8 Ways to Practice and Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

If you read my post Live for the Dip last year, you know that I felt like I BOMBED my first official bookstore event (even though my friends would tell you otherwise). I’m proud to say that I’ve since emerged from conscious incompetence, feeling much more able to deliver a speech or workshop with the right mix of structure, clarity, humor and inspiration.

Most recently, I delivered a 40-minute webinar that outlines how we can shift the paradigm of Career Development (click here to watch The Ladder is Out — How to Manage Your Career in the Age of the App).

It went off without a hitch, but what you may not know is that as I was being introduced I put myself on mute, clenched my fists (to give my adrenaline something to do), and started taking deep yoga breaths (called ujjayi breathing) to calm my slight nerves at seeing the attendee list hover around 85 people.

When my good friend Doniree recently asked for my advice on how to feel more comfortable at the front of a room, I realized that I had a few great methods to share with all of you from delivering training for over five years at Google.

8 Ways to Practice and Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

Doniree asks:

I’ve been told by my yoga instructor that I sound nervous/short of breath when I teach. I’m not nervous, but I am short of breath and I realized that I could breathe better when I talk in public in general. Do you have any public speaking training or tips you can offer to someone who needs to learn to breathe and talk at the same time?

Below are 8 strategies that have helped me hone my public speaking skills. Many of these may apply to you for business situations in general, not just public speaking (or in Doni’s case, teaching yoga).

  1. Download a free recording app on your phone. Practice saying something at your normal pace, then practice slower, then EVEN slower. Playback so you can hear for yourself what the three sound like, and even ask a friend which is most clear.
  2. Take three ujayii breaths before starting. For non-yogis: this means taking a slow, steady, even inhale through the nose (fully engaging your lower belly, ribs, and chest/throat), then exhaling slowly and evenly through the nose. During both the inhale and the exhale, practice making the sound of the ocean in your throat (More on how to do this here). These breaths are always incredibly calming for me and help clear any nervousness in my system.
  3. Make it a challenge for yourself to bring more awareness to your speech in every day interactions. Sometimes even when I’m talking with friends I will practice not saying “um” and other speech quirks that come across as unprofessional. Even though these are low-stakes situations, it helps me change my default speech to something that works in any setting.
  4. Give yourself a rating on scale of 1-5 after every class you teach (or training, or meeting you present at). How’d you do? This will bring awareness to the area/s you are hoping to improve and help you track progress over time.
  5. Pretend you are speaking to a non-native English speaker or a five year old. Does your pacing change? Another trick I use: pretend you are on The Today show, or speaking for the president, or some other super important thing with high visibility. How would you talk? How do you want to sound or come across?
  6. Channel/observe a speaker or teacher you really respect. What do they do well? Ask if you can observe them at future events/meetings (if they live locally) – or look for more examples and videos on YouTube or TED. Bookmark the speeches/speakers you most want to emulate.
  7. Probably most important: ASK FOR FEEDBACK – often! Make sure you have people who are willing to be honest with you. Ask them one thing you did well, and one area you can improve (if you just say, “what’s your feedback?” they’ll be hesitant to share development areas). You might also have people track when you speed up (certain segments?) and when you slow down, so you get more granular data about where to focus.
  8. Clench and release a muscle several times before going up to speak. Try making your fists into tight balls (or any other muscle — ahem, buttcheeks work too), then release and repeat. This will give your adrenaline something to do, and often helps stop shaking (which makes you appear more nervous than you really are) by the time you start.
  9. BONUS: Join Toastmasters. (Thanks Sachit for the reminder!) Toastmasters is a great way to get practice and feedback in a safe environment, and learn from watching others. Something that helps me more than anything is practicing the outline of what I want to say, and having a note-card with the high-level structure. The more I know my content, the less nervous I feel. Toastmasters is a excellent way to hone your presentation’s content and structure.

Most of all, experiment AND smile! Try variations of all of the above. Remember that everyone watching wants you to do well. Have fun at whatever you are doing, roll with the punches, and laugh off any mistakes! Besides, those are what make you human and relatable. No speech or presentation will ever be perfect — so just get out there and do the best that you can! For my FAVORITE book on the subject: check-out Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun.

I would love to hear from you in the comments:
What public speaking tips work best for you?

***

P.S. I have a guest vlog (short 2-minute video) up at Corn on the Job today. I talk about how to do a Gap Analysis for your own career development. Click here to watch! Big thanks to Rich for hosting me :)

  • http://www.sachitgupta.me/ Sachit Gupta

    Join Toastmasters! I’ve only given 2 speeches but it’s been immensely useful. Another thing I do cause I’m a weirdo: find speeches I like (TED etc.) and then I imagine myself as Seth Godin or whoever and record myself trying to give the same speech. It’s a fun exercise!

    • http://www.nikitatmitchell.com Nikita T. Mitchell

      That’s a great idea! you aren’t weird at all. I typically imagine myself as the speaker, but I’ve never tried giving the speech myself. I watch some of them enough to have them slightly memorized lol! Brilliant!

      • http://www.sachitgupta.me/ Sachit Gupta

        Thanks Nikita :) And try it, its awesome!

      • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

        Thanks for stopping by Nikita!

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Thanks Sachit! I ended up editing the post to add in your Toastmasters suggestion – how could I forget?! Love that you practice giving TED speeches. I can *so* see you giving one one day soon!

  • Paige S.

    Public speaking is something that I’ve been working on for about a year now. All growing up, I was a public speaking master — as the student body president and debate champion, public speaking didn’t give me any fright. It gave me adrenaline and power! Then, right before graduating from college, I took a year off to “vacation” at my parents’ house (in the middle of nowhere with no friends) to veg and not work. Just in that one year of hardly socializing with anybody, and certainly never public speaking, I lost it. I lost my suave for speaking and my way of words. So, I’ve been practicing it again, and boy has it been tough!

    The way that I feel I have improved the most is by THINKING. Ha ha, yes. Thinking. I think about what i say BEFORE I say it. I think about what I’m saying WHILE I’m saying it. And what’s helped me most is that I think about and analyze what I’ve said AFTER I said it, so that next time, I can improve. It’s really silly, but on my way home from work, I take a few minutes to turn my music off and talk to myself aloud about conversations that I feel went well during the day (& why they were well) and conversations that went poorly and what I could have said to make the conversation more solid.

    Also, I take special notice to people who I am around who speak flawlessly (ie: my boss). I noticed that all of these people have a large vocabulary and know how to properly use large words. To help me with this, I downloaded Dictionary.com’s Word Of The Day app on my phone and practiced that specific word all day. It’s amazing how many times a day I can usually use it! It has helped increase my vocabulary so much and has made me a better speaker.

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Paige – your suggestions are brilliant!!! Thank you so much for sharing — the Dictionary.com idea is also a great one. I’ve been reading the NYT and WSJ every day since I was in college – I think it’s really helped me with my vocabulary. My brother listens to vocabulary podcasts in his car. Such a great reminder that increasing our vocab abilities can make us even more impressive speakers.

      And very cool that you have had so much public speaking experience in your life! I’m sure it’s like riding a bike — you’ll be right back on your “I’m a natural” horse in no time :)

  • http://www.loveyourworklife.com Betty Jean Bell

    Love this article!

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Thanks girl! You can absolutely use as much as you want in your ebook….will reply to your email soon! xoxo!

  • http://twitter.com/nicolegruen Nicole Gruen

    I’ve completed 10 speeches w/ Toastmasters and am now a ‘competent communicator’ :) I loved the experience. Not only am I a better speaker but it build my confidence in other areas.

    And: practice your speeches. Record them (e.g. on your phone) and then listen to them. Write them out and re-read them. If you do this often enough you will be able to hold speeches w/o notes.

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Thanks Nicole! Very cool that you’ve been doing so much practicing with Toastmasters. Love the idea of recording speeches — I strongly recommend that too :)

  • http://www.caitlindonohue.blogspot.com Caitlin Donohue

    Thanks for some wonderful tips. This is something I really want to work on. I think I might look into Toastmasters. And I was at the webinar, and you sounded great! Very confident. And informative as well!

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Thanks Caitlin! So honored that you listened in to the webinar — and thrilled that you found it useful! As for speaking — a little intention (and practice) goes a long way. I have no doubt you’ll be able to improve your speaking skills in no time :)

  • Doniree

    Yay, I love seeing this blog post! Thanks so much for helping me out when you did – both in votes of confidence and in practical speaking tips :) I love the comment/idea about watching TED talks and practicing that way. I think that could be said of any speech, etc., right? Great insight!

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Thanks girl!! Thanks for asking such an awesome question to spark it :)

      Muah!

  • http://talentegg.ca Nathaniel Rottenberg

    Hey Jenny! Great tips. Not only does smiling relax the people you’re speaking too is also helps you relax. Seems like I should try yoga…

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Nat! So great to hear from you :D Thanks for stopping by — hope that all is well with you!

  • http://blog.sysil.com Stanley Lee

    Nice tips on calming yourself before public speaking sessions (perhaps from a standpoint of a yoga trainer?). I do have these points to add though:
    1) Videotaping yourself (everyone has cameras or phones these days, as these would do) would drastically cut down the time required for you to find areas of improvement (so that you don’t embarrass yourself for real).
    9) Public Speaking is like physical exercise (you get good at it if you exercise regularly, you get rusty at it if you have too long of a gap). Toastmasters is like going to the gym (or yoga practices in your case). By signing up and committing to the educational program, you get to practice 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and maybe 8 as often as you attend the meetings and deliver.

    Stanley

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Hey Stanley — thanks so much for your comment! Yes – great reminder that videotaping works great too and is arguably the fastest way to get substantial feedback. Flipcams with a tripod can definitely do the trick in a relatively inexpensive manner. Love what you said about it being like building a muscle too — so true.

      Have a great week!

  • Pingback: Worth Reading | More Fruit Please

  • http://aftertherace.wordpress.com/ Gina

    Awesome advice, Jenny! I might be starting a teaching job in April, so these tips will definitely help. :)

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Thank Gina! Glad you found the tips helpful — congrats on potentially starting your new teaching job in April!

  • http://www.janaschuberth.com Jana

    Hi Jenny, thanks so much for another awesome and helpful post! I would be interested in how to get speaking engagements in the first place. Networking etc are not as effective as they may sound. Maybe someone has some more ideas?! J x

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Hey Jana! So happy you liked the post. You’ve already booked yourself some speaking gigs! There are a ton of books that seem very helpful toward booking — a few I have marked as “to read”: The Wealthy Speaker, Secrets of Successful Speakers and Money Talks.

      Hope all is well with you — HUGS!!

  • http://www.enteradulthood.com Diana Antholis

    I like the idea of clenching fists to release adrenaline. Sometimes I get too excited and I find myself in a similar situation of feeling short of breath. I ask later and no one ever seems to notice – but it bothers me. In that particular situation, when I have felt short of breath, I always pause and take a breath. At first I thought people would think I was weird for stopping – but it turns out that they didn’t even notice. A pause to you feels like a lifetime, but not to them.
    This is going to sound crazy, but if you get nervous, sometimes it helps to pretend like you don’t care about the speech or audience. If you act like you don’t care, then you won’t have as much pressure on you to perform. It usually comes out very natural and calms the nerves.

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Diana! Thanks so much for your comment on the speaking post – you are SO right that people never notice the pauses we take. In fact, if anything they help because they give the audience time to soak it all in!

      Hope all’s well with you — can’t wait to meet up again soon :)

  • Dui Attorney

    Thanks for the great Post. i really enjoy reading your article. and the nine tips you given is very useful.

  • DUI penalty

    Those tips are really good. I think I can improve my Public Speaking very well with all those that you’ve listed. And from all that, I’d like to concentrate more on your tip #3. I have been trying to moderate my “ums” and other speech quirks because it’s very unprofessional like what you said. I certainly think that whenever I practice more, I can be confident every time I speak.

  • http://www.mycollegesandcareers.com/ My Colleges and Careers

    Brilliant suggestions! I’ve found Toastmasters to be really helpful for my public speaking. Channeling a favorite speaker is something else that has really helped put me in “the zone” when I’m speaking. Last summer before a big presentation, I walked up and down four flights of stairs and it really helped to clear my head before going on stage.

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Thanks so much! I love the idea of channeling a favorite speaker — what a great tip! Exercising beforehand seems like a great way to release all that extra adrenaline too. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  • Pingback: Performance anxiety: How to teach a class without mumbling, stumbling or “umm”ing « Red Lips and Academics

  • Nate Whitson

    Jenny,

    I always enjoy reading posts about public speaking, because all of us can lose track of valuable tips at one point or another. I’ll always remember an interesting tip I got from a college professor. She said the best way to get rid of your fear and nervous mentality was a simple task you perform in a bathroom stall (because it is somewhat weird) before your speech.

    You stand there with your eyes closed and focus all of your energy on a purple triangle in black space. You imagine the triangle growing bigger and bigger until it fills your entire sight line. Keeping your eyes close you turn around three times, open your eyes and exit the bathroom.

    She mentioned this task lets you know its ‘game time’ and that you are ready to own your speech. Obviously outside of the box, but it does work for me and a bunch of her former students.

    -Nate Whitson
    VP of marketing, InternMatch.com

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Hi Nate — thanks so much for the great comment! I love the tip from your professor about the ritual before she goes to speak. I’ll have to try that! I also like getting fresh air if I can.

      I also checked out what you’re up to with InternMatch — looks AMAZING!!! Keep up the great work :D

  • Pingback: Happy 4 Year Blogiversary to Life After College! — Life After College by Jenny Blake

  • Pingback: Make Sh*t Happen: Fall Enrollment Now Open! + Free Crash Course Webinar Next Week — Life After College by Jenny Blake

  • PUNEET

    HEY THIS IS AMAZING

  • http://blogging4backlinks.com/ Anirudh Bahadur

    Great tips Jenny. For me, asking for feedback has been the most fearful task I don’t know why. May be because I can’t handle criticism. Anyway, you are right that feedback is one of the most important part here to improve. Thanks. :)

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Thanks so much Anirudh! Yes, feedback can be an incredibly vulnerable thing — it’s hard to ask for it and to take it gracefully, but can be so helpful and make for a much better speech in the end. I think it’s very courageous of you to be pushing past your fear of feedback and asking for it anyway :) Keep on keepin’ on!

  • Shaan Goerge

    Great tips for improving your public speaking skills,
    whether it is in a presentation for work, school, church, or even just
    representing yourself well while networking.

  • sai

    Thanks for the article…I am very shy to speak in public speaking. My english is not so good. Since I sound I’m using my native accent. I am southern part of India. Your article is giving me hope. I will try my level best to implement these. Thanks again.

    • Gayatri

      Right place to commence is to ‘Start Teaching’. You may pool up kids around and start teaching a subject. This will improve your language and speaking skills! Good luck!!

  • http://www.dennisnapoli.com/ Speech Therapy Orange County

    These tips of yours are really very helpful especially for those who are to take the mic for the first time. I have been delivering speeches in front of a lot of people and I have to say, before I step out of the stage, my nerves always get to me but I have learned to calm it down through the years. I do agree with all your tips and I would like to emphasize the importance of practice. Believe me, it pays to practice.

  • B Rajender

    Good Tips, i will come back to you after practice

  • Anu

    Practical one….started doing from the moment I read it….

  • Raufu Idrisa

    Your ideas are good, but only the weakness is that you have based on classroom meeting rather than other public speaking grounds.

  • abitofbuddha

    Thanks for posting this! Great advice.

Previous post:

Next post: