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Conquer Public Speaking

Conquering Public Speaking? It's Possible

Whenever we set a public speaking task at university, we know a high percentage of our students will feel uncomfortable. This isn't a tactic to upset students! Rather, learning to speak in front of your peers, supervisors, and people interested in your ideas is a vital life skill.

1. Know you're not alone

Anxiety over public speaking is very common. It's okay to be nervous. In fact, many talented public speakers are people who are naturally anxious in front of a crowd. Dedication to improvement is more important than being born confident.

Remember that many students show nerves at the start of a speech, then improve as they relax. Even if you feel like you rushed the start or messed up a topic area, keep going! It's all part of the learning experience.

2. Think about your audience

Are you engaging them or sending them to sleep? A good starting point for planning a speech is making some notes on who your audience are and what they want from you. Consider how much background knowledge they have on your topic and how much you'll need to explain. For example, your classmates probably have similar academic interests and training to you. Your job will be educating them about the more specialised topic you have been assigned or chosen. They will value a speech that shows enthusiasm rather than one that makes you seem bored or unhappy.

Humans naturally communicate though our bodies. We use tools like eye contact and gesture to emphasise ideas or moods. This is just as important when speaking to an audience. Rather than standing in a stiff and nervous pose or hiding behind a lectern, think about ways you can connect with your audience physically. Even just a warm, relaxed, and open stance will make a big difference.

Your audience will also benefit from a well-structured speech. Open with an engaging hook like a surprising fact, shocking statistic, or relatable question. Clearly introduce your topic and the direction your speech will go in. Then, take your listeners on a journey where you begin at a point of shared knowledge then carefully add in new facts, ideas, or arguments. Use your conclusion to briefly remind them what they have learned. This will make sure your speech is educational and feels valuable to your audience.

3. Learn how to use notes

Many students get lost in their own notes. Common mistakes include reading from an essay on an A4 sheet of paper or reading off a tiny screen like the one on your smartphone. Both these choices mean you will be spending too much time focussing on your notes, and possibly losing your place, than you will looking towards your audience.

If you can memorise your speech, or the main points you wish to convey, this is ideal. If your presentation is too long or you doubt your memory, then use palm cards. A palm card is a small piece of paper that fits easily in the palm of your hand. These are ideal for short notes or for carefully recording numbers or quotations that you need to get right. Many stationary or office supply shops sell blank palm cards. You can also make your own by cutting up larger sheets of paper. The important thing is to break up your speech so you remember to pace yourself and make frequent eye contact - rather than getting lost behind a big piece of paper.

4. Learn how to use slides

It is customary for academic presentations to include slides, so there's a high chance this tool will be a required part of your presentation task. Slides are great because they can allow you to communicate through visual aids. This is useful if you want to show a trend on a graph or let someone see the artwork you are discussing. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all.

A common mistake we see with slides is an excess of text. Try to keep your slides neat, simple, and easy to understand with just a quick glance. Remember, your audience can't read a detailed paragraph of text and listen to you at the same time. If you do include text, try to focus on key words or very brief sentences. Your slides shouldn't be doing all the talking for you! The same rule applies to tools like handouts. Your audience should be listening, not reading.

5. Learn how to use your time

The amount of information you aim to convey should depend on whether you are leading a one hour seminar or giving a five minute summary of a single idea. A common mistake is cramming too much into a short speech or desperately padding out your material to meet a longer time requirement. This makes it very obvious that you haven't prepared properly or have misunderstood the nature of your task. Know how long you should speak and carefully adhere to this rule. Don't just assume that the ideas you want to express will magically fit the time slot you've been given.

If you're an inexperienced speaker it is very easy to lose track of time. This means you may rush through your presentation at twice the speed you expected or find yourself having to skip your important conclusion because your time is up. This will probably be reflected in your grades and will be frustrating for your audience. If you tend to struggle with timing, use a clock. Know where you should be at key moments. For example, what part of your speech is the halfway point? If you are slow to get there, you will still have an opportunity to speed up or skip a portion in order to conclude strongly. If you reach half way too fast, you will know to take a deep breath and slow the pace of your speech. This will be better for everyone!

But the factor that's the most important? Practice!

Talented public speakers didn't get where they are today overnight. They worked hard, responded to feedback, and dedicated themselves to spending time and effort on this vital part of their education.


One of the best ways to practice is recording yourself giving your speech. Ideally, record using video so you can get a sense of your hand gestures, body language, and time spent looking at your script versus the imagined audience. When you listen to a recording, you can get a good sense of your pacing and ensure that your voice matches the tone you want to convey. It is also great to practice in front of a trusted friend, family member, or housemate. Ask them for feedback and see if they can tell you what they thought your speech was about.

You will also find that repeating your script will make you much more comfortable with your content. This will make it easier to minimise reliance on your notes and maximise a dynamic and engaging presentation.

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