8 Ways to Practice and Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

If you read my post Live for the Dip last year, you know that I felt like I BOMBED my first official bookstore event (even though my friends would tell you otherwise). I'm proud to say that I've since emerged from conscious incompetence, feeling much more able to deliver a speech or workshop with the right mix of structure, clarity, humor and inspiration. Most recently, I delivered a 40-minute webinar that outlines how we can shift the paradigm of Career Development (click here to watch The Ladder is Out -- How to Manage Your Career in the Age of the App).

It went off without a hitch, but what you may not know is that as I was being introduced I put myself on mute, clenched my fists (to give my adrenaline something to do), and started taking deep yoga breaths (called ujjayi breathing) to calm my slight nerves at seeing the attendee list hover around 85 people.

When my good friend Doniree recently asked for my advice on how to feel more comfortable at the front of a room, I realized that I had a few great methods to share with all of you from delivering training for over five years at Google.

8 Ways to Practice and Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

Doniree asks:

I've been told by my yoga instructor that I sound nervous/short of breath when I teach. I'm not nervous, but I am short of breath and I realized that I could breathe better when I talk in public in general. Do you have any public speaking training or tips you can offer to someone who needs to learn to breathe and talk at the same time?

Below are 8 strategies that have helped me hone my public speaking skills. Many of these may apply to you for business situations in general, not just public speaking (or in Doni's case, teaching yoga).

  1. Download a free recording app on your phone. Practice saying something at your normal pace, then practice slower, then EVEN slower. Playback so you can hear for yourself what the three sound like, and even ask a friend which is most clear.
  2. Take three ujayii breaths before starting. For non-yogis: this means taking a slow, steady, even inhale through the nose (fully engaging your lower belly, ribs, and chest/throat), then exhaling slowly and evenly through the nose. During both the inhale and the exhale, practice making the sound of the ocean in your throat (More on how to do this here). These breaths are always incredibly calming for me and help clear any nervousness in my system.
  3. Make it a challenge for yourself to bring more awareness to your speech in every day interactions. Sometimes even when I'm talking with friends I will practice not saying "um" and other speech quirks that come across as unprofessional. Even though these are low-stakes situations, it helps me change my default speech to something that works in any setting.
  4. Give yourself a rating on scale of 1-5 after every class you teach (or training, or meeting you present at). How'd you do? This will bring awareness to the area/s you are hoping to improve and help you track progress over time.
  5. Pretend you are speaking to a non-native English speaker or a five year old. Does your pacing change? Another trick I use: pretend you are on The Today show, or speaking for the president, or some other super important thing with high visibility. How would you talk? How do you want to sound or come across?
  6. Channel/observe a speaker or teacher you really respect. What do they do well? Ask if you can observe them at future events/meetings (if they live locally) - or look for more examples and videos on YouTube or TED. Bookmark the speeches/speakers you most want to emulate.
  7. Probably most important: ASK FOR FEEDBACK - often! Make sure you have people who are willing to be honest with you. Ask them one thing you did well, and one area you can improve (if you just say, "what's your feedback?" they'll be hesitant to share development areas). You might also have people track when you speed up (certain segments?) and when you slow down, so you get more granular data about where to focus.
  8. Clench and release a muscle several times before going up to speak. Try making your fists into tight balls (or any other muscle -- ahem, buttcheeks work too), then release and repeat. This will give your adrenaline something to do, and often helps stop shaking (which makes you appear more nervous than you really are) by the time you start.
  9. BONUS: Join Toastmasters. (Thanks Sachit for the reminder!) Toastmasters is a great way to get practice and feedback in a safe environment, and learn from watching others. Something that helps me more than anything is practicing the outline of what I want to say, and having a note-card with the high-level structure. The more I know my content, the less nervous I feel. Toastmasters is a excellent way to hone your presentation's content and structure.

Most of all, experiment AND smile! Try variations of all of the above. Remember that everyone watching wants you to do well. Have fun at whatever you are doing, roll with the punches, and laugh off any mistakes! Besides, those are what make you human and relatable. No speech or presentation will ever be perfect -- so just get out there and do the best that you can! For my FAVORITE book on the subject: check-out Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun.

I would love to hear from you in the comments: What public speaking tips work best for you?


P.S. I have a guest vlog (short 2-minute video) up at Corn on the Job today. I talk about how to do a Gap Analysis for your own career development. Click here to watch! Big thanks to Rich for hosting me :)