Skip to main content

A Basic Guide to Public Speaking

This guide is intended for anyone interested in improving their public speaking skills. My aim is to simplify a subject that many people find overwhelming. I have condensed what I believe to be the most relevant information into this post.

Public speaking became an important part of my life out of necessity. My first speech class was stressful and overwhelming. I had severe speech anxiety and was frustrated by my inability to express myself with clarity and confidence. 

I set out to gain as much knowledge and experience as possible. I completed a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in communication studies. I delivered numerous speeches through Toastmasters International. Now, I teach college level public speaking courses as an Adjunct-Instructor.

Throughout this time, I have coached hundreds of students and evaluated thousands of speeches. I remain committed to improving my own speaking skills while also helping others along their journey towards becoming competent communicators.

It should be noted that this guide lacks important details due to its brevity and should be considered as supplemental to a more substantial and rigorous public speaking textbook. Having said that, you will find the basics here.

The Benefits
Topic Selection
Visual Aids
Common Speech Types

The Benefits
Public speaking is as important today as it has ever been. Our livelihood and well-being depends on the interactions we have with others. We must speak with clarity, confidence, and compassion to attain our personal and professional goals.

Influential people readily express their ideas and goals. Jobs, promotions, and opportunities come to those who deal effectively with others. Take notice of speaking skills in people you admire. Individuals in positions of power tend to be effective communicators.

Happiness and health are also important measures of success; and a robust social life keeps us happy and healthy. Social support is correlated with mental and physical well-being. It is imperative that we prioritize our relationships if we are seeking wellness.

Better speaking skills help us to express ourselves with more honesty and compassion. We can avoid misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts. We can put ourselves in a better position to receive encouragement and companionship. Communication skills are essential to this process.

This is especially important as we become more at risk of isolation from one another. An increasingly technologized world provides us with less need for face-to-face interactions. There is much to gain from this process, but it must not come at the expense of social interaction.

Strong speaking skills increase our likelihood of success in all areas of life. Everyone can benefit from improving their abilities. Unfortunately, fear often stands in the way.

Public speaking is a particularly stressful activity. You may view it as a minor nuisance, or you may find it completely overwhelming. In either case, speech apprehension is completely normal.

Public speaking elicits the fight or flight response. Your body sends chemical signals throughout the nervous system. Common symptoms include sweating, shaking, blushing, dry mouth, forgetfulness, dizziness, etc. Everyone experiences these symptoms with varying levels of severity.

This process is natural and harmless, however unpleasant it may seem. So how do we deal with the terrible feelings associated with public speaking anxiety? Remember these Three P’s: Prepare, Power, and Presence.

A straightforward way to avoid speech anxiety is to prepare as much as possible. You are less likely to be nervous if you have spent enough time preparing and practicing your presentation.

The next way is to act confident. Adopt powerful poses and take up lots of space. Pose like a pop star or a superhero. If you act confident, you are more likely to feel confident.

Public speaking anxiety can be further managed by practicing presence.  Try deep breathing and relaxation exercises. Focus on what is happening in your body or in your immediate environment. When you shift your attention to the present moment, you are directing energy away from the anxious thoughts that exacerbate your stress response.

Above all, avoid resisting speech anxiety. Anxiety will have less power over you if you accept it as a normal and natural feature of public speaking.

PLEASE NOTE: Anxiety related disorders are among the most common forms of mental illness in America. The suffering caused by anxiety often reaches far beyond speech apprehension. In such cases, seek professional and/or medical assistance.

The most insightful speakers are also careful listeners. Most of our time is spent listening, so it pays to listen well.

Careful listening goes beyond the mere act of hearing. It involves processing and understanding what is being said.

Stay engaged while listening to someone speak: Think about what questions you might have. Summarize what is being said. Consider whether you agree or disagree with the speaker. What could be done to improve the message? You absorb more information when you listen actively, rather than passively.

Nonverbal feedback is also part of being a better listener. Gerald Egan, a psychotherapist, offers a useful acronym with SOLER: Squarely, Open, Lean, Eyes, & Relax. Show interest in the speaker by facing them squarely, opening your posture, leaning in, providing eye contact, and relaxing your posture. Such nonverbal listening skills keep you engaged while also conveying respect to the speaker.

People appreciate being listened to with sincerity. Aim to listen with genuine interest and empathy. If we are staring mindlessly with blank expressions, or worse, looking down at our phones, it increases the tension in the room and spoils the atmosphere. This hurts the speaker and the audience. Show that you care.

You might just learn a thing or two when you listen carefully. If you want to become an interesting person, become interested in other people.

Public speaking should be approached with a sense of responsibility. An effective speech provides value to the audience. Your message ought to be worth listening to.

A speaker may be entitled to complete freedom in terms of what they say in a speech. But consider the effects of hateful, dishonest, or misleading rhetoric. Avoid words or ideas that tend to be destructive and offensive. Aim to contribute something positive and productive.

Controversial claims and heated discussions may ensue after a speech. You may even be disrupted mid-speech. Such instances provide a perfect opportunity to listen, learn, and calmly discuss the matter. Defensiveness, hostility, or personal attacks will not help to advance your goals. Controversy may not be avoidable, but ethical considerations can mitigate these situations.

Convey a sense of deep respect and courtesy towards your audience. Demonstrate that you have their best interests in mind. Show concern for them. They will remain open minded if the speaker seems well-intentioned. Remember that the audience is providing their precious attention. Do not waste or misuse it.

Speech is powerful; it can inspire or divide us. Compelling orators can spark social change, revolution, demonstrations, or violence. Use this power wisely.

Topic Selection
Students often delay an upcoming speech because they cannot decide on a topic. Commit to a topic sooner rather than later so you can start the outlining process. If you are not sure where to start, create a new document and name it “My Speech” to gain some momentum.

First steps
To begin, determine the goal of your speech by reviewing the guidelines carefully.

Next, begin brainstorming. Start with your interests and what you know. Pay attention to media you consume and notice anything that captures your attention. Sift through publications that cover a wide range of topics: Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, National Geographic, The Atlantic, and NPR. You should find several topics that warrant further investigation.

With some topics in mind, analyze your audience and consider their demographics (age, background, economics etc.). Anticipate what would capture their attention. Avoid topics that are broad, dated, redundant, insignificant, or inappropriate.

Narrow your ideas down to one. Write this on a draft document along with some preliminary ideas for main points.

Your thesis
Once you have a topic, you must develop a unifying theme. This will serve as your thesis statement. A thesis statement sums up your entire message in a single declarative sentence. It should be targeted and clear. You might have trouble coming up with a theme until you have more material. That is to be expected – your thesis should evolve along with your content. Feel free to revisit it and adjust accordingly.

An outline helps to organize and structure your ideas. It consists of three basic parts: an introduction, a body (or main points), and a conclusion. In order to encourage a natural and conversational delivery, avoid writing out your speech word-for-word, like you might write an essay.

Start by developing your points
The body is the core of your speech. Divide your topic into 2-5 main points for maximal structure. 3 main points usually works well.

Divide your main points further into supporting sub-points. Provide plenty of evidence, in the form of sub-sub-points. This will include examples, facts, stories, and expert statements. Format your points like this:

I. Main Point
            A. Sub-Point
                        1. Sub-sub-point
                        2. Sub-sub-point
            B. Sub-Point
II. Main Point

Next, decide how you will arrange your points. The simplest and most common way to arrange your points is categorically, or topically. You can also arrange your points sequentially, narratively, or in a circular fashion in which each point leads directly and logically into the next.

Transition statements
Transition statements improve fluidity in a speech. Here are some different kinds of transition statements you might use:
Signposts – Hinting words such as first, next, now, let us discuss etc.
Summary/preview – Now that we have discussed X, let us move on to Y
Questions – How safe is nuclear energy? This brings us to my next point

Introductions & Conclusions
Determine your main points before attempting to write an introduction. You cannot introduce what you do not yet know. A strong speech introduction should:
1.) Get the audience’s attention with a quote, question, story, or demonstration
2.) Introduce the topic, theme and main points
3.) Directly or indirectly tell the audience why you chose the topic

Resist the temptation to skip a proper ending. Conclude your speech as follows:
1.) Review your main points and thesis statement
2.) Provide the audience with some lesson, moral or inspiration
3.) Close with a powerful and memorable final statement; perhaps a rhetorical question, call to action, or call back to the introduction.

Avoiding plagiarism
Provide citations for material taken from outside sources. The only exception is common knowledge. Summarize and paraphrase relevant facts, using direct quotes sparingly. This process requires patience and discipline.

Cite all written sources using MLA, CMS or APA formatting. Oral citations should be simplified for fluidity. During the presentation, state basic information relating to the source such as the author or journal name and the date of publication.

Remember to evaluate the credibility of your sources. Do not use a source if it seems biased, amateurish, or if it is not verifiable. Refer to full MLA, CMS, or APA guidelines for more details.

Using notes
Simplify your full-sentence outline for the sake of delivery. Seek to present in a natural, engaging and conversational manner. Condense your fully developed outline into key words and phrases. This will serve as your speaking outline, which you can then transfer to notecards or a streamlined printed sheet of paper.

Language can make a speech more powerful and poetic. It can also result in a speech that is awkward, or even offensive. The language used in oral communication is typically more conversational than written communication. And yet a speech should be more formal than an everyday conversation. Find middle-ground. Follow these guidelines for using language effectively in your speech:

First, convey authority and assertiveness with direct language. Use the active voice rather than the passive voice. For example, “We must recycle” is more impactful than “Recycling is something that we must do”. The subject in the former example is acting. The latter example demonstrates a subject that is being acted upon. Stick with direct sentences.

Second, be descriptive. Paint a picture with your words. Provide details and use colorful language. Set the scene so that the audience feels like they are immersed in your message.

Third, remain inclusive. Personal pronouns such as “we” and “us” include the entire audience in your speech. You should also seek to avoid offensive words and gendered language. If you were to say, “Businessmen around the world agree”, you have just excluded half of the audience. “Businessperson” is a better term.

Fourth, rhetorical devices can spruce up your speech. Alliteration and metaphor are some examples of the many different rhetorical devices that can make your speech more engaging.

Lastly, avoid obscure or technical terms. Resist the tendency to include exotic words you might find using a thesaurus. Remember to keep things simple and clear.

Content and delivery must complement one another to produce a compelling speech. Delivery refers to use of space, body language, and vocal variety.

Use of space
Rare occasions call for a speaker to stand still behind a podium, perhaps a toast or commencement speech. With few exceptions, plan to take advantage of the space. Move along with your points, or try incorporating the speaker’s triangle:

Tips for confident body language:

Tips for vocal variety:
Visual Aids
The right visual aid can enhance your message. A visual aid should supplement the presentation without replacing content. It serves the speech; not the other way around. A simple prop (item) or poster is often sufficient.

You may choose to use presentation software like Microsoft PowerPoint, Google Slides, Prezi, or Keynote. This makes a presentation more engaging with a combination of text, images, audio, and video. Here are some guidelines to follow when using presentation software:
  • Limit text to brief phrases, quotes, facts or important main ideas
  • 6 by 6 rule: 6 points per page; 6 words per point
  • Never include full paragraphs on your slides
  • Avoid reading directly from your slides
  • Stay within 5-12 slides for a 5-10 minute speech
  • Make sure that colors, font and layout are easy to read
  • Plan for technical difficulties; be ready to present without your aid
  • Never turn your back on the audience to look at your slides
  • Rehearse with your visual aid

Your visual aid should be clear and straight forward. It must enhance your message. If it does not accomplish that, or if it is distracting, then do not include it. Remember these guidelines to ensure that your next visual aid is used successfully.

It is essential that you rehearse your speech. Rehearsal improves content, fluidity, delivery, and timing. Plan to rehearse plenty of times with plenty of time to spare. Too many students wait until the last minute to complete their speech, leaving little to no time for rehearsal.

There is no perfect number of times you should rehearse. It is better to rehearse once than not at all. Even better, plan to rehearse as many times as is necessary to have a strong command of your material so that you can deliver with confidence.

Tips for effective rehearsal
  • Give yourself plenty of time to rehearse
  • Ensure the outline is clear and well-prepared
  • Use clear notes
  • Time your speech
  • Record your speech and watch yourself presenting
  • Make revisions after each rehearsal
  • Repeat your speech until you feel confident
  • Stop rehearsing if you are not noticing improvements
Most speaking errors can be fixed with the trial and error process of rehearsal. Rehearsal is a great way to improve every aspect of your speech. You may notice parts of the outline that need revision, which you can fix.

An unrehearsed speech inevitably results in disaster. The audience notices when a speaker is unrehearsed. It creates a collective feeling that everyone is wasting their time. Conversely, a well-rehearsed speech typically receives praise and respect from everyone. Take advantage of the opportunity and deliver something memorable. Rehearsal is key.

Common Speech Types
The introduction speech
You may be called to introduce yourself to a group. It would take up too much time to discuss your whole life. Focus on what is notable and relevant. What brings you to this occasion? What is important to you? What experiences have defined you? These considerations should give you a head start.

The informative speech
An informative speech sheds light on an interesting topic. You can discuss an object, person, place, process, event, issue, or concept. Educate the audience with content that is interesting, memorable, and relatable.

The persuasive speech
A persuasive speech appeals to the audience’s attitudes, beliefs, and values. It attempts to solidify an existing belief or to sway listeners to the speaker’s point of view.

Your speech will be based on a question of fact, value, or policy. Questions of fact are argued as being true or false (e.g. Humans are causing global warming). Questions of value are proposed as being fundamentally good or bad, better or worse (e.g. Nuclear is the superior energy source). Finally, questions of policy propose whether an institution should act to solve a problem (e.g. The federal government should impose a CO2 emission tax).

The special occasion speech
You may be asked to give a speech for a special occasion such as a dinner party, wedding, eulogy, graduation, award ceremony, etc. Uplift the audience with a message that entertains, inspires, or motivates. Be creative and include anecdotes. Lastly, make sure to provide a relevant lesson or moral in the speech.

A Final Note
Use this information to build competency and faith in your abilities. Public speaking is intimidating, but it does not have to be so daunting.

Public speaking is too important a skill to neglect. Anyone can benefit from taking steps towards becoming a better speaker. You have to start somewhere.

Seek out opportunities to get more practice and to advance your skills. Contribute to more discussions and conversations. Join a club or organization. Become active in your community. If possible, take a speech class. You must act if you want to make progress.

It takes time to develop your abilities, but anyone can become a better speaker with some basic knowledge and experience. Start your journey today. If I can do it, so can you!