Executing the Physical Skills and Behaviors of Effective Public Speaking

By Stephen Wilbers

There’s a lot going on when you’re presenting, a lot to keep track of, so it’s important that you practice certain physical skills until they become habitual. Committing them to muscle memory will help you keep your focus where it should be – on your message and your audience.

Unlike writing, presenting is more physical than cerebral. It involves what speech coach Brian K. Johnson calls “the physical challenge of speaking effectively while thinking on your feet.” (Or on your derriere, as the case may be.) Public speaking is both an art and a learnable skill, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Here are the key physical skills for delivering effective presentations:

Breathe deeply. Breathing slowly and deeply before presenting soothes your nerves, calms your muscles, powers your voice, and clears your thinking by feeding that oxygen-gobbling organ known as your brain.
Begin speaking in the “ready” position. Hands up and in view, above your waist, desk, or table, ready for action. Head and shoulders back. Torso erect. Weight balanced evenly on both feet. Ready to convey energy, purpose, and intention from your very first words.

Look at your audience. Connect with your eyes. Make everyone feel included. Scan front, back, left, center, and right, pausing briefly to connect with every individual (or every area in a large gathering). Spend more time looking at your audience than at your notes or slides.

Move your body. Accentuate your words with gestures and facial expressions. Just raising your eyebrows makes your face more interesting. If you’re standing, move with purpose. Step out from behind a lectern. Claim your space early. Take two steps toward a questioner.

Let time be on your side. Beginners rush. Skilled speakers take their time. Rushing makes you seem ill at ease, as though you’d like nothing better than to sprint for the nearest exit.

Pause for emphasis. The more comfortable you are with silence, the more effective you will be as a speaker. Skilled speakers may speak rapidly, but they vary their rate of delivery for emphasis.

Use your full vocal range. Play your voice like a musical instrument it is. Speakers who vary their pitch, intonation, volume, and rate of delivery are generally more expressive and interesting than speakers who don’t. Find the mid-point of your vocal range by filling and then slowly emptying your lungs. Now as your vocal muscles relax, say “un uh” as though you’re agreeing with me. That’s your middle C. When speaking, go higher and lower, working mostly within your middle range.

Be proud of your accent. Everyone speaks with an accent. If your accent differs from one of the many “standard” native English speaker accents, consider yourself lucky. You are by one measure more interesting than someone with a common or ordinary accent. If you speak with what might be considered a heavy accent, speak at full volume, enunciate your words, and slow your rate of delivery.

Project confidence by doing all the above. Stand or sit tall with your head and shoulders back, torso erect, your hands up and ready to go into action. Pause before beginning. Look at your audience. Speak at full volume and move around. Move your arms, your hands, and your face. Move your voice, move it up and down for inflectional emphasis.

And if you stumble, so what? You don’t have to be perfect. You only have to be your natural, authentic, competent self.

With practice.

About the Author
An award-winning author and former columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Dr. Stephen Wilbers teaches writing and oral presentation skills in the University of Minnesota’s Technological Leadership Institute. He is the author of the forthcoming book Persuasive Communication for Science and Technology Leaders: Writing and Speaking with Confidence. Please contact him via his Email.

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