Mastering 14 Skills for Public Speaking: A Comprehensive Guide for CEOs

The modern CEO is the face of their organisation.

They need to be able to communicate their ideas, vision and thought leadership to a range of audiences.

Strong public speaking skills are increasingly important interpersonal skills that can help leaders connect on a human level and inspire.

But there is a problem.

Few people enjoy public speaking. Speaking to a live audience can feel nerve-wracking and invoke imposter syndrome feelings. Bosses are not immune.

The good news is you can develop your public speaking skills. And nerves can be conquered.


How to improve public speaking skills

1 Preparation

Careful planning and preparation is the only way to ensure a successful presentation or speech.

Every memorable speech that has compelled, educated, and entertained audiences has done so because of good preparation.

Mark Twain famously said: "It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech."

Bullet points, mind maps and message preparation sheets will all help you to plan your presentations effectively.


2 Cultivating mastery through consistent practice

Or, to put it more succinctly, practice makes perfect.

You must keep practising your presentation skills. Like an athlete, we need to keep our brain and muscle memory fine-tuned.

Don’t wait until public speaking events are around the corner to get your skills in shape.

Pick up a video camera or smartphone and practice with colleagues, friends and family - anyone who will provide feedback (with specific examples) and tips for improving.

The more you practice, the more you will gain confidence in your public speaking skills and ability. And the better you will come across when it is time to present.

Practice should also include thinking about your personal branding and image.


3 Study great public speakers

A brilliant way to improve your public speaking skills is to watch those who do it well in action.

People like Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Tony Robins and Oprah Winfrey are widely considered to have exceptional public speaking skills.

You could also watch the speeches of people like Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill and John F Kennedy.

Watch videos of TED Talks, and observe the pace, delivery, posture, facial expressions and body language of the speakers.


4 Know your audience

Always carefully consider your audience and what you want to tell them.

We tell delegates on our presentation skills training courses to create a one-sentence description of the people they are speaking to.

For example, senior managers of a large university hospital, aged 40-55, mostly male and all with business degrees or MBAs.

You can refer to common ground when presenting to people within your organisation. And use more technical language and acronyms.

But the content should be simplified for other audiences.

Once you have that clarity, you can focus on the message you want to get across.

Try to narrow this down to one main point you want them to take away.

Then, think about how to make it relevant, captivating and memorable.

We understand this can feel daunting.

But during our public speaking classes, those who choose to bring personal tales to the stage are the ones we see most grow in confidence.


5 Have coping skills in place for when nerves hit - take a deep breath

Worried you'll get hit by public speaking nerves? You are not alone.

Some of us fear creepy crawlies and snakes, while others quite like them. But one fear that seems to unite us all is public speaking. It even has a name - glossophobia.

Speaking in front of a group is not easy. And even experienced public speakers find them daunting.

So, how can you build your confidence.?

Changing your mindset is a good starting point. Remember you are the expert.

People want to listen to what you have to say. They want you to succeed so they learn from your experience, insight and ideas.

Don't add pressure by trying to create the perfect presentation or speech. Everyone makes mistakes and, most of the time, they are much more minor than they feel. Often the audience won’t notice them.

Among other crucial public speaking tips for nerves is to take deep breaths. Breathe in for six seconds and breath out like you are blowing a candle. It can slow your heartbeat.

And remember, it is natural to experience public speaking anxiety.


6 Warm up your voice

Your voice is a crucial part of public speaking.

You need to add energy to your delivery to keep your audience engaged.

There are moments when you will want to sound inspiring, times when you will want to sound more like a friend, and points at which you will want to challenge your audience. Your voice needs to change to reflect the goals of your message.

To do this, you must ensure you warm your voice up.

There are many techniques you can use, including humming, chanting and lip trills - find the one that works best for you.

During one of our masterclasses for members of The Media Team Academy, Susan Bookbinder, one of our expert tutors, recommended saying a particular word.

“I advise people to say the word ‘om’ several times," she said. "It is not possible to say that word from the back of the throat, which is what people tend to do when they are nervous and makes them sound high-pitched."

You can also help your voice by avoiding chocolate and milk before public speaking - dairy products can build up mucous in the throat.


7 Start strongly

As horrible as it sounds, you only have a few seconds to make the right first impression with your public speaking.

Make eye contact with the audience and smile – smiling will make you appear confident and suggests you are happy to be there.

If you are presenting on stage, avoid tapping the microphone and asking whether people at the back can hear. It doesn’t create the impression of someone who delivers professional presentations.

Similarly, opening with phrases like ‘I haven’t had a lot of time to prepare’ or ‘I’ll keep it brief’, does not suggest you are taking the opportunity seriously. Or that the audience will get much from hearing you talk.

Any negative introduction or self-deprecation will alert your audience to look for flaws in your presentation.

You can find more first impression advice in our online presentation and personal impact course.


8 Delivery and presentation style - be yourself

Obviously, clear articulation is critical in public speaking - people need to understand what you are discussing. So, communicate clearly.

But, in terms of delivery style, people are drawn to speakers who sound impromptu and create a natural conversational tone rather than something that seems rehearsed, scripted and memorised.

A key part of being an effective presenter who connects with the audience is to be yourself and let your personality come through - it is the most engaging presentation style.

And this brings us neatly to personal stories.

Storytelling has become one of the most crucial communication skills. And, in public speaking, it will help you build a direct connection with your audience.

Stories bring messages to life. They capture attention, entertain, keep people engaged and evoke emotions.

To do that, they must be relevant, unusual, contain an element of conflict and be brief.

But most of all, they should be personal.

People - your audience - want to hear stories about other people and not corporate strategy, management vision or process.


9 Relax your body language

Fiddling with jewellery, playing with pens (or coins in your pocket), repeatedly adjusting clothing and stroking hair and beards - we've all seen presenters with body language flaws like these.

The problem is they can all suggest nervousness, distract from the message, and annoy your audience.

These nervous gestures are habits, so they can be tricky to stop. Making the change starts with awareness - watch a recording of your most recent talk (or a practice session) and observe whether you show signs of public speaking anxiety.

During our presentation skills courses and public speaking training, we sometimes find people hide their hands if they feel nervous. Avoid this - your audience's attention will focus on on what you are doing with your hands.

Maintaining eye contact with your audience is one of the most vital speaking skills. Poor eye contact and wandering eyes can make you look shifty and uncomfortable.

This can feel awkward when presenting in a large room. One of our body language tips is to divide and conquer. Divide the room into three sections. Then, when you move that eye contact from one person to another, choose someone in a different section.


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10 Use the stage to your advantage

Standing on a stage to speak in front of a large audience is probably the presentation format that causes the most fear about public speaking.

It's a worry most people express at the start of our public speaking courses.

But there are steps you can take to ensure you appear composed and confident and use the stage to your advantage.

And it starts with a decision - will you move about the stage or stand? There's a lot of debate about the best option.

We don't believe there is a right or wrong answer.

If you opt to walk around, move with purpose and confidence. And avoid doing one of those dances where you move from one foot to the other.

If you decide not to move around the stage, make sure you plant your feet shoulder-width apart and put your energy into the use of gestures. This will prevent you from swaying.


11 Use visual aids wisely (avoid death by PowerPoint presentation)

What visual aids will you use in your presentation?

Most of us opt to create slides and jump into developing a deck of PowerPoint slides.

And there are advantages for public speakers in using slides.

But ditching slides can make presentations stand out. And you avoid the trap of reading them aloud.

If you need slides, ensure they have a logical flow and remember less is more.

Focus slides on the main points you want the audience to take away.

And keep the text short, with slides showing a headline statistic or tagline, rather than vast paragraphs.


12 Consider negatives

Are there any negatives surrounding your subject?

Is it controversial? Could people disagree with your view? What counter-argument might you face?

If there are, don't let it add to the public speaking nerves.

Do your homework, anticipate the negatives, and plan how you would respond if they come up.

Also, consider whether you should proactively acknowledge the controversy - this may help the audience feel you are taking it seriously.


13 The question of questions

Questions are a concern even for presenters with strong public speaking skills.

People worry about facing a question they don’t know how to answer or feel taking questions will blow their presentation off course.

But questions show the audience is interested, engaged, and keen to learn more.

As part of your preparation, spend time anticipating likely questions.

If something unexpected does get asked, remain composed. And then pause or praise the question to give yourself a little time to plan what to say. If you face a question you can’t answer, honesty is the best approach - admit you don’t know the answer. And maybe offer to find out the answer after the event if you can.

Finally, avoid finishing with questions - you are allowing the audience to decide how your presentation ends, and there is a good chance it will not be on the important points you want them to take away.


14 End with a bang

There are plenty of public speaking tips for starting strong, getting the first impression right, and grabbing your audience's attention. And far fewer on how you should end a presentation.

But, if you are serious about improving your public speaking skills, you must give your closing words consideration.

A weak finish could undo your work and leave your audience feeling uninspired or unclear about your key points and message.

So, ditch the dull 'thank you' slide and avoid the temptation to finish with a Q&A.

Instead, consider ending with a summary or a clear call to action. Famous quotes or impactful images can work well as long as they are relevant. If you are feeling confident, finish with a sound bite. This is when you condense your message into a crisp, memorable single sentence.

For example, “Men still run the world. And I’m not sure that’s going that well.” Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook

Of course, the best way to develop good public speaking skills is through proper training.

Our presentation skills training courses will help you overcome your worries and give you the skills and ability to speak confidently and deliver relaxed, composed, and better presentations that engage your audience.

And all our presentation training courses are bespoke – we know what works for one person or team may not work for another.


Media First are leading media and communication skills training specialists with more than 35 years of experience.

Discover more about our presentation skills training.

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Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.

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