The Personal Website of Mark W. Dawson

Containing His Articles, Observations, Thoughts, Meanderings,
and some would say Wisdom (and some would say not).

Public Speaking

Unless you are extroverted, an egotist, or narcissistic, you may find it difficult to give a speech or presentation. You have concerns or apprehensions and sometimes fears, that you will look foolish, ill-prepared, unknowledgeable, or unprofessional when giving a speech or presentation. I know I was very afraid of speaking or presenting when I was young. However, as I advanced in my career of being an individual contributor, team leader, supervisor, then manager, it became necessary for me to give speeches or presentation to an ever larger number of people, both familiar and unfamiliar to myself. My biggest breakthrough was when I had to give a presentation to hundreds of people at an international conference, in which there were only three attendees who knew me personally (hereinafter referred to as "The Big Speech"). In my progression, I learned a few tips and techniques that helped me overcome my fears and apprehensions. Some of these tips and techniques are as follows.

Never give a speech or presentation on a subject matter that you are unfamiliar or unknowledgeable about. If circumstance requires that you give the speech or presentation on an unfamiliar or unknowledgeable subject you can immerse yourself in the subject and gain a familiarity or knowledge of the subject. Remember that you were probably asked to give the speech or presentation because someone believed you had familiarity, knowledge, experience, intelligence, or wisdom to speak or present on the subject matter.

Do not be afraid that the audience members may have the same or greater knowledge of the subject matter than you have. Most of the audience will have less knowledge than you, or they wouldn't be there to hear your speech or presentation. Some of the audience may have the same amount of knowledge or experience as yourself, and a few of the audience may have more knowledge or experience than yourself. At The Big Speech, I knew that the audience has less knowledge than myself, as I was giving a presentation on a technological capability which I and the Conference Leaders thought was new and had not been done by anyone. However, all the audience members were technology adept and capable of grasping what I was presenting. A few of them, and one in challenged what I was presenting. Because I had the knowledge and experience to answer their challenges the presentation was received positively by all, and the challenges and responses contributed to its acceptance. After The Big Speech, I per-chanced to go to another presentation at which the one, in particular, was present. I sat down next to him and we had a private conversation about my presentation in which he revealed that he started as a skeptic, but was now convinced as to the efficacy of what I was doing.

At a later presentation in my career, I had to present an overview of the Government Program I was managing. In the audience of several dozens, there were at least half a dozen individuals who were the world's experts in the subject matter I was presenting, as well as a dozen or so technologist that had significantly more knowledge than myself on the subject matter. I discovered that this was not a problem, as those audience members who had greater knowledge and experience then myself were not interested in embarrassing me, but when they interjected themselves it was to provide additional information or clarification to what I was saying. I learned through other speech and presentationexperiences that when others interjected themselves in a speech or presentation it was almost always because they wanted to clarify or provide additional information to what I was saying or presenting. Only rarely did you get an obnoxious person who was attempting to one-up you, and usually the audience recognized their obnoxious behavior and supported me when I treated them with respect and politeness.

I also learned through experience that it is perfectly acceptable to admit that you may not know something, or that you would need to think or ponder upon a question or comment that an audience member made. The audience became much more receptive and helpful whenever I admitted shortcomings in my knowledge or experience. Be careful that if you promise them you will get back to them on their question or comment that you do so at the end of the speech or presentation, otherwise they may discount what you have said. Admitting your shortcomings tends to make the audience became more interactive, which makes for a better speech or presentation.

One small technique I utilized when giving my speech or presentation was to pick out one member of the audience and deliver an individual topic as I was speaking directly to them. At the next topic, I would shift my attention to another audience member, at a widely different location than the previous audience member, then speak directly to them. This helps me concentrate my attention, and gives the audience a feeling that I was personally speaking to them. Just remember to glance at the entire audience every so often to assure that they are receptive and paying attention, as well as to determine if someone in the audience is trying to get your attention for a legitimate reason.

Another technique to be utilized is to not take yourself too seriously. Smile, not a forced or strained smile, but a warm and friendly smile. When you make a mistake, flub a line, or perhaps have a physical problem (dropped something, bump into something, etc.) make a joke or be self-deprecating. This will humanize you to the audience, and they will respond positively. Under no circumstance should you swear or use foul language in front of your audience. This will often cast you in a negative light, and be off-putting to many in the audience.

When developing a speech or presentation remember the Boy Scout motto "Be Prepared!" Preparing for a speech or presentation can be time consuming and laborious, but it will make you organized, knowledgeable, and professional. Off-the-cuff speeches or presentations, or unprepared speeches or presentations, are often a disaster for the speaker/presenter, as well as their audience.

Audience Awareness also must be accounted for in preparing your speech. The University of Pittsburg Department of Communication has a good overview of Audience Analysis.

The major Audience Analysis factors are:

  •     Audience Expectations
  •     Knowledge of Topic
  •     Attitude Toward Topic
  •     Audience Size
  •     Demographics
  •     Setting
  •     Voluntariness
  •     Egocentrism

Having attended too many speeches or presentations I can assure you that an unprepared or disorganized speech or presentation is boring, irritating and annoying, and reflects negatively on the speaker or presenter. However, if you are prepared and organized your audience is much more receptive and appreciative of your speech or presentation. So what can you do to properly prepare a speech or presentation?

The first thing you should do is prepare an organized outline of your speech or presentation. Do not be concerned with the substance or details of the speech or presentation. Sit down with your word processing program and utilize its outline mode (and if you don't know how to do this you should learn it pronto (which shouldn't take too long if you are familiar with your word processor)). A skeletal outline of a speech or presentation should resemble the following.

    1. Introduction of Yourself
      1. Background
      2. Knowledge
      3. Experience
    2. Synopsis of Your Speech or Presentation
    3. First Topic
      1. Overview
      2. Postulates, Facts, and/or Figures
      3. Reasoning
      4. Conclusions of First Topic
    4. Second Topic
      1. Overview of Second Topic
        1. First Sub-Topic
          1. Overview of First Sub-Topic
          2. Postulates, Facts, and/or Figures
          3. Reasoning
          4. Conclusions of First Sub-Topic
        2. Second Sub-Topic
          1. Overview of Second Sub-Topic
          2. Postulates, Facts, and/or Figures
          3. Reasoning
          4. Conclusions of Second Sub-Topic
      2. Conclusions of Second Topic
    5. Third Topic
      1. Overview
      2. Postulates, Facts, and/or Figures
      3. Reasoning
      4. Conclusions of Third Topic
    6. Summary and Conclusions for All Topics
    7. Thank You
    8. Questions & Answers

When organizing your speech or presentation you should take care that one topic (or sub-topic) flows into another topic (or sub-topic) in a natural manner, and one topic builds upon the previous topic. Utilize your word processors outline movement capability to move topics or subtopics around so that you achieve this flow. After you are satisfied with the outline and flow of your speech or presentation you can then begin to fill in the words you wish to say.

When filling in the words you want to say keep in mind that you will be speaking. Sometimes the correct words that you have written do not sound correct when they are spoken. This will be more obvious when I shortly discuss Practice, Practice, Practice. You should always be cognizant of your intended audiences background, knowledge, and experience. Do not write or speak over their head, but also do not write or speak below them. This balance may be difficult to achieve, but it is critical for the acceptance of your speech or presentation.

Practice, Practice, Practice - when the great 20th-century violinist Isaac Stern was stopped by a pedestrian in New York City who asked him how to get to Carnegie Hall his answer was - Practice, Practice, Practice. To do anything well requires practice; to do it very well requires practice and practice; and to do it greatly requires practice, practice, and practice.

And practice is what you need to do after you have written your speech or presentation. Go to a private room, stand in the room as if you are giving the speech or presentation, and then verbally give the speech or presentation to yourself. Speak all the words out loud, and listen to what you are saying. You will often find that parts of your speech or presentation do not come out right when you say it, or that you stumble across some words or phrases when speaking. Use this opportunity to re-write those parts that you have problems with so that they sound more natural or meaningful. Do this several times, over different days, until you are comfortable with what you are saying and hearing. When you are finally satisfied you should review the 7 Speaking Habits that will make you sound smarter that follows, and practice once again, over several days, utilizing these speaking habits (please note that once you have given several speeches or presentations this becomes easier and less time consuming). When you think you are ready to invite a friend or friends (or colleague or colleagues) to hear your speech or presentation and listen to their critiques (but not criticisms) of your speech or presentation. Incorporate their useful comments into your speech or presentation, and practice a few more times.

As for your speaking habits when giving your speech or presentation the following charts are the best advice I can give you:

The first time I did all this was in preparation for The Big Speech, and that presentation was very well received. After that experience, my future speeches and presentations became easier and less time consuming to prepare, and I gradually lost my concerns, apprehensions, and fears of public speaking.

Finally, I would say to you that if you take this advice before and during your speech or presentation you only need to:


You'll do just fine if you follow my suggestions.