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The Secrets of Public Speaking

Elizabeth Nelson has helpful advice for anyone who wants to be a better public speaker.

Public speaking is an everyday act of forming a thought, then quickly organizing and delivering that thought in a powerful, engaging way. So says Elizabeth Nelson, the new Communication 110 director in the Department of Communication. So why do we often dread speaking publicly at work, even when it’s understood  speaking well leads to promotion, defuses problems and reduces stress? Fret not. Nelson sat down with the Bulletin this week to offer some expert advice.

Embrace Your Fear

If you fear public speaking, try reducing that fear by accepting that some anxiety is OK. Embracing this will reduce your physiological symptoms such as shaking, dizziness or sweaty hands. Acknowledge your nervousness. A good audience will understand. Try saying something like, “Who would have thought so many people would be interested in human resource policy? If I’m acting nervous, it’s because I’m excited.”

Take Care of Your Needs

Remember to breathe. Frequently we hold our breath when we’re nervous, but this makes us sound and feel worse. Have water handy and remember, pausing is your friend.  Move and speak at your own pace.

Use Humor

Some of the best public speakers are humorous. But self-deprecating or dismissive humor can be off-putting. You want genuine and light wit. Try picking up what’s happening in the room and weaving this into your humor.


Try pushing through your nerves by walking among the crowd and using large gestures to break the space between you and the audience. Scan the room and make frequent eye contact.  Ask the crowd genuine questions and guide their responses. Here’s an example: “How many of you are jobseekers? Raise your hands.”

Have Something to Say

The authenticity of your subject matter will help bolster your confidence and keep your crowd engaged. Research the topic and audience carefully. Don’t be self-focused; your talk should help your listeners.

Keep it Clean

Good public speaking is like good writing—clear, concise and devoid of redundancies. Replace statements like:, “I find this very, very, very compelling…” with “I find this compelling.” Use plain versus complicated words and avoid promotional language and jargon. Avoid verbal fillers such as “um,” “uh” or “you know.”

Practice Your Speech

Excellent public speakers spend hours practicing. Polish the speech by practicing aloud. Perfect the rhythm, pace and structure.

Less Is More

The audience needn’t understand or love the subject as much as you, but your speech should convey your passion and introduce key points and resources, should people want to know more.

Wrap It Up

Many public speakers forget to close their speech in a compelling way. The ideal conclusion is a succinct summary mirroring – not mimicking – the introduction, and offering next steps.

If you push through, practice frequently and follow these pointers, you’ll be surprised by how quickly you improve.

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