Effective Public Speaking

What you’ll learn to do: Identify key principles of effective public speaking

Like speaking itself, public speaking is a learned behavior. Just as no one comes out of the womb speaking eloquently, no one becomes a powerful orator without practice. In this section, we’ll discuss the “why” of public speaking—the audience’s expectations and the benefits that accrue to the speaker—and introduce a simple five-step process for developing an effective speech.

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss key characteristics of public speaking
  • Discuss the importance of public speaking in a business setting
  • Identify various audience needs and expectations that can be addressed by a speech
  • Identify the five steps of developing an effective speech

What is Public Speaking?

Public speaking is, simply, an oral presentation or speech delivered to a live audience. It is generally a formal or staged event— although impromptu speeches are a common occurrence—and can be a defining career moment. For example, you may think you’re attending a client meeting only to find yourself called on to explain a procedural or technical point being discussed. Or you may be sitting in a management meeting thinking you are just there to observe when you are asked to elaborate on an aspect of the supporting research and analysis or defend your recommendations.

Impromptu Speaking

Although impromptu speaking isn’t the focus of this module, it is worth noting that this type of speaking is something Toastmaster members train for on an ongoing basis using a technique called “Table Topics.” For more on this technique, read A Table Topics Workout: The Power Packed Exercise for Stretching Your Brain.

Executive presentation coach Peter Khoury has reverse-engineered the characteristics of great speakers for over fifteen years. Combining his findings with scientific research on leadership, he’s distilled this research into the following 9 characteristics of effective public speakers:[1]

  1. Confidence
  2. Passion
  3. Practice, don’t memorize
  4. Speak in a natural voice
  5. Authenticity
  6. Keep it Short and Sweet
  7. Connect with your Audience
  8. Paint a Picture through Storytelling
  9. Repetition

Like computer failure and natural disasters, finding yourself in a situation requiring public speaking skills is not a matter of whether it will happen but when it will happen. Given the potential career impact, you need to prepare accordingly.

Practice Question

Benefits of Public Speaking

What is public speaking but a dressed up—or not, depending on your audience—version of the basic skills we’ve been using since we first began forming desires and shaping the words and gestures to communicate those desires? Ah, life was simple then; a baby pointing and reaching towards a bowl of grapes or a toddler repeating “more milk” until they get what they want. Then again, one fundamental dynamic hasn’t changed. As Stevie Wonder put it, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” This is true not only personally but especially professionally. If you want the sale, contract, funding, job, project, or promotion, you have to be willing and able to ask for it in a clear and compelling manner. Often, in front of a group of deciders—those who will determine the response to your request. Welcome to public speaking!

What has changed is your potential—your potential to connect, to create or co-create and, given technology and social media/sharing, your potential reach and impact. In a statement echoed in virtually every career and leadership book and blog, the Toastmasters International Guide to Successful Speaking notes, “There is perhaps no greater skill [to] help you build your career or business than effective public speaking.” As a testament to the tradition and enduring power of oral speech, the primary motivations for speaking are the same as they were in ancient Greece. Aristotle, who wrote a treatise on the art of persuasion titled Rhetoric, identified three primary motivations: to inform, to persuade, and to inspire. Practically speaking, public speeches often include more than one element. For example, communicating a risk or potential opportunity may be done in conjunction with building support for a change in business practices or a proposed initiative.

Public speaking is also an exceptional, and cost-effective, way to build your brand and network within your organization, profession, or industry and/or to build good will for your company in the community. Whether you’re pitching a product, service, idea, company or person (including yourself), public speaking differentiates you and your message from the promotional noise and general chatter. As professional speakers and authors Jeff Slutsky & Michael Aun note, public speaking “literally puts you on a pedestal.” Indeed, the average audience member assumes that since you’re speaking on the topic, you must be an expert. Of course, the impression they leave with depends on the quality of your speech, but the bottom line is that being a speaker gives you a level of credibility that would take a significant amount of time to cultivate otherwise. Speaking allows you to develop a reputation as a thought leader or community leader, raising your visibility and perceived market value. That’s not something a cover letter and resume or pitch is likely to do—if it even makes it through the filters.

Practice Question

Audience Expectations

An auditorium of seated people look attentive, quiet, and ready to take notes on what they are observing.
One of the finest, and rarest, gifts a person can give is their attention. When it comes to audience attention, that gift comes with an expectation. Audience expectations are simply an extension of the three speaker motivations. Specifically, audience members expect to learn from an informational speech, to be moved by a persuasive speech, or to be inspired by an inspirational speech.

Perhaps your first and most important test as a prospective speaker is to make sure you clearly communicate the purpose and benefits of attending your speech. A disconnect between what audience members thought they signed on for and what they’re hearing can trigger a range of undesirable audience behaviors from zoning out to walking out. As a speaker, you also have an obligation to factor your audience into the design and development of your speech, from relevant examples to appropriate language and subject matter depth. Whatever your stated intent (benefit), the minimum audience expectation is that you fulfill it in a clear and coherent manner.

One additional point to consider is the medium. Public speeches are live events. Why would you purchase a ticket and go to see a concert or comedian or other event live rather than buying a DVD or tuning in to podcast or TV broadcast for a fraction of the price? There’s a difference in the level of energy and engagement in a live “performance”—whether it’s a speech, dance recital, political rally, or musical event. Keep in mind that those attending a public speech expect an experience that transcends a one-dimensional transfer of information.

Practice Question

Developing an Effective Speech

Let’s assume you see the value in developing public speaking as a skill. Where do you start? A good warm-up exercise is to watch a few TED Talks, organized by topic and popularity, among other categories. If you prefer to proceed straight to the cream of the crop, Steve Jobs’ classic “How to Live Before You Die” speech delivered at Stanford University’s 2005 commencement is excellent inspiration and perspective—for life as well as for speaking. If you watch a few talks, you’ll notice that each presenter has a unique message and style that makes him or her compelling. This is a key point. While we all learn process and technique by copying the masters, as legions of artists have done before us, the artistry (and magic, from the audience’s standpoint) is in finding your own voice and developing your personal style. In practical terms, this means that you also have to develop and curate your own material using your life experience, insights, and observations to illustrate your points.

United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaking to attendees at the John P. Frank Memorial Lecture at Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona while gesturing with her hands.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor giving a speech.

Whether you’re facing a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen, the start is always the hardest part of a speaking project. We’re going to work through that obstacle by following this five-step jump start.

  1. Choose your topic
  2. Develop your benefit statement
  3. Develop your positioning statement
  4. Derive your title
  5. Create your content

Choose Your Topic

For perspective on topics, you can scan the 194 topics (click on “Browse the complete topic list”) used by the National Speakers Association. If there’s a conference or Chamber of Commerce or professional association event you want to speak at, scan the associated website(s), social media posts, and publications to get a sense of what topics might be a good fit. In choosing your topic, consider your experience and expertise. That’s not to say that you need to be an acknowledged expert on a particular topic—that’s where research comes in—but you do need to have an interest in the topic and a base level of credibility. Although there are hundreds of potential topics, it’s very likely that a particular topic has already been covered a number of times by a number of people. Given that, the essential question is what can you bring to the topic that others haven’t? That is, how can you approach an exhausted topic with fresh eyes to make it feel new and engaging?

Develop Your Benefit Statement

Once you’ve decided on a topic, the next step is to develop a one to two sentence benefit statement that supports your credibility as a speaker on that topic. The benefit statement should answer the question: why you? This is similar to the process you would go through in pitching an article to a publisher. What is the unique value—experience, expertise, point of view—that you bring to the topic? For different frames of reference on benefit statements, scan the speaker bios and bylines of writers that cover topics of interest to you.

Develop Your Positioning Statement

The positioning statement is an expansion of the last step that tailors your benefit statement to a specific audience. Working through this step helps you clarify who your audience is and what you will be presenting to them. Although the positioning statement is for internal purposes, the focus is external—what’s the ROA (return on attention) for the audience? Don’t skip this step; it will help you focus your thoughts, minimize interesting but off-point digressions, and help maintain a coherent structure and flow through the research, writing, editing, and ultimately, speaking phases.

Develop Your Title

In moving from your positioning statement to the speech title, think of your speech as a product or service—what would prompt someone to “buy” what you’re offering? Your title is a pitch—or your bid for the audience’s attention. To get to that pitch, select a few key words from your positioning statement and brainstorm a compelling headline. For additional insight and exercises, read Larry Kim’s Inc article, “30 Ideas for Super Clickable Blog Headlines,” explore the BBC News resources on writing headlines, or watch the “How to Write a Hook” YouTube video. You may also want to browse the titles of articles and blogs posted to your target audience’s (i.e., industry or professional association) websites and publications. Remember that as you develop your content, your title might need some adjusting. If you don’t need to submit your title far in advance (to be printed in a brochure or program), revisit it once your content is complete to make sure it still fits. If you do need to submit it before your content is fully developed, try to leave a little wiggle room and not make it too specific regarding the conclusions you might come to.

Develop Your Content

Once you have your title and framework from your positioning statement, you’re ready to start developing your content. Of course, you’ve been building useful content all along through your life experiences. Reflect on the relevant lessons you’ve learned, and make note of some of the experiences—a key quote or visual, an emotion or insight, people or places. Use these events as possible connections to consider and, if applicable, work them in to your speech to illustrate your points. Research is a skill, and art, unto itself (refer to the Washington University librarians’ Conducting Research pages for additional tips and resources), but a good jumping-off point is doing an internet search of your keywords. If you have lead time, you can set up a Google Alert to monitor relevant news and developments. It can also be helpful to find and follow subject-matter experts for your topic and tune in to current trends. To do this, conduct “best of” searches to find thought leaders. You may achieve both objectives in one search, as in this Forbes article: “Top Shopping Trends of 2018: Retail Experts Share What to Watch for Next Year,” one of the results in a search for “best retail marketers.”

Reminder: Remember to document your sources! Include citations in your written speech in order to give credit where credit is due and to be able to follow-up on any related audience questions.

Practice Question

There you have it! A simple process for sidestepping writer’s or speaker’s block. Next, we’ll discuss another common sticking point: how to open your speech.