It can be nerve-wracking to deliver a speech in front of people. What the heck do you say? How do you capture people's attention? And what do you do if you ... mess up?
With the right skills and enough practice, anyone can overcome these challenges and be a good speaker, says Lauren Dominguez Chan of West Wing Writers, a group of writers who create speeches and messages for government officials, business leaders and athletes.
"The end goal is to prepare people to speak in a way where they're free to connect with their audience in the moment," she says.
To do that, you'll need to know a few basics about the art of public speaking. Dominguez Chan and Eva Margarita, assistant director of Texas Speech, the speech team at the University of Texas at Austin, share seven common problems that people face when speaking in public — and how to fix them.
1. Problem: My speech is unfocused
Solution: Identify your core message
Before you dive into your speech, figure out your core message, says Dominguez Chan.
"If my audience could walk out of this room with one thing, what would that one thing be?" she asks. It can be an idea, a feeling "like wanting your audience to walk away feeling appreciated" or a call to action — like inspiring someone to vote.
During the early years of the pandemic, she was the speechwriter for the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. She wrote his weekly remarks on COVID for the White House and other important speeches, including his 2021 commencement speech at the U.C. Berkeley School of Public Health.
Her aim in that speech was to elevate the students and make them feel like they could lean on the people around them. Here's an excerpt:
"I leave you today with a practice you can turn to during those moments of doubt that will inevitably surface during the years ahead. Take your right hand and place it gently over your heart. And close your eyes. Take a deep breath. And think about the people in your life who have supported you on your journey to this moment."
Through this exercise, "Dr. Murthy guides your attention inward in this moment of reflection and then outward again in gratitude to these people that you're imagining in your head," says Dominguez Chan — helping to achieve the core messaging goal.
2. Problem: I don't know what to include in my speech
Solution: Point everything back to the central idea
Now that you have your core message, make sure all the ideas in your speech point back to it, says Dominguez Chan.
It makes it easier to decide what to say and it "helps you make every other decision, from the structure to the specific stories and concrete images that you include," she adds.
Let's say you're preparing to speak at a town hall meeting about book bans and you have three minutes to do so. Figure out your stance on the topic — that's your core message — then come up with stories and anecdotes that support that message. Don't stray by mentioning unrelated things.
3. Problem: It feels like I'm talking at my audience
Solution: Use vivid imagery and storytelling
Dominguez Chan likes using what she calls "sticky stories" in her speeches — honest, vivid anecdotes with details that engage the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.
They "are going to make your presentation memorable. People remember stories and images," she says.
For example, instead of saying, "I was terrified," you could say "my hands were shaking so much that I couldn't hold the steering wheel," she adds.
4. Problem: My speech doesn't sound natural
Solution: Write for the ear
A big part of great speechwriting, says Dominguez Chan, is "writing for the ear." That means using "short, simple words and sentences. They are often the most powerful."
Let's take a look at an excerpt from Murthy's commencement speech again:
"All of you graduating today have been on quite a journey together ... I know you didn't expect your education in public health to be disrupted by, of all things, a public health emergency. Yet in the midst of the change and suffering our world has endured, this gathering of public health leaders – and yes, I'm referring to you — is a testament to all the reasons we have to be hopeful about the future."
Notice how he uses relatively simple words to talk about a complex topic like the COVID pandemic. "You don't have to use the biggest word in a speech," she says.
5. Problem: My message isn't connecting with the audience
Solution: Practice in front of people
Practicing your speech can ease feelings of nervousness and help you fine tune your presentation. And it can ensure that your message is reaching people.
"Ask a friend or a family member to listen to you as you practice," says Dominguez Chan. "Ask them, 'Does it sound like me?' 'How was the pace?' You can also take a voice memo with your phone and play it back to yourself."
If you want feedback from strangers, you could join a speech club like Toastmasters International. It's an organization that's been around for almost 100 years and has 14,200 clubs all over the world, so there's likely a club near you.
Toastmasters' meetings are very structured and timed down to the minute, with plenty of opportunities to get supportive feedback on your grammar, overall presentation and how many times you used filler words like "um," "ya know" and "ah." There's also a chance to practice improvising short speeches on an impromptu topic.
6. Problem: I'm so nervous
Solution: Take a deep breath
In the moments leading up to your speech, take some deep breaths, says Margarita of the University of Texas at Austin. She coaches college students on how to research, write and deliver speeches.
She recommends doing a "self-regulating breath," a breath with "an inhale that allows the belly to expand — and audible exhaling." It will give your body and mind a moment to calm down before you actually speak out loud.
7. Problem: Oops, I messed up!
Solution: Slow down and start again
If something unexpected happens in the moment — say you stumble or lose your place — pause or slow down. "If you get tongue tied, take a beat," says Margarita. Take a deep breath and go back to the beginning of a sentence or restate the word you stumbled on.
And don't worry, people don't notice those pauses as much as you think they do, says Dominguez Chan. "Even if someone does notice, that's OK too."
The point is to set yourself up for success, not perfection, she adds.
This episode of Life Kit was produced and fact checked by Audrey Nguyen, with engineering support from Phil Edfors. It was edited by Meghan Keane. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. The visual producer is Kaz Fantone.
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