When my grandfather first started out in Christian ministry, he was young, zealous to preach but inexperienced. When invited to preach, he would “study, sweat and pray for two weeks to prepare one sermon.” Writing everything down, he figured that he had at least 30 minutes worth of preaching. However, when he’d get up to the pulpit, he’d finish everything he had to say in 5 minutes! It was safe to say that he was thoroughly embarrassed.
We all have embarrassing stories about speeches we’ve had to give, about devotional messages we’ve shared or about sales pitches we’ve had to present. But even though we might have these embarrassing stories, that doesn’t need to define us. Since I started preaching at my Christian fellowship group in high school to being at seminary now, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks that have helped me become a better speaker. I believe that by incorporating and working on some of these, anyone can become a better public speaker.
1. Stop Talking
Know that its ok to not talk. We are so uncomfortable with silence that we often times add in fillers,” Um, uh, ah, ok, yea, er.” However, good speakers will realize that using strategic pauses can be helpful. Why? For one, the first word or phrase after a strategic pause can grab your audience. They sense that something big or important is coming up and so they better get on the edge of their seat to hear it. Secondly, it can help your audience to catch up mentally, processing what you had just said. Everything in your message makes sense to you because you’re the one who prepared it. Its everyone else’s first time, so they need time to ponder and consider what you’ve just said. And remember, time is relative. While a pause in your head might feel like eternity, it’s usually perceived by the audience to be only a few seconds.
2. Talk differently
Varying your speech rate can impart power into your speeches. One way to do so is by slowing down. Saying, “Jesus…is…God!” will be much more powerful than saying, “Jesus is God.” Varying your speech rate to go from fast to slow can also create emphasis. If you start talking faster and then pause before hitting an application or main point, you create a greater emphasis on that point. Consider this example concerning Evernote:
“We can often forget a great idea that we had just thought about. Others of us wish we had a better way of remembering jokes or illustrations (speed up a little). Some of us need a better way to file recipes that we find. You might see something exciting online that you want to keep. You’re not sure how, but you might want to organize your itineraries (really speed up, but stay articulate) ,your confirmations, your travel documents and your maps for an upcoming trip that you are going on and you don’t want to have a bunch of papers and thus lose everything! (insert pause, then speak slowly) Evernote can help each and every one of you.”
By speeding up and slowing down, you create strong contrasts through a building up of tension and climax, alerting your audience to key points in your message.
3. Stop apologizing
Apologizing only brings people’s attention to you. Instead of accomplishing the purpose of people empathizing with you, the result is that people focus on your shortcomings (sickness, lack of preparation, etc). Every time I hear someone say,” I just want to start off by apologizing for this speech. I did not have enough time to prepare (or I’m not feeling well today or this isn’t very good),” my first reaction is, “Oh no, this isn’t going to be a very good message.” Then during the whole message, I’m more attuned to the mistakes made. Take what you have and present it confidently. If you’re sick, people will notice and will empathize with you. If you didn’t thoroughly prepare and the quality of your speech is mentioned to you afterwards, then that is an appropriate time to apologize. Just don’t apologize at the beginning, middle or end of the speech. It only serves to discredit you, putting up a barrier to communicating effectively to your audience.
4. Look without looking
One of the golden rules in public speaking is to look at people. The reason is that by doing so, the message becomes more personal to the individuals in the audience and really helps you to connect to them. They know that you want to talk to them and that this message is for them. However, not everyone is comfortable with looking other people in the eye. One way of getting around this is to look right between their eyes or at their noses. By doing so, you don’t have to look into their eyes and they still sense that you’re talking to them.
5. Have a point, make the point
Make sure your presentation has a main point or a big idea. What do you want people to walk away with? Examples: “We should pursue this legal case,” “the company should not invest in this product,” “Christians should love God with all their heart,” or “don’t be an idiot.” The more main ideas you have, the less likely people will remember them all. You can have sub-points to prove, inform or illustrate your main point, but make sure you have that main point. Additionally, don’t talk about something that is pointless. If it doesn’t somehow relate to the main idea or subpoint, don’t talk about it! What good does it do!? When I first started preaching, I would utter inside jokes that I had with certain people in the audience. So I’d make the comment that only that one person would understand, pause, look at him to acknowledge that I was directing it to him (like a haha moment) and then move on. This was horrible because I was confusing everyone else. If I continued to do that, I would lose everyone else’s interest and those who are still interested would get left behind trying to figure out the inside joke! Have a main point, have your subpoints, and stick to them.
Granted, not all of us can become great public speakers. But while there are many variables that determine a great speaker, if we can work on one or two of these tips and tricks, we can all become better at this valuable life skill.