Public Speaking for the New or Reluctant Public Speaker

By Ellen Mehling, Career Development Consultant at METRO


Being able to speak to a group is an extremely valuable skill. It is often required for graduate school and to progress in your career as an information professional.

Many people are uneasy with public speaking though; for some, speaking in public is a mild discomfort. For others, it may be a much stronger fear. Fortunately for those of us who are not naturally relaxed when speaking publicly, it is an art that can be practiced and learned.

20140515_publicspeaking.jpgStart by rehearsing in small groups, if you can, with a brief presentation for a supportive audience. Toastmasters is a well-known organization that can help you develop and practice public speaking skills. METRO’s Special Interest Groups (SIGS) can offer opportunities to address a small group in a non-threatening setting, and they are free and open to anyone who wants to attend. Friends and family can also serve as a practice audience, if they are encouraging and positive towards your efforts.

Be sure to know your subject well. You should be able to give your entire presentation, or continue from any point, if any or all technology fails. Your goal is to communicate with and engage the audience, convey certain pieces of information to them, and answer their questions. Don’t memorize what you intend to say; you want to sound natural. Rehearsing your presentation repeatedly with minimal reliance on notes will allow you to speak on your topic easily.

Regarding presentation software: less is more when it comes to words on the slides/screen. Let the visuals be light on text, heavier on pictures and graphics. Remember that the audience should be looking at a supplement to your talking points, not the other way around. If you need inspiration, remember that Steve Jobs was famous for giving effective presentations with very few (written) words.

On a similar note, be sure to provide slides after the presentation. If your class is waiting for a presentation to begin and you have given them something to read, they will read it. If this happens, they'll know what is coming next and will be less likely to be engaged once you start speaking. Instead, let your audience know that the slides will be provided afterwards.

Interaction with the audience makes a presentation more enjoyable. Make eye contact. Ask questions: "how do you feel about...?" or “what are some examples of…?” or "what is the first thing that comes to mind about..?” Tell a brief story or give short assignments. Ask your group to examine a handout or an image on the screen and give their thoughts on it. Give tasks that will keep your audience attentive. This will have the added benefit of taking some of the pressure off of you, and your talk will feel more like a conversation or discussion.

Know how long it will take to cover your topic, including time for Q&A. (Getting a handle on this comes with practice.) Finishing too soon or running out of time will leave the audience unsatisfied.

Be on time. It is best to arrive a bit early, in fact, to set up and to greet the attendees as they arrive. Pacing yourself, rehearsing, and being on time show respect for your audience. If you are clearly well-prepared, the audience will be on your side if something goes wrong. If not, things can get ugly.

To help with nervousness, visualize success (guided imagery may help) as part of your preparation -- especially the first few times you address a group. Know that you probably won’t appear or sound as uneasy as you feel. You may find that once you get started, you’ll feel much calmer.

Trust that you will become more comfortable the more you speak. You may even discover that you enjoy presenting! When you and your audience are having fun, it’s the best of all possible worlds. And who knows what additional career opportunities your newfound public speaking skills may bring?