Stop faking it: Four tips for giving a memorable public speech

Cam Barber
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Don't worry if you "um"; Richard Branson does it (Source: Getty)

As we stand up to speak in public, and our audience prepares to listen, authority is conferred upon us, as well as a responsibility to engage our listeners.

It is this pressure to keep the audience interested or entertained which is at the root of many Britons’ glossophobia. Indeed, a 2014 survey by YouGov found that public speaking was one of the UK’s greatest fears, with 20 per cent of adults admitting that they were very afraid of it.

Here are four tips for mastering public speaking and dissolving your speaking anxiety.

Craft a clear message

The best speakers use clear messages for passing information onto their listeners. Richard Branson is great at delivering short messages, even though he says “um” and “ah” when he speaks. Steve Jobs was another master at messaging, which was clear from Apple’s marketing campaigns during his tenure as chief executive. The message for the first iPod was “a thousand songs in your pocket”, which is still memorable today.

Read more: How to make a killer speech

A vivid message should be short. Even in the context of a lengthy speech, it shouldn’t exceed one or two sentences. It also needs to be catchy and relevant to your audience because, after a number of days, people forget 95 per cent of what they hear.

Of course, you still have to explain the details underpinning your idea, but the only way that your listeners will remember the specifics a day later is through the “doorway” of your message.

Structure your ideas

Progressively building a compelling story through a clear structure is the best way to keep an audience engaged, particularly if you’re developing a complex argument.

The best method is to break each idea into two, three or four chunks. The human mind can’t remember more than five things without a memory device (which is why we break phone numbers down), so don’t overcomplicate things for yourself.

It is equally important to use rhetorical devices to assist your audience in digesting your argument. A simple way to signpost each new point is to number them explicitly as you go through by introducing each with “first, second...”

Challenge yourself

You must also be prepared to address potentially challenging questions from the audience. Indeed, question preparation is often overlooked as part of speech preparation, and your understanding of the subject may be brought into question if it cannot stand up to scrutiny.

Most speakers are so focused on the benefits of their idea that they fail to prepare themselves for an opposing view.

Start by listing difficult questions you might get from an aggressive audience member and draft responses. Not only will this help you to give robust explanations, it will help you find and fix existing weaknesses in your speech.

Read more: How to critique your own speeches

Trust your natural style

Many speakers think they need to be perfect, and that perfection is the antithesis of their natural style of speaking. This isn’t true and spending effort on pretence will only increase your anxiety. Bill Gates and Richard Branson say “um” when they speak, and politicians often come across as ineloquent. Just be clear on the start and end, and what your key points are.