"Read it again, but this time more slowly," my dad instructed. As kids, he had my brother and I read poetry aloud each night after dinner. At the time, it felt like a chore—something that was delaying me from watching my favorite sitcoms before bed. It wasn't until I was in college and graduate school that I realized the value of gaining public speaking skills. After all, most people aren't automatically comfortable with speaking before an audience. It takes time and plenty of practice to give an effective speech or presentation—and feel at ease while doing so.
Whether your graduate program requires public speaking while seeking a degree, gaining these skills is crucial for thriving in any profession, but especially in those in which you're in a leadership position. Ideally, graduate study prepares students to communicate ideas and information with a high degree of confidence and clarity.
If you're pursuing a career in law, social work, education, politics, or business, the ability to articulate concepts and present them in an engaging and clear manner is vital.
Many graduate programs—both traditional and online—require public speaking. For instance, the final requirement of my master's program in Media Management at The New School was to present an individually designed Capstone project either in-person on campus or online through a video conferencing platform. With both formats, students received a grade on their ability to communicate and defend their research effectively. Many other disciplines and universities require the same.
Feedback from your network can be invaluable, especially since it's nearly impossible to know for sure how you come across to others. Whether you're presenting on campus or online, practice delivering your speech to a friend, loved one, or classmate through the format that you'll eventually deliver. Request that they offer constructive criticism or ways to improve. Ask whether what you are saying is clear and easily understood, and if you're speaking too quickly or too slowly.
I naturally have a quiet voice, so I had to make sure that I projected so that everyone could hear me. I only realized this after someone told me that they had trouble hearing me. Most people find that their own voices don't sound to others exactly the way they think they do.
One way to improve public speaking skills is to observe others giving speeches and to think critically about what works and what doesn't. Compelling speakers don't possess some brand of elusive magic, but rather an understanding of how to present their ideas in an exciting, engaging way. Observe subtleties like body language and narrative pacing. Dramatic pauses right after important points give the listener a chance to absorb the importance of what was just said.
In an ideal world, no one would be judged based on appearance. But, the reality is otherwise, even if you're interacting with others from a screen. It's important to dress professionally so that the focus can remain on your ideas instead of what you're wearing.
Even before people will hear your words, they will make a quick judgment based on how you look. Make sure to select clothing that is appropriate for the occasion and flattering for your body. Your outfit should be one you feel good about wearing and have worn on at least one prior time. Avoid any potential "wardrobe malfunctions." Choosing clothing that you feel confident in gives an automatic boost.
To feel at ease when giving a talk, it's vital to be thoroughly prepared and to feel confident that you know your stuff. If there is a Q&A session after your presentation, be ready to respond in detail. Try to anticipate what someone who is not as well-versed in your topic may want to know. Preparation will prevent you from feeling caught off guard or flustered. And, if someone asks a question to which you don't know the answer, affirm that the question is a valuable one, but be honest and say you're unsure. An audience will appreciate your transparency. You're not expected to be an expert with decades of experience, but rather to present what you know to the best of your ability.
Throughout the ages, storytelling has proven to be a powerful method of conveying information, insights, and points of view. Using anecdotes is an excellent way of inviting the audience to engage on an emotional level. People are more likely to remember what you say if you present information in a relatable fashion. Humor is a powerful tool for conveying ideas memorably as long as the intention is to engage, not offend. Be sensitive to your audience and avoid any jokes that could be perceived negatively. Stories should support the main idea of your presentation, but not become the main focus. Keep them brief.
When I took a public speaking course, I was surprised to hear not to memorize our speeches verbatim. Instead, the instructor suggested that we outline several bullet points and only refer to them when necessary. I was skeptical at first but found that this was a more effective—and relaxing—method of delivery. It allows the personality of the speaker to shine and prevents the feeling of panic if you've "lost your place," misspoke, or deviated from what you had planned. Plus, it sounds more conversational.
Feeling nervous is normal and a sign that what you are doing is of importance. But, the goal is to be able to function most effectively. Taking care of your physical needs is a crucial component of combatting anxiety. Make sure to get a solid eight hours of sleep the night before. On the day of your speech, eat a small meal of something nutritious ideally with protein, and avoid foods or beverages that are over-stimulating or may spike blood sugar. Stay hydrated and keep a bottle of water on-hand.
Yoga and meditation are excellent tools for quelling anxiety as they work to soothe the nervous system. Focusing on regulating your breathing patterns can work to keep you calm in stressful moments, especially during those leading up to your presentation. When in doubt, take a deep breath.
As a speaker, posture communicates an unspoken message both to the audience and your nervous system. Stand up straight in a relaxed but engaged stance. Whether you are speaking from a computer screen, behind a podium, or directly in front of your audience, be sure to position yourself in such a way that you will feel comfortable. Make sure to direct your gaze to multiple points in the room. The person sitting in the last row should feel like you are speaking to them as much as the person in the front row. Your facial expression should be relaxed but not stoic.
If you're recounting a story that is particularly moving, it is okay to express the appropriate emotions. Take note of where you position your hands, especially if there is no podium. Gestures can add emphasis but should be used sparingly, so as not to distract. If presenting online, make sure to look at the camera instead of the video feed of your audience.
Even though it may feel daunting, the objective of giving a speech is to demonstrate your knowledge and allow you to share what you know with others. Trust in your preparations and believe that people will want and need to hear what you have to say. The audience is on your side. If you make a mistake, keep going—chances are good that no one will notice. The audience will pay attention to what you draw attention to.
Bookend your speech with gratitude. Thank your audience preemptively for taking the time to listen to what you have to say. And, reiterate your thanks at the end. If you feel comfortable doing so, offer to speak individually with anyone who has specific comments that they would like to share afterward. There may be opportunities to network with like-minded people or those curious about your topic. Building a sense of community is always a worthy endeavor.
Even the most seasoned speakers are continually honing their skills. As you continue to gain experience, your ability to deliver an effective speech will improve. If you feel that a particular speaking engagement wasn't your best effort, step back, and try to identify which areas to work on for next time. Invite feedback from others and believe that all information can be useful—whether you agree or disagree with it. Learn and move forward without dwelling on your mistakes. Keep only the lessons.
Commanding the attention of a group of people is a powerful gift. By allowing nervous energy to become excitement and passion, your message will propel itself forward, and your words will be poised to inform, inspire, and engage.
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