from brief notes, however, your choice of words will be slightly different each time that you give your presentation, with the result that you will sound prepared yet natural. Because you’re not reading, you also will be able to maintain eye contact and build rapport with your listeners. You may wish to use note cards because they are unobtrusive. (Be sure to number them in case you accidentally drop the stack on your way to the front of the room.) After you become more experienced, you may want to let your visuals serve as notes. A handout or PowerPoint slide listing key points may also serve as your basic outline. Eventually, you may find that you no longer need notes.

  6. Practice your delivery. Practice delivery before an audience—a friend, your dog, even the mirror—and use eye contact and smile. Talking to someone or something helps simulate the distraction that listeners cause. As you rehearse, form a mental image of success rather than failure. Practice your presentation aloud several times to harness that energy-producing anxiety. Begin a few days before your target date and continue until you’re about to go on stage. Make sure to rehearse aloud, because thinking through your speech and talking through your speech have very different results. Consider making an audio or video recording of yourself to pinpoint your mistakes and reinforce your strengths. If you ask your practice audience to critique you, you’ll have some idea of what changes you might make.

  7. Pay attention to word choice and pronunciation. As you reread your presentation, make sure that you have used the right words to express your ideas. Get help ahead of time with words that you aren’t certain how to pronounce. Try your best to avoid um, uh, like, you know, and other distracting fillers.

  8. Dress appropriately and give your presentation. Now you’re almost ready to give your presentation, but don’t forget one last step: Dress appropriately. Leave the baseball cap, the T-shirt, and the tennis shoes at home. You don’t have to overdress, but look professional. Experts suggest that your clothes should be a “little nicer” than what your audience is wearing. Some speakers find that when they dress professionally, they deliver a better presentation!

  9. Request feedback from someone in your audience. After you have completed your speech, ask a friend or your instructor to give you some honest feedback. If you receive written evaluations from your audience, read them and pay attention to suggestions for ways you can improve.