Terrified of public speaking? Expert tips on how to conquer your fears

Public speaking: it is  important that the content meets the needs of your audience

Public speaking: it is important that the content meets the needs of your audience


For some people, speaking in public is like falling off a log. They are articulate, humorous, at ease and able to hold the room. For others, it’s a nightmare experience accompanied by sweaty palms and a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach as the room suddenly goes quiet.

It’s not something that comes naturally to most people. However, with a bit of practice, it is possible to become a passable presenter and to get your information across without dying a thousand deaths in the process.

The key to writing a good speech or making a compelling presentation is taking the time to prepare. Few presentations or speeches are audience-ready first time. It can take multiple drafts to get an end product that is slick, engaging, clear, concise and deliverable within the allotted time period.

Communications and social and business etiquette consultant Brenda Harte has spent more than 30 years teaching people how to stand and deliver with confidence. She is the author of Oh Yes I Can (a guide to communications and etiquette self-confidence) and a firm believer in the truth behind Mark Twain’s pithy observation: “It takes three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”


Harte’s mantra is “The Three Ps” – prepare, prepare and prepare, as the more you know, the easier it is to control the situation and manage your trepidation. The more uncertain you are, whether that’s around using technology in your presentation or hitting the right note with your audience, the more nervous you will be. Nervous speakers typically make everyone else feel uncomfortable.

The preparation process starts with knowing your audience, Harte says. “Why are you speaking to this specific group and what are you going to say that will interest them?” she says.

If in doubt as to how something you say will go down, run your ideas past a trusted colleague or participant to get a fix on what they’re expecting. If what you’re saying comes as too much of a surprise, the group may react badly and you could lose control of the situation.

The second essential is knowing your material. Familiarity will put you at ease. It’s also important that the content meets the needs of your audience. Nothing irritates listeners more than feeling the speaker is not on top of their subject or that they’ve been dragged to an irrelevant presentation. If someone lobs a curve ball, don’t try to take them on there and then. Deflect it with a response along the lines of “let me get back to you on that”, and move swiftly on.

Avoid boring people by using a few basic techniques learned from the once much prized art of rhetoric – speaking or writing in a persuasive manner. “Pause to add dramatic effect (and to avoid filling gaps with “um” or “you know”) and give the audience time to process the message,” says Harte. “Storytelling is also becoming popular to help share ideas, so use anecdotes or slogans to embellish your presentation.”


Before you open your mouth, make sure you’ve got a good structure for your presentation. It needs to flow logically from introduction to summary in as few steps as possible. Dragging out a presentation is a rookie mistake. Starting late or running over is too.

Most people are time sensitive so short presentations are more likely to generate positive sentiment. If you’re trying to influence opinion or bring people on board, this matters.

Don’t be tempted to learn a speech or presentation off by heart as this can put you into a tailspin if you forget what comes next. It is far better to have the key points written down discreetly to ensure you stick to the sequence. These phrases will also help keep you on message if you lose your train of thought as even the best prepared presentations can get derailed. At last year’s Conservative party conference, British prime minister, Theresa May, got a major coughing fit during her speech and was then interrupted by a prankster coming up to the podium and handing her a P45.

If you’re senior enough or can afford to pay, it’s possible to have someone write a speech or presentation for you. But if you go that route make sure to keep the relationship sweet. There’s a grand tale told about a CEO who cheesed off his speechwriter. Ten minutes into an important town hall address, he turned the page to be met by the words: “You’re on your own from here . . .”

Oh Yes I Can by Brenda Harte is distributed by www.otb.ie 

Brenda Harte’s Top 10 Tips for Public Speaking

1) Prepare, prepare and prepare.
2) Know your audience. 
3) Use cardboard prompt cards not paper ones as they flutter in nervous hands.
4) Deliver a clear beginning, middle and end and come full circle to help link your points together. 
5) Use anecdote and quotes to liven things up.
6) Where group sizes allow, make eye contact.
7) Pay attention to articulation, don’t rush, speak clearly.
8) Watch your body language. Avoid folded arms, pointing your finger, hands in your pockets and slouched shoulders. 
9) Stick to the time limit.
10) Remember Albert Einstein’s comment about effective communicating: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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