If you are afraid of public speaking, read this

Woman speaking in front of large screen to group seated at tables (State Dept./Tim Brown)
Allison Shapira talks to Mandela Washington Fellows during her workshop on public speaking. (State Dept./Tim Brown)

Need a guide to get you started on your next public speaking engagement? Check out this public speaking guide [PDF 300kb] and interactive worksheet.

Have you ever had to give a speech on behalf of something bigger than yourself? It sounds terrifying. But it doesn’t have to be, said Allison Shapira, who teaches public speaking and presentation skills in Washington.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from. It doesn’t matter how old you are. And it doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in your career. Every single one of us needs public speaking,” she said.

What exactly is public speaking? Shapira defined it as anytime you speak in front of an audience of one or more with some kind of goal. That covers everything from a formal address at a podium or on a stage to a small meeting with co-workers.

If you are responsible for giving a speech, Shapira said, there are three questions to ask yourself that will help get you started:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What is your goal?
  • Why you?

Explaining further, she said your goal will drive your message, and knowing your audience helps you understand what will make sense to them and how they will most effectively receive information. Understanding your own passion for the subject gives you permission to bring in your enthusiasm and experience, including a story or anecdote that will make the speech more authentic.

To organize the speech, first define its one main message. “The more focused you are in your message, the more powerful you are going to be,” Shapira said. After you write down the main points, rearrange them into a logical structure. Then write out the opening and closing sentences.

“The first sentence and the last sentence are the two most important parts of a speech,” Shapira said. The first captures attention and creates the first impression, while the last drives home the message.

Given audience attention spans, “a short, concise speech is more powerful,” she said. You can actually make a strong point in less than two minutes.

Shapira advises that you practice the speech out loud, at least a week before if possible, and record it. “The more you practice, then the more it becomes natural to you,” she said.

When delivering the speech, she said, there are three effective nonverbal techniques to keep in mind:

  • Eye contact with the audience.
  • Good body language, such as posture, facial expression and hand movements that match your words.
  • Vocal tone. Be expressive!

But above all, relax. “Public speaking is more about authenticity than it is about perfection. Nobody wants you to give a perfect, flawless speech,” Shapira said. “It’s more about connecting with people on an authentic personal level.”

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