The Do’s and Don’ts of Public Speaking

Public Speaking 1The ability to speak well in public – whether giving a sales pitch to a customer, presenting at a Board Meeting, or speaking to a large group of employees – is an essential leadership skill.

  • Public speaking is fundamental for effective executive communication as a way to lead a group or team into taking some desired action.
  • For better or worse, most leaders are evaluated by their ability to speak in public.

To be a strong public speaker requires practice and keeping in mind some simple Do’s and Don’ts.



  • Focus on the End Result: As a leader, the purpose of public speaking is to inform, teach or remind your audience to do something that will help them do their jobs better and drive your company to success. Eloquent speeches, no matter how insightful or entertaining, are useless unless they lead to changed thoughts and changed actions.  As such, the focal point of any speech needs to be on the end result: what do I want my audience to do?  And a call to action needs to be the last point in any speech or presentation.

  • Use the “Rule of Three” to Give Structure to What You Will Say: Arrange the topic of the speech into three key items that you most want to communicate. Importantly, the human mind struggles to fully comprehend more than three points.  Further, with the focus on the end result, no audience will be able to put more than three ideas into practice at any one time.  With the Rule of Three firmly in place, follow (as a default) Dale Carnegie’s well known tactic:


“Tell the audience what you’re going to say; say it; then tell them what you’ve said.”


  • Engage and involve the audience: No one wants to hear someone drone on and on.  So, engage the audience and get them to participate by asking leading questions, getting a show of hands, or even asking the audience to come up with the answer to a problem.  By getting the audience thinking and doing something besides passively listening, they are far more likely to understand and put into practice what you are saying.  Finally, work with the audience to have them recap the key points and the call to action at the end of the speech or presentation.


  • Use more than just words – to reinforce your points and help them be remembered: Wherever possible, give examples or tell stories to highlight your key points. Stories are especially useful as they are easier to remember than words and are more likely to be re-told by the audience to others.  Further, use pictures and images to help drive visualization of your points.  Finally, pass out written materials or summary points when it makes sense.



  • Don’t Worry About Getting Nervous: The dirty little secret of public speaking is that everyone gets nervous speaking in public – even professional public speakers.  Excellent public speakers, like athletes nervous before the big game, use those nerves to psych themselves up to do even better.  For us mortals, if we have prepared, once we get going, the nerves will disappear.


  • Don’t Wing It: You can never wing it; preparation is essential to making any speech effective. The politicians who are able to answer questions off the cuff can do so because they have already prepared all their answers, anecdotes, and stories in advance.  So, prepare for your speech and presentation in advance especially determining the three points that you most want to convey.  As Mark Twain once said:


“I never could make a good impromptu speech without several hours to prepare it.”


  • Public Speaking 2Don’t Read Your Speech: Nothing bores an audience quicker than someone who reads a speech or reads the PowerPoint slides. The next time you are in the audience when someone does this take note of how the energy in the room diminishes and how the speaker loses eye contact with the audience, starts speaking too quickly, and speaks in a monotone with a minimum of inflection or enthusiasm.  Yes, you may look at your notes from time to time, but don’t read your speech.


  • Don’t Talk Too Much: Year after year audiences share one complaint about speakers; their speeches are too long.  As discussed before, the ambition of your speech or presentation should be modest: to inform, teach or remind your audience about (at most) three key points.  Long speeches or talking too quickly to shove more information into a shorter time will bore and confuse your audience and degrade these modest ambitions.  As Stephen Keague, author of  The Little  Red Handbook of Public Speaking and Presenting writes:


“No audience ever complained about a presentation or speech being too short”


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
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