Communication 8: Tips on Public Speaking

Communication 8: Tips on Public Speaking

Date: 1/1/2002

(NOTE:  This article was originally written for NLP practitioners.  it contains a lot of NLP jargon)


We all have to speak to a group at one time or another whether at a formal occasion or at a casual gathering. This article is the result of modeling a number of excellent public speakers--some with and some without NLP training. The ideas and suggestions here will make a tremendous difference in your performance as a public speaker. These include your state, the state of the audience, tips on putting together your speech, the delivery, anchoring the audience, adding spice to your speech, and how to improve in the future.

Your State

Let's start off with a reframe: it is good to be a little nervous! This makes you alert and aware. Now, here are some ideas to ensure that you maintain a good speaking state.

1) Excellent public speakers, no matter how spontaneous their talks seem to be, practice. One speaker told me he rehearses up to 8 times before stepping out in front of his audience. Another told me that he can say his speech in his sleep--and that sometimes he does! Ironically, the more you rehearse, the more spontaneous you may sound because you can go off on a tangent and then easily get back on track.

Write an outline of what you want to say and then stand in front of either a mirror, a friend, a recording device, or video camera and rehearse until you feel comfortable with it. Being prepared is your greatest tool against nervousness (or, if you have a moving towards strategy, to being relaxed and feeling in control).

2) Knowing how to write down notes is essential. There are two rules to note taking: "little and big". Remember: you have rehearsed and are familiar with what you are going to say. Therefore write as little as possible. Don't write whole sentences; rather write words or phrases that remind you of what you want to say.

Invest in two different-colored marking pens and write in big bold letters that you can see easily just by glancing at your paper. Changing colors at the end of each idea will make your notes more readable. If you are typing, use a large serif font. You want your talk to flow because this will help you be more relaxed. This also frees you to pay more attention to the audience to get in rapport or to anchor states, etc. Getting stuck in the middle of your talk as you pause trying to decipher your notes can be embarrassing. And, your audience will find it annoying.

3) Breathing from your diaphragm will help you relax. Speak with your larynx open. (One way to do this is to visualize that it is open.)

4) Use the swish pattern to put yourself in whatever states will help you perform your best.

5) After all of the above, just be yourself. Don't make the mistake of "So and so is a great public speaker. I will imitate the way she speaks and be a great public speaker, too." The best speakers are just their best.

The State of the Audience

There are two topics here: logistics and anchoring.

1) The first rule is "don't come on time." Rather, come early and make a "salt" check. This helps put your audience in a good state to listen to you. Not doing this can be a formula for disaster.

Seating: make sure that the seating is arranged to best suit your style. Do you prefer rows or a semi-circle? How far away do you want to be from the audience? If you cannot make any changes in the room's set-up, visualize yourself giving your talk and ask yourself what can you do to make it go as smoothly as possible.

One speaker told me he gave the same talk at two college campuses in Arizona. In spite of the fact that the two audiences were very similar, one went excellently and the other flopped. Why? In the first he was in an informal lounge setting which suits his style better. The second was in a large auditorium with him up on stage behind a podium. You might inquire in advance what kinds of rooms are available so that you can arrange to have the talk in the best possible setting.

Audio: Carefully check the microphone and sound system and make sure it works well. Practice speaking into it so that you are comfortable and familiar with it before you begin your talk. Arrange with someone to sit in the back row and signal to you if you are not loud enough. You want the audience to find listening to you to be a pleasant experience.

Lights: Usually it is good that the lights are at their maximum. First of all, the audience will be able to see you better as well as any props you may have. Second of all, it helps them to stay awake!

Temperature: Make an evaluation how the room will feel when the audience is sitting in it. How much air-conditioning or heating will be required? You do not want them to be too hot or too cold. (By the way, make sure that there will be a pitcher of water and a glass for you.)

2) Besides any stage anchoring you will want to set up, remember that there are three anchors which are automatically set up for you: names, anniversaries, places ("nap").

A person's or organization's name has a strong positive kinesthetic so make sure that you use it often during your talk!

Consider any events that happened on this day that are relevant to your talk because anniversaries have a strong kinesthetic. For example, if you are giving a talk about the environment: "And it was exactly two years ago today that 6 of our teenagers were rushed to the emergency room after swimming in the polluted waters of the lake......" A good almanac can give you references to events that happened on every day of the year.

Similarly, places are charged with a strong kinesthetic. Using the example above, if you could arrange to be in view of where the people were swimming you could point to it saying "and it was in this very spot that 6 of our teenagers were swimming before they had to be rushed to the emergency room..."

The Speech Itself

Consider in advance what the purpose of your talk is. There are three main areas: to inspire, to inform, to persuade. That is, do you want the audience to feel differently about your topic, to learn something from your speech, or to believe in something as a result of your speech? After you decide on one or more of these areas, carefully think about specifically what do you want to inspire them towards, to learn, or to believe in.

I once attended a speech on nutrition. The speaker went on and on about the challenges of eating nutritiously in today's world. Everything about his speech was fine except for one thing: he was supposed to discuss practical ways of eating more nutritiously and he completely omitted this from his talk! The organizer of the talk tried calling this to his attention twice during the speech but evidently he did not catch on and the audience left disappointed.

Your opening remarks are what connect you to your audience, so consider carefully what you want to say. Typically, you pace their on-going current experience. This will vary depending on the kind of group you are talking to. One way of doing this is mentioning some current event that is likely to be on their minds and then lead from it into your talk. "Everyone is shocked by the terrible tragedy that took place last week....and today I would like to talk to you about..."

Not organizing the main body of a talk is where many speakers fail. Remember: you already know and understand what you want to say but your audience does not. What seems to be perfectly clear to you may be difficult for them to follow. A good rule of thumb is to use a global-specific-global metaprogram.

Start off giving them an overview of what you are going to say (global). "There are three main issues that have to be discussed tonight: the reasons for the increase in pollution, the dangers posed by it, and what can be done about it."

As you go into the specifics mark out when you are changing from one point to the next to help them follow what you are saying. "Having discussed the reasons for the increase in pollution let's now talk about the dangers posed by it...."

In your closing remarks first summarize what you have said (global). Then decide what state you want to leave them in and carefully consider what remarks will leave them in that state. Keep in mind that this is the impression that they will take home with them so make sure that you end well. "We only have one planet to live on, let's take care of it so that it can take care of us!"

Your Delivery

Variety gives richness to your talk as well as helping you connect with the different kinds of people in your audience. Here are a number of ways to do this.

  1. Top speakers appeal to all of the representational systems. Typically, they stand which causes the audiences to look up and go into visual. Some speak at a quick pace (visual) and others at a more moderate pace (auditory). Virtually all top speakers enunciate clearly (auditory digital) and do not have a monotone voice (auditory tonal). And virtually all of them use rich, vivid language as well as plenty of kinesthetic words. One speaker told me that "the surest 'technique' is to simply be sincere and speak from your heart."(kinesthetic).
  2. Consider who is your audience and you will know which predicates to favor. Sometimes you are speaking to a general, mixed group and will want to speak in all of the rep systems. But, other times it may be more homogeneous. For example, are they florists, architects, lawyers, musicians, chefs, or massage therapists?!
  3. Vary the modal operators. After all, there are things that we must do to stop the pollution, things we can do and want to do, as well as things we hope to do.
  4. You also will want to go up and down on the hierarchy of ideas to appeal to everyone. Make sure to say some abstract statements about pollution as well as some very specific ones.
  5. By all means consider the different values that people might have about your topic. For instance, some folks may see pollution as dangerous and unhealthy, others may view it as ruining the beauty of the countryside, while others may be bothered by the economics of the massive costs of cleaning it up.
  6. And let's not forget that there are matchers and mismatchers out there. Be sure to throw in linguistic markers to catch everyone's attention. "Undoubtedly many of you will disagree but....." "It all boils down to..." "The government's policy has been effective, but we would like to improve it with..."

The Spice of Your Speech

Good speakers know how to use humor and stories. What is first-class humor? One speaker defined what makes something funny in a very interesting way. "When your remark draws attention to some aspect of the truth, it is funny."

I was once present at a lecture to a group of 18 year old students. Evidently the speaker was supposed to tell them that they should go to eat lunch right after the lecture. The facilities of the cafeteria downstairs were a bit run down and not up to the standards that these students were used to. The speaker got a lot of laughs announcing that "lunch is now being served in the main restaurant which is located on the lower lobby level."

Another popular speaker told me that he goes out of his way to collect great stories. "Out of every 100 stories I hear I keep about 5--but it is worth listening to 95 insipid stories to have those 5 gems."

Besides stories you hear from others, some of the best stories are your own personal anecdotes. The little slices of your everyday life have the advantage of being unique (nobody else has ever told your stories) and you can tell them with a passion because they happened to you personally.

This is so important that you shouldn't rely only on your memory. Collect stories by writing them down so they are always available to you. One method is to take a sheet of paper and set up three columns like this:

Topic Title Description
Curiosity Bored Taxi Driver went to fix computer--bored taxi driver--interested, devoted doctor with two secrets--driver uninterested in knowing them.

The topic will help you find the stories that are appropriate to your speech. In your speaking notes you can write the title of the story so that you can immediately recall the stories you've selected as you're speaking. Under description you put the main points of the stories so that you can remember them even years after they happened.

Here is the actual story that happened to me about two years ago. I use it to put the audience in a state of curiosity. Usually I tell it in the following way, elaborating on different points and putting in suggestions according to the audience.

I once took a taxi and asked the driver "How is work going?" He told me that he really can't stand it anymore--every day the same thing. I told him that I know a doctor who always shows tremendous interest in his work and devotion to his patients even though most of his day is spent looking down people's throats and other routine medical procedures. I once asked this doctor how he always has such interest in his work and devotion for his patients. He told me that there are two things he does that help him to have this interest and devotion. I then told the taxi driver "these two ideas could really help you" and asked him "would you like to know what the doctor's two secrets are?" The driver responded that he was not interested because he has heard all the advice there is to hear, and nothing will help. And I said to myself "what a shame that you don't just give it one more chance."


There are three speeches: the speech you planned to give, the speech you gave, and the speech you wish you would have given. Enjoy growing from your mistakes. Don't slap yourself for some of the things you said which you wish you would not have said and for things you wish you would have said but didn't say! Remember the NLP presupposition: failure is feedback.

Keep a diary of what you did well and want to continue doing as well as what you want to improve and how to improve it. Ask for feedback from selected members of the audience, too.

The 4 Keys to Excellence system can be particularly useful to you in achieving excellence in public speaking:

  1. Know what you want. Where and when do you want to develop your public speaking abilities? Do you want a career in it or to be able to give informal talks?
  2. Be flexible in making whatever changes are needed to be successful.
  3. Sensory acuity: calibrate to your audience's responses to see if you are improving or not.
  4. And, of course, take action now!