9 Public Speaking Tips From A Former Speech/Debate Kid

I did speech and debate for three years in high school. I'm not saying this makes me an authority on public speaking, but I do have more years of experience than a lot of people my age. Throughout those years, I learned what it takes to write and deliver an effective speech, and I think that the tips I've created will benefit any novice public speaker. Especially those poor souls who have to give fully involved class presentations.

(While I'm here, shout out to Lois Gorne, speech coach extraordinaire. I miss you, Gorne.)

1. Any topic can be interesting if you find the right angle.

In my experiences, the best speeches are the ones with topics that surprise you. Some of the best speeches I ever heard were about things like clouds, advertisements, mirrors, and Canada. The topics themselves might not inspire too much interest, but the way the speakers assigned meaning to the topics brought them to life.

The key is finding what you really enjoy about the topic. If you can uncover that passion, it puts you in a much better head space for giving your speech.

For example, I had to give part of a presentation on what happens when the diencephalon in the brain doesn't work right. It seemed hopelessly boring in the beginning, but as I did more research, I found that thalamus dysfunction has been linked to schizophrenia. I wrote my speech from that angle, and because it was something I was interested in, the presentation was fun for me to give. As well as fun for my audience to listen to.

2. Move on from your mistakes gracefully.

How many times have you watched a speaker miss a word or misspeak and immediately follow it with, "Excuse me, as I was saying..." and completely interrupt their own speaking rhythm? How many times have you seen people try to pass off their brain fart as a joke, only to further embarrass themselves with the effort?

If you mess up a little bit while speaking, the best way to handle it is to move on as if you didn't even notice it yourself.

Keep your chin high and your dignity close to ensure the audience forgets your mistake as soon as it happens. If you call attention to it, it'll just stand out even more, and people might remember that more than they remember what point you were supposed to be making.

3. Avoid filler words.

"Ah, uh, um, er, well, you see, the thing is..."

These are the little demons that sneak into your mouth as you're trying to give your speech. Don't give into their temptation. They'll promise you that if you say them subconsciously while you try to organize your thoughts, no one will notice, but they're lying. These words do nothing but sabotage your carefully crafted words and make you appear unprepared and not confident.

Speak strongly, boldly, and without hesitation.

Any pauses you take should be silent. It's okay for there to be silence sometimes.

4. Eye contact is KEY!

Eye contact is awkward. It's uncomfortable, and it's hard to tell how much is too much or too little. That being said, one of the most important aspects of speaking is connecting with your audience, and the easiest way to do that is by making eye contact.

It doesn't have to be a very big deal. Depending on how big your audience is, you may only have to hold eye contact with one person for a few seconds before moving on to the next.

The fewer people in attendance, however, the longer you should spend looking at each person.

It doesn't look good when you're quickly scanning over a handful of people as you talk. Just relax a little, take a deep breath, and look at each person as if you're only talking to them. It's just intimate enough to engage your audience without being super awkward.

5. Don’t admit that you’re nervous.

In the same vein as tip #2, you should never admit to your audience that you're nervous. You may think that saying something will make you more relatable or sympathetic, but it really just makes everyone more uncomfortable. What is the audience supposed to do to comfort you? Sure, they may feel bad, but you still have to give the speech, and that's what they're expecting you to do. It's not like some brave martyr is going to come down and take over the mic for you. That only happens in bad movies.

The best thing to do is just pretend that you're not nervous at all. Feign confidence, and pretty soon you'll start to feel confident. Fake it until you make it, you know? It's hard not to feel confident when you have your shoulders rolled back and your posture straight. If your voice quivers a little, that's okay. If you start to stammer, that's okay. Just keep going. You're much braver than you give yourself credit for.

6. Let your hands fall.

Stop folding your hands at your stomach. Stop it. You look so tense and awkward doing that like you're waiting for something to happen. Just let your hands fall to your sides. You'll look a lot more comfortable and casual if you can let them hang. While I'm thinking of it, don't let your fingers fidget, either. It's distracting.

7. Be conscious of your movements and gestures.

If you don't pay attention, I guarantee that you'll make the same three gestures the entire time you speak. Aside from being repetitive, it can get a little bit annoying. Gestures are the sort of thing that once the audience clues into what's going on, that's going to be most of what they focus on. Just like that, the content of your speech takes a back seat to the way you're moving, and that's never a good thing. Gestures should only be made to enhance your point, not to get it across.

Rehearse your speech ahead of time if you can, and plan little unique gestures that pertain to what you're talking about, but don't overshadow your words.

If you're talking about a scale, mimic the movement of a scale with your hands. If you're talking about a landscape, sweep your hand out like you're showing someone a beautiful field ahead of you. Come up with associations that make sense to you and your audience. Something they'll subconsciously accept. It's a difficult balance to achieve, but as with anything else, practice makes perfect.

8. Slow down, enunciate, and don’t drop the ends of your sentences.

I bet you don't even realize that you're doing this. You start out a sentence very strong with a lot of emotion, and then once you get to the end, it either falls too quiet or too flat. Your brain has already moved onto the next sentence without finishing the current one. You don't think much of it, but it sounds really weird. If it happens a lot it totally ruins the tone of your speech. It's hard, but try to stay aware of every word you're saying.

Make sure every word is fully formed and gets its time to shine before the next word comes out.

And please, please slow down a little bit. You don't think you sound fast, but everything comes off a little bit faster to an audience. Even if you feel a little strange speaking slow, trust me, it sounds just fine to everyone listening.

9. Color your words and be expressive.

Nothing, nothing, nothing is more boring than a monotone speech with no expression. You can have eye contact and gestures mastered. But if you can't command your words and give them meaning, the audience will never be fully engaged. Find where you want to put your emphasis, then make that emphasis clear. Say some words up high while other words go low.

Give your sentences rhythm, make them interesting to listen to, and have an expressive look on your face while you do it.

Don't be afraid to look happy, angry, sad, surprised, afraid, or disgusted as you speak. It's a classic case of "Show, Don't Tell." Don't tell the audience how your words should make them feel, but show them how they make you feel.

If you don't feel anything, just pretend. You'd be surprised how much you can pull off by just pretending.

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