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What You Need to Know to Improve Your Public Speaking

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This post is part of a series called Leveraging Public Speaking for Your Business.
What It Takes to Drive Home a Paid Speaking Gig
7 Ways to Monetize Your Speaking, Beyond Selling Your Services

Public speaking is hard: we've all heard that it's the most common fear, above and beyond death. Everybody in the room is staring at you, which is enough to make most of us want to run.

There are some lucky people who seem to not experience that particular sensation or who even seem to be natural speakers, but for the majority of us, there are always steps to take that will make us steadier on stage.

Choose a Target Audience Early and Get to Know Them

You can't be all things to all people, even if you can see a benefit to doing so. As you're working to improve your public speaking, you need to focus in on the audience you're trying to reach. If, for instance, you're using speaking as a strategy to drum up business for yourself, look at what types of clients are going to be worth the investment of time necessary to give a talk.

Knowing your market is an important step to improving your speaking.

Narrow down who your target audience is, so that you can make sure that you appeal to them. After all, there are major differences in the styles and presentations of motivational speakers who are reaching out to high schoolers than those speakers who give workshops to improve business practices in large organizations. Knowing your market is an important step to improving your speaking.

Once you know who you want to reach, make a point of getting to know them. Look at what sources of information they rely on and the opinions they typically hold. The more information you have about your audience, the better. You'll be able to find plenty of topics to speak about in the questions they ask and the stories they tell, and you can make the process of gaining their interest less work. It's like any marketing situation: if you know who you want to reach and where they'll be, the process is always significantly easier.

You also want to know who you're up against. Go to events geared towards the audience you want to reach and listen to the speakers who are essentially your future competition. You may not want to run your speaking career along the same lines they do, but you want to know, at least, what's working for them and why. You may find spots for improvement, as well as entirely new opportunities you'll want to pursue.

Go Out and Speak, Every Chance You Get

It would be nice if we could all get great at speaking to audiences before we actually had to talk in front of one of those audiences, but the reality is that it takes practice to acquire the skills you need to be an effective speaker. Practice in front of an empty room isn't the same as the real deal, making it necessary to actually go out and find more audiences.

There are plenty of speaking opportunities out there for anyone willing to chase them, although you're not going to start out without a lot of acclaim for your efforts. Speaking to local organizations is one of the best ways out there to get the practice you need: as long as you have something relevant to say, you may be able to arrange to speak just by contacting whoever is in charge of the group and offering to speak. I've talked to groups of high school students, local professional groups, and even just a handful of people at my local library. There's no group so small that you can't benefit from the practice of speaking to them.

Such groups are also a little easier to speak to: you've got training wheels on with them. Because these sorts of talks are relatively low risk, it can be a little easier to get yourself up there. You are building your reputation in front of these audiences, but they've seen some pretty bad speakers. You would actually have to try to be the worst speaker who has ever gotten up in front of them. Don't take that as an excuse to do less than your best, of course, but use the knowledge to make yourself more comfortable with speaking.

One of the reasons that organizations like Toastmasters are so effective is because members have to speak to the group on a regular basis. There can be a definite benefit to joining a group that puts you on the spot to speak regularly if only to get some of that low risk practice. Such groups also make a point of offering feedback, which is necessary to be able to improve.

While feedback can be scary, make a habit of asking for it at each event you speak at, even the small ones. It's ideal to film any talks you give, even if you just have a friend record it on her phone — that way, you can compare your efforts and see where you're improving, as well as continuing weak spots.

It's Not Just the Ability to Speak Well

You absolutely need to invest time in polishing your speaking, but there are actually several other skills that go into being a great public speaker. Designing your presentation, for instance, is a very necessary step. There are plenty of software packages out there that make the process of creating a presentation much easier than it used to be, but even the best software relies on what you put into it. Learn how to use your tools as effectively as possible, as well as what goes into making a good design. You'll set yourself up for success if you have the best looking presentations around.

It doesn't matter how polished the actual speech is if there's some small detail distracting the audience.

The same goes for all the other little details that go into speaking: writing an excellent talk title, choosing the right clothes and other factors contribute to how well a talk is received. It doesn't matter how polished the actual speech is if there's some small detail distracting the audience.

Make a habit of practicing the soft skills that go into public speaking at least as often as you might practice an actual talk. Treat every talk you give as an opportunity to improve your skills and take each one seriously, even if you're just giving a brown bag talk on your lunch hour.

You might even consider preparing some talks (along with all the bits and pieces that go along with them) that you haven't scheduled an opportunity to give. There are often chances to fill in at the last minute at an event, as well speaking opportunities at unconferences which aren't set until the day of the event. By being ready to go with a polished talk on short notice, you may impress key decision makers at the events you'd like to be invited back to.

All of this probably sounds like a lot of work, and it is. In order to truly improve your public speaking, though, you need to put the hours in. In the long term, you can get help, but in the short term, you need to know how to do everything yourself.

You've Got to Spend Money to Make Money

It can seem like public speaking is one of those things that you should be able to just pick up on your own. It may be, but it's one of those skills that's a lot easier to learn if you can get both instruction and feedback on a regular basis.

Taking a class or joining Toastmasters is only the first step. I've worked with a coach who has helped me both with general improvement and polishing a particular presentation that I had concerns with. There's a price tag that goes along with that sort of help but it is definitely worth the money.

You can get a lot more help than just coaching on your delivery. There are professionals out in the world who specialize in designing slide decks, writing speeches, booking speaking gigs, picking out clothes for special presentations and every other aspect of offering your services as a public speaker.

Especially if you're running a business that doesn't include speaking as a major component, getting some help with the prep work makes sense: you can hire specialists who can help you give talks that help your career elsewhere once you've established yourself. You can speed up the learning curve immensely with just a little investment.

It's still important to understand the mechanics behind each aspect of the speeches you give. You need to make sure that you're sending exactly the right message and no one else is going to be able to be sure of that fact except you. Public speaking is part of your career, so you have to take full responsibilty for it — even with help at hand.

Graphic credit: Some rights reserved by talrevivo.

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