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10 public speaking tips that really work – not just for startup pitches

Public speaking can be a frightening task, and maybe you are one of the many that simply avoids it. Speaking in public is a broad topic that is not limited only to startup pitches, but may include speaking in front of large crowds in a theatre, or to your directors in a board meeting.

Panic is not an option, as even the greatest artists have stage fright. Mark Twain even said: “There are only two types of speakers: the nervous and the liars.”

So what can you do? Below are some easy tips to practice and improve your public speaking skills:

    • Engage with the audience: use storytelling to connect with the audience. Start with a short story about you or the subject you’re speaking about, and it will help the audience to get “in the zone”. Studies have shown how our brains react to and remember stories, so carefully choose a narrative that connects with emotions and follows the common stories patterns (e.g. begins with everyday facts that create a plot; something unexpected happens; conclusion). Align your story with a customer’s journey and experience to emphasise how your product or company can be of importance to their lives or businesses.
    • Identify your audience and adapt: Learn as much about your listeners as you can. This will help you to determine your choice of words, level of information, and truly interact in a way that gives them a sense that they’re not just there to listen, but that they are there to connect.
    • Avoid complex technical language: When speaking in public, a common mistake is to use over-complex terms, jargon, or acronyms with the objective of showing your knowledge on a subject – but most of the time you’ll just end up missing the point and not getting your message through. Try focusing on a single idea, using familiar concepts, and include clear explanations that can guide your audience. Remember that your job is to deliver a message, so adapt your vocabulary and don’t tell them that the final result is 10,  just guide and let them work out for themselves what 5+5 equals.
    • Nonverbal language: Gesturing can be an important tool when conveying an idea, as nonverbal communication carries most of the message. Your appearance should be sharp but discrete, to avoid calling to much attention to a specific detail or accessory that may serve as a distraction, and you should search for a confident yet relaxed body posture. Finally, use your hands wisely by avoiding nervous gestures like scratching or retouching your hair. Draw an imaginary rectangle between the width of the shoulders and the waist, and keep your hands with the palms facing forward in an embracing way, and always moving within this rectangle.
    • Pause: Silence can be golden and it is an important element of speaking. Seems contradictory, but pauses are a tool to separate thoughts and periodically pausing will allow listeners to absorb your message. Do practice and use silence wisely, as we tend fill those empty moments with filler words like “ah”, “ok”, “you know”… so rather than “Ummm” – just pause. Don’t look down or up while pausing, but look straight forward and start talking again, in a confident way. Breaking your speech also builds anticipation, and gets the public wondering – what is coming next?
    • The power of questions: Asking a good question can be the key to a successful presentation. How did you felt as a spectator when being asked a provocative question? A well-timed question can help establish a dialogue and will increase your audience’s attention, while at the same time conveying an image of control and confidence as a speaker. Use rhetorical questions to get people thinking about an issue, and “What If” questions to create scenarios about past or future events. Pausing after asking a question is also a great technique because it allows the audience to think, and mentally involves them in your presentation.
    • Use powerful images. If you have the opportunity to show slides, use it in your favor and avoid “death by PowerPoint”. Dull images, boring templates and overcrowded information can destroy your presentations. Show a compelling visual image that follows and enhances your story. Design the slides around the structure of your presentation, by using high-resolution images. Keep slides short by using just one idea per slide; stick to a color palette of 3 – 4 primary colors, and use a simple but big font type.
    • Rapport techniques: In smaller groups, or when speaking directly to someone (interview or meeting), being aware of the other person’s behaviour can help you create a stronger connection. It is not about copying or mimicry, is about matching and mirroring someone else’s style of behavior to create a stronger link between them and you. Be observative of signs as body postures and gestures, tone of voice and their speed or energy levels.
    • Rhythm: They say timing is everything, and it’s even more important in communication. You can use the tone and loudness of your voice to change the way your audience perceives what you are saying: higher intonation is a way to excite, while slowing and lowering your tone will either end a point or an idea. You can also use vocal stressing by putting more emphasis on a word or sentence to draw attention. If possible, plan your presentation according to the time you have allotted so it has a regular cadence and that speech flows easily, without being too slow, too unstable, or too fast.
    • Practice, practice, practice! Being prepared is all about practicing, but don’t do it just in your head, you have to speak out loud! Try to rehearse in the place and with all the equipment you’ll use (computer, projector, etc). Record your presentation and review it with your peers and friends to get feedback. If you have a limited time, practice with a timer but do leave some time for unexpected events or questions. Use breathing and diction exercises to improve clarity and articulation. And above all, relax and smile 🙂

Use TED talks and other available material as an inspiration, but remember to make it personal. Think of it as a moment of conversation between you and the audience and if you can have a relaxed conversation with one or two people, you already have some tool. Start practicing today so you’ll be prepared to exceed and give powerful and memorable pretentions.

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Jorge Pimenta
Jorge Pimenta
Jorge is a project manager at IPN in Coimbra (Portugal) and passionate about startups. He started his career at L'Oréal and as an entrepreneur he co-founded Prime IT in 2002.

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