3 Short Steps to Great Public Speaking

Standing before a room full of people and presenting information is fundamental to planning. Doing it well is essential to being a successful planner.

We have all heard this many times, but it is true.  If you are not comfortable speaking in public and your current job (or one you want to have someday) requires public speaking, you should certainly follow the common advice of finding opportunities to learn: Toastmasters, seminars, classes, improv (yes, improv), practice at small meetings, practice at home with your family, practice at home with your cat ... this only gets easier with practice.

But let’s assume you’ve conquered the fear and are looking to improve your skills. Here are some suggestions:

1. People will remember only three things

I’m not sure where I heard this and I’m not sure if three is the magic number, but the point is a good one. As a planner who has prepared a staff report, drafted a plan or conducted research on a matter, you certainly have come across a great many details and fine points. Don’t try to share them all. They will get lost. Identify the main points and focus on: 

  1. clearly and concisely explaining each point
  2. communicating the significance of that point (why should people care)
  3. providing background, context, and evidence of the point; prove it

We’ve all seen that speaker who has so much to say that the room tires of them. They speak quickly to get all those points in, they go on and on about things we have little interest in, we stopped listening a long time ago. Until we hear those magic words, “In conclusion, I would like to say ...” Don’t be that person.

2. Understand how you want to communicate

Public presentation is about sharing information to enlighten or persuade others. To that point, be sure that what you’re saying is significant to the audience, not just you. We all find a part of our work interesting, very interesting, maybe fascinating; but that doesn’t mean the audience does. Don’t fill your presentations with odd facts, uncommon examples, and jokes no one gets. This will cause you to lose the audience.

One suggestion is to find yourself a role that you feel comfortable in and focus on that as you present. Many years ago, a mentor helped me understand that we are teachers. We explain complex ideas related to zoning, development economics, and public policy to people unfamiliar with those concepts. Occasionally, our audience is even hostile to the notions we are presenting. I found that if I consider myself an educator when I’m presenting, it makes me focus on being sure that the audience understands what I’m talking about. This also makes me stay in tune to the nonverbal clues of the group when people nod, smile, or check their phones.

3. Watch and Learn

We all hate this one, but if you want to succeed at public speaking, you must watch a recording of yourself.

Want to really torture yourself (and get even better), ask a colleague to critique your presentation. Don’t make that face, you know you have to do this! You will see and hear all the “ums”, “uhs”, and “you knows” that we all use. One more thing, look out for saying “you guys” — unless you are addressing the boys basketball team at your local high school, this is too informal and a bit unprofessional.

You will also see that you sway, talk with your hands, and do that goofy thing with your eye brows. But don’t get rid of all that. Personally, I talk with my hands, a lot. Don’t become someone else, be yourself. Are you naturally kinda funny, don’t shy away from that — it keeps the audience engaged. If you just can’t tell a joke, don’t.

Trying to be someone who you naturally are not will make you stiff and uninteresting. Don’t remove your personality from public speaking, eliminate the sounds, words, and actions that distract from your message.

Here’s one more good reason to watch the video of that last plan commission meeting. After I would give a presentation to the commission and the petitioner would come up to the podium to answer questions, I would stay up there, just behind them. I wanted them to know that they were in our house and not to think they were in control of the presentation (yes, this was a bit of a power move, but that’s for another blog).

Well, turns out that on TV the audience could see every time I rolled my eyes, shook my head, or made some other pointless motion. I wouldn’t have learned to either sit down or stop rolling my eyes if I hadn’t watched the video.

4. No, there is no number 4. We talked about this. People remember only three things.

Don’t overdo it.

Be yourself.

Watch the video.


Top image: Thinkstock photo.


About the Author
Michael Blue, FAICP, is principal at Teska Associates in Evanston, Illinois. He began his career as a consultant, then spent 15 years in the public sector before returning to consulting.

February 28, 2017

By Michael Blue, FAICP