public speaking tips

I’m working on a presentation I’m giving at the end of the week and I thought, hey, why not write about preparing speeches and what happens when you find yourself in front of a group of people giving the speech? Here it goes…

Do what works for you. I write out my speeches. Some will say that you shouldn’t – notes in point form only. Either way, do what works best for you. Writing it out helps me to get a feel for where I want to go. Every time I give a talk I tailor it for that particular audience. I’m not reading my speech. I will glance down from time to time and it helps me to keep track of where I am.

Present to the mirror. Give the speech at home to a chair, to the kitchen cabinets, to the mirror. Doing it out loud allows you to get a feel for the pacing, where you stumble and what needs to be fixed.

Waiting is the hardest part. The anticipation of speaking is worse than speaking in front of thousands of people. Scott can attest to this. I don’t know how many times I’ve shout-whispered at him, “This is going to suck. I have to change everything!” In that half hour leading up to the presentation, I am sure I will bomb. It’s normal. You’ll be fine.

If you bomb. Debrief with someone you trust. Shake it off. Have a drink. Move on. Obsess about it for days. No, wait. Don’t do that.

Don’t picture people in their underwear. We were given that brilliant advice in school to help calm us, but here’s the thing. It’s creepy. Don’t do it.

Don’t consume alcohol before delivering a speech. Years ago I was the keynote speaker at an event where they plied me with drinks. It was very generous of them, but I wanted to be coherent. I stopped at one martini and followed it up with a lot of water and food. I was fine, but I’ll never do it again. You want to keep your wits about you. No one should be so relaxed they’re slurring their words. A couple of months ago I gave a speech, bee-lined to the bar as soon as it was over, grabbed a glass of wine and began to drink like I earned it. Ah, victory.

Expect nervousness. Butterflies are normal. It keeps you on your toes. In fact, if you’re not a little nervous, I would wonder what is wrong with you.

Engage with the room. Make eye contact. Not shifty eye contact, like you’re looking for a quick getaway. But clear, controlled eye contact. Move your head. Look for the people paying attention, smiling. Focus on those people. Don’t be distracted by the person on their phone or the person who’s leaving. Stay with the people who stay with you.


Use humor. My story is heavy. Heavy, heavy. So, as I list all the terrible that happened I tell a funny story or make a casual observation that relates to the topic to lighten the room. It gives your audience a chance to exhale. After sharing the sad tale of losing my left leg after a 2 month battle to save it, I often list my favorite things about the hospital – one of them being morphine. Sweet, beautiful morphine. Sometimes I wish I still had access to a drip.

Slow down. But, not too much. Because slow talkers are the worst. I have a tendency to talk fast, especially when I’m nervous or I’m eager to get to the good part. My life was horrible and then it wasn’t! Ta-da! But, as I’m talking I remind myself these people are here to hear you. They don’t know the story like I do. Breathe. Pause. Speak clearly.

Beware of tics. Throat clearing, ums and uhs. If you’re prepared, that helps curb the tics. If you’re doing something on the fly, those tics love to hang out with you. I don’t have any special tricks. Just be conscious of the tics and try to eliminate them. Instead of an uuuhh, swallow or take a breath.

If you forget. Don’t panic. Take a beat. Look down at your notes. What seems like hours to you are just a few seconds to the audience. I once spoke at Parliament where the Ministry was giving the burn fund 2 million dollars. Media was there. Important people of the government were there. I was doing well, covering my points. I had not brought notes because I had this. And then. As I approached the end. I blanked. What came after rehabilitation and the importance of community? I didn’t know. My mind was a black hole. I was sure I heard the drip of a leaky faucet on the other side of the building. Somewhere in the static that was my brain, words found me and color returned to my face. Later someone said to me that pause (my freak out) emphasized the point. You could really feel the emotion. And I just forgot. It often feels worse than it actually is. If you forget a part of your speech and keep going, no one will know.

Be yourself. People are there to see you. They’re not ready to pounce if you make a mistake. Unless you’re a comedian or a politician, there is no threat of heckling. You don’t need to be perfect. You will feel natural and at your best if you are you.

Over to you. What are some tips or tricks you use when you’re in front of a crowd and the spotlight is on you?

10 thoughts on “public speaking tips

  1. tara pohlkotte

    these are awesome Heidi! I always write all my speeches out too. I write like I talk, so it helps me get a clear understanding of where I’m intending to go with it. I then use a highlighter to make a semi- outline within the text in case I get stuck. I so wish I could hear you speak, I know I would love it 🙂

  2. Julia

    Love this. I have not given a speech since college, but I am about to perform a lead role in a show, and the whole learning your lines for dialouge and performing on stage thing can be very stressful.
    You are so right that the waiting is the hardest part.
    And I find that I have nervous pee…I suddenly have to go to the bathroom every time I get nervous. Which, it turns out, is highly inconvenient and worse now that I’ve had a child… 🙂
    Usually, once you get going it all turns out just fine. I’m so proud of you for your public speaking and I love these tips!

  3. Ann

    Great tips. Especially about not panicking if you go blank. Breathe and–especially– trust, and magically the words do come!

  4. Kerstin

    Yay, finally a new post from you!
    Off Facebook, Twitter, no blogging… I missed you!
    I once took a communication/public speaking class in college and learned a lot of the things you mentioned there as well – so obviously you are a pro;)
    I would love to come and hear you speak!

  5. stephanie

    Well, if I ever find the courage to do any public speaking I will certainly come back to these tips. I know its a fear of many, and I am among the many. Kudos to you for getting out there and offering your story in support of others. I’d love to be in the audience some time. Who knows, maybe some day I will. I’ll come to one of your book signings/readings. I love the – don’t picture the audience in their underwear – it’s creepy. Laughed out loud at that one. 🙂

  6. Emily

    well, i just wanted to say that you were AMAZING on Sunday. Thanks so much for coming and sharing your story. It is really inspiring to hear. And I can’t wait to read your book!

  7. Nick Brucker

    This is a great post! I actually just joined toastmasters to get my message out to others about how I hit rock bottom mentally and physically, and changed my life around by losing over 100lbs. Heidi, I’m truly sorry about your accident, but I’m so glad you are turning it into positive information for people to portray! We need more people like you in this world 🙂

Comments are closed.