Ready, Set, Speak

Public speaking can be scary, and struggling with it can hurt your career. Aisha Langford offers advice on how you can improve your speaking skills and build your confidence.

July 10, 2015

Public speaking is a critical, but often underdeveloped, skill among higher education professionals. Your ability to convey ideas with confidence and clarity is essential for articulating the importance of your research, getting buy-in for your projects and obtaining funding from sponsors.

Many people are afraid of public speaking. They think that effective public speakers are “naturals” who were born with strong oratory skills. Luckily, it is practice and not genetics that will make you a better public speaker. With practice and a few tips, you can improve your skills in a relatively short amount of time. This article will discuss five tips to becoming a better public speaker.

WAIT Method

WAIT stands for Why Am I Talking? Before you jump right into making Powerpoint slides or writing a speech, take some time to think about why you’re speaking and what you want the audience to remember. That is, begin with the end in mind (habit number two from Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). For example, pick three things you want people to take away from your presentation and then work backward. A clear understanding of your end goal will keep your thoughts cohesive as you prepare. More details can be found on Loren Ekroth’s webpage.

10/20/30 Rule

Introduced by the entrepreneur, author and speaker Guy Kawasaki, the general idea behind the 10/20/30 rule is that your Powerpoint presentations for most talks should:

  • Have only 10 slides
  • Last no more than 20 minutes
  • Use 30 point font or greater so the audience can actually read your slides.

Keep in mind that these guidelines were created with the business community in mind and may not always apply to academic situations (e.g., dissertation defenses). However, it’s worth noting that our attention spans are short. There’s nothing worse than listening to a talk that goes on and on, or seeing slides that you can’t read.

Content Over Medium

The content of your presentation is far more important than fancy slides without substance. Powerpoint is a wonderful tool; however, it isn’t a requirement for effective presentations. Let’s repeat. Powerpoint isn’t a requirement for effective presentations.

Sometimes speaking without Powerpoint slides is even more effective and engaging. This may be especially true if you’re sharing aspects about your life (e.g., how you landed in higher education) or giving a motivational speech.

Unfortunately, Powerpoint is often used as a script instead of the visual aid tool it was designed to be. Using the analogy of a music concert, you are the lead singer and Powerpoint is your backup singers -- there to support you, but not the main focus. You are the show.

If you choose to use Powerpoint slides, avoid common Powerpoint mistakes like reading every slide and presenting crowded tables. Your audience will thank you.

Control the Controllables

The marketing and management consultant Somers White once said, “90 percent of how well the talk will go is determined before the speaker steps on the platform.” Reduce your public speaking anxiety by following these steps:

  1. Organize your thoughts. This blueprint for a presentation by Eleni Kelakos is a good guide.
  2. Decide which format is best (Powerpoint, no slides and/or paper handouts).
  3. Practice by yourself and refine.
  4. Practice in front of others and refine.
  5. Time yourself. Staying within allotted time limits is crucial.
  6. Decide what you’re going to wear. Be comfortable, but look professional.
  7. Showtime!

If possible, practice in the room where you’ll be speaking. Test the equipment to make sure it works. If using your own laptop, remember to bring your charger and adapters. This is especially true for Mac users. Also ask about:

  • Wireless clickers
  • Laser pointers
  • Internet connections
  • Sound system
  • Projector
  • Screens
  • Microphones

Speaking of microphones, please use one if you’ll be in a large room. As we present, our voices get tired. Tiredness makes it hard to project our voices to the back of the room. If people can’t hear you, then you’ve missed an important opportunity and wasted everyone’s time, including yours. Lastly, if you have interactive exercises or surveys that require writing, be sure to bring pens.

Body Language and Other Distractions

A few years ago, I attended a job talk. The candidate -- we'll call him John -- had great training and an interesting program of research. Unfortunately, all I remember about John’s talk is that he spoke too fast, fidgeted a lot and rambled during the Q and A. He didn’t seem prepared, and he didn’t get the job. The selected candidate was probably a better fit overall for the department. However, I still wonder if John’s poor public speaking skills were a factor in the final decision.

Keep these things in mind when you’re giving presentations:

  • Make good eye contact and scan the room. Force yourself to look to the left, center and right portions of the room.
  • Eliminate filler words like um and ah. Take a pause instead.
  • Reduce excessive hand movements, including taking your hands in and out of pockets.
  • Try not to sway or rock in place.

Finally, it’s okay to move around the stage and interact with the audience. If you do so, use a wireless microphone so the audience can hear you.

For more information on public speaking, check out Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization focused on public speaking and leadership development. If you own a smartphone, this article, Fearless Public Speaking: 6 Apps to Help You Prepare for Presentations (pages 46 and 47), may also be helpful.


Aisha Langford is a writer, speaker and researcher with a background in public health and communications. Her research focuses on clinical trial participation, chronic disease prevention and health literacy. You can follow her on Twitter @AishaLangford or on LinkedIn.


Back to Top