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Nail-biting? Check. Unavoidable? Check. Public speaking is likely in your future, whether you’ll be making a classroom presentation to your peers, giving a speech in an auditorium, or introducing a public event. Developing presentation skills enhances your academic, personal, and career opportunities
(and also protects your nails).

That’s why public speaking is the most commonly required communication course in the general education curriculum, according to a 2008 study of 500 community colleges. Most universities and colleges offer public speaking courses, clubs, and events.

Our experts

Three communication experts can help you overcome common public speaking flaws.

  • Dr. Matt McGarrity, senior lecturer for the Department of Communications at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington
  • Dr. Steven D. Cohen, assistant professor at the Klein Family School of Communications Design at the University of Baltimore, Maryland
  • Sylvia Merschel, co-director at the UCLA Summer Institute in Communication Skills for International Students, California

Error # 1: Physical barriers between you and the audience

What’s the problem?
“Do not hide behind the lectern [podium]. This creates a barrier between you and the audience.”
—Lenny Laskowski, Painless presentations: The proven, stress-free way to successful public speaking (John Wiley & Sons, 2012)

Why it matters
Can imply that the speaker is uncomfortable and insecure.

Solutions

  • Arrive ahead of time, and if possible, rearrange the layout of the space to better suit your presentation (move podiums or tables off to the side). Make sure your PowerPoint slides are working smoothly, and practice standing comfortably in front of your soon-to-be audience. —Dr. McGarrity
  • “Place your notes [on a podium], but then step to the side for an open space between you and your audience.” —Dr. Cohen.
  • “I was given a wireless clicker to go through slides on a presentation. That allows me to be able to go in front of the screen and speak out in the open towards my audience with ease.” —Roberto R., Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi.

Error #2: Frequent filler words

What’s the problem?
“Using filler words: like, um, so, etc.”
— Kayla D., University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Why it matters
While filler words are not usually an issue in everyday conversation, during a presentation they can suggest a lack of confidence or preparation.

Solutions

  • Use a three-step formula: Pause, Think, and Answer. — Dr. Cohen
  • Pause when you’re asked a question.
  • Think what you want to share.
  • Answer only when ready.
  • Don’t be afraid of brief silence.
    “Pauses are okay! I practice pauses with the students over and over and over.” —  Ms. Merschel
  • Understand your use of filler words during a practice presentation:
    • Audio or video-record yourself and listen for filler words and tics like throat-clearing.
    • Have someone count how many filler words you say.
    • Have someone ring a bell, whistle, or make a noise every time you say a filler word — if your nerves can stand it.
    • Put $0.10 in a jar every time you say a filler word.
  • Don’t obsess over this. “There have been filler words since the dawn of language in every language. If they were so abhorrent they would be gone, but they’re not.” — Dr. McGarrity

Error #3: Reading a speech

What’s the problem?
Memorizing and reciting an entire speech or presentation.

Why it matters
Comes off too rehearsed and disconnects the speaker from the audience. It can even increase your discomfort.

Solutions

  • Use note cards. Keep only essential words that will jog your memory. —Ms. Merschel
  • Practice, practice, practice! “When we practice, we free ourselves from the restraints of written text.” —Dr. Cohen
  • Edit. “If you have to read something, really edit it for the ear…make it easier to listen to and easier for you to read from.” —Dr. McGarrity
  • Act natural. (As unfamiliar as that might be.) “Study famous speeches for a sense of how to speak naturally and effectively.” — Amy Baldwin, MA, director of director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas, Little Rock

Error #4: Frequent physical gestures

What’s the problem?
Hair-flicking, chin rubbing, wild hand motions—you get the idea.

“While presenting in front of my peers, I get very nervous…I’m not sure what to do with my hands. I usually rock back and forth on my heels…”
—Carolina G., Florida State University, Tallahassee

Why it matters
Your audience may focus more on your gestures than your message.

Solutions

  • Practice in front of a mirror, video, or trusted friend. —Ms. Merschel
  • Emulate someone you like and respect. —Dr. McGarrity
  • “Go easy on yourself. If we plan our gestures it looks very contrived…”—Dr. Cohen

Error #5: Not making eye contact with your audience

What’s the problem?
Avoiding eye contact or staring blankly into the vast abyss of the audience.

Why it matters
“In most cultures, the act of looking someone directly in the eyes is a symbol of sincerity. Failure to meet another person’s gaze when speaking implies disinterest, lack of confidence, insincerity, or chicanery. The same psychological associations are found in public speaking.”
—Toastmasters International (Gestures: Your body speaks, 2011)

Solutions

  • Try not to fixate on one person when making eye contact. —Alaine W, Moorpark College, California.
  • Divide your audience into visual groups. “Generally, I want to have my basic anchors [or sections I’ve mentally partitioned]. So I’ve got an anchor to my left, an anchor or group of people…to my right, and a group of people in front of me,” says Dr. McGarrity.
  • Ease into eye contact. Try Dr. Cohen’s technique: look above people’s eyes instead of directly at their eyes. Then when you’re ready, ease into eye contact. Or try the “figure 8” method: your gaze traces an 8 on its side, like the infinity symbol.
  • “Many people think that eye contact means staring at people, but you can look away and feel comfortable about it.” —Ms. Merschel

Error #6: Too much information

What’s the problem?
Too much information on your PowerPoint slides.

Why it matters
While people are looking at your slides or other visual media, they tune-out what you’re saying. They can’t read and listen.

Solutions

  • Use the five-by-five rule: no more than approximately five words per bullet point and five bullet points per slide. —Dr. Cohen
  • Use only one message per slide.
  • Only present what is directly pertinent to your speech. —Ms. Merschel.
  • Leave time for questions and answers at the end of your presentation.

Error #7: Just wing it

What’s the problem?
“Public speaking is a leadership art. The goal of the speaker is not just to share important ideas but to demonstrate that he or she is a leader. When we ‘wing’ a presentation we are not giving ourselves the ability to lead, because we are compromising the impact that we could have on our audience members.”
—Dr. Cohen

Why it matters
Unless you’re a superb public speaker, you’ll lose credibility and waste the opportunity to make your point.

Solutions

  • Plan ahead.
  • Practice. Practice some more. “I would recommend having someone record your speech so you can personally see your body language and movements” —Dr. Michelle Burcin, director of undergraduate programs at Walden University, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
  • Use outlines “to engage in naturally occurring conversational discourse.” —Dr. McGarrity
  • Time your presentation beforehand, and add or remove material as needed.

How to bust out of your angst

Nervousness takes many forms: nail biting, nausea, and temporary amnesia, to name a few

Your pre-presentation checklist

  • Fake it.
    Pretend to be confident even when you’re not.
  • Avoid surprises.
    Plan ahead and visit the presentation area.
  • Have a backup plan
    for technical difficulties, time limitations, etc.
  • Eat a light meal before you present.
  • Avoid caffeine, dairy, and carbonated beverages. Dairy products can create mucus (leading to throat-clearing), caffeine can give you the jitters, and carbonated beverages can cause indigestion.
  • Breathe. Deeply.
  • Drink. Keep a bottle of water nearby.
  • Think positive. Strive for presenting clearly rather than perfectly.

These make your presentation stronger

  • High-quality photos, rather than pixelated low-res images
  • Consistent design
  • Simple graphs and graphics
  • Sans-serif font
  • Structure: Beginning, middle, end
  • Limited animation
  • Minimal slide content

Like a pro


Get help or find out more

10 tips for public speaking: Toastmasters International

Public speaking tips: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The naked presenter: Delivering powerful presentations with or without slidesGarr Reynolds (New Riders, 2011)

Resonate: Present visual stories that transform audiencesNancy Duarte (Wiley, 2010)

PowerPoint: Guides, tips & help: Dartmouth College

Your body language shapes who you areAnn Cuddy (TedGlobal, 2012)


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Ricardo Khayatte is a graduate student in the Master’s of Journalism program at the University of British Columbia and is currently Editor-in-Chief of Vancouver Weekly.