Three ways to make better speeches

Controlled breathing and finger exercises aren’t the only way to improve your mental state MORE people fear public speaking (56 per cent of us) than being buried alive, according to a 2013 survey of common worries by OnePoll. But public speaking, whether it’s making a presentation to colleagues or clients, or addressing a conference, is increasingly essential in modern business. Here are three strategies to help make it easier.


Anxiousness can intensify self-absorption – sometimes to the detriment of performance. Whitney Johnson, co-founder of Rose Park Advisors and blogger for the Harvard Business Review, recalls being asked to accompany a friend on the piano in front of a large audience. Wracked with nerves, she focused all her energy on her own ability to do the job, panicking that her performance wouldn’t be good enough. She gave little thought to those listening, while raising her anxiety levels.

As it happened, the concert went fantastically, but more often being self-absorbed isn’t a good sign. “Whenever playing the piano or giving a presentation becomes about performing – about proving something, rather than communicating – I rarely do well”. Shift your focus from your own performance and onto the needs of your audience, she says. Not only does it push your efforts in the right direction, it’ll also help calm you.


Of course, nerves do get the better of many, but there’s an evolving body of ideas on how to overcome them. The common advice is to try and calm down – deep breaths and stretching extremities are usually recommended. But this often leaves many still trying to shift the underlying anxiety. Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School suggests taking the opposite approach – getting excited. She conducted a series of experiments, in which participants were asked to make a short public speech, with half saying to themselves “I’m calm” beforehand, and the other half saying “I’m excited”.

Of those involved, 85 per cent initially thought trying to calm down was the best policy. But the experiment revealed something different: those who convinced themselves they were “excited” were given considerably better speech ratings. Wood Brooks argues that “anxiety and excitement have divergent effects on performance, but the experience of these two emotions is quite similar”. So next time you’re desperately trying to calm down, why not challenge the conventional wisdom?


The same could be said for filler words – the ahs, ums, likes and y’knows that so many find so irritating. Fillers can be a sign of nervousness, or not having a strong grasp of your subject. But it’s increasingly argued that devices used to stall for thought can also help you sound more off the cuff, and therefore make your speech more engaging. Mark Zuckerberg’s incessant use of “so” when answering questions has been criticised as awkward. But as Rutgers associate professor of communication Galina Bolden points out, using “so” at the beginning of a question often merely signals a new topic that one party would like to bring up. And by using it to begin an answer – perhaps to a question from the audience – the respondent is acknowledging that thinking about the question matters to them, while also shifting focus onto their answer.

Of course, appearing spontaneous doesn’t mean winging it – far from it. To do it effectively, you must be prepared enough to use “muscle memory” – relying on repetition and rehearsal – so that you can use expression to improve your performance. Robert Lehrman, former speechwriter to Al Gore, says that, “if you want to sound spontaneous, you need to prepare a lot. It sounds counterintuitive ­– ‘You mean prepare intensively so it sounds like I haven’t prepared?’ – but it works.”

Speechmaking aid: SmartMouth £1.49

If you’re after something to help you frame and structure a speech, SmarthMouth could be the answer. Its main feature is a speechwriting tool which gives prompts to help create a detailed outline for a speech or presentation, which can be saved, duplicated and adapted for future events. You can also email it to your desktop.

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