How to be good (or bad) at public speaking

Make a promise to your audience, then deliver

Sometimes, your body can undermine your efforts to be good at public speaking. In fact, JR Shaw School of Business instructor Bob Ackroyd remembers when his would fake an emergency to keep him from facing a crowd.

He was involved in theatre at the time. As he'll tell his business communications students, the dialogue or music meant to cue him onstage would set him off. The instant he heard it, he’d have to use the washroom.

Why would his body do this to him? It wasn’t so much a betrayal as an attempt to protect. Ackroyd was about to make it vulnerable. In nature, the vulnerable can get eaten alive. Sometimes, audiences are said to be guilty of doing the same.

With his theatre days behind him, and important lessons learned, Ackroyd doesn't think it has to be this way. There are methods to muster the confidence that will set the audience at ease, and therefore the body, too. Here are his tips for holding a group’s attention, be it at a talk in front of hundreds or a meeting between half-a-dozen, as well as the key things to avoid.

Good ways to deliver a presentation

tips for delivering a good presentation

Introduce yourself. Sure, someone had the honour of introducing you before your talk, but “a lot of people don't pay attention to introductions,” says Ackroyd. A quick hello and your name will do.

Share your plan and follow through. Start by explaining your intentions. The oldest rule for speeches and speaking is, tell me what you're going to tell me,” says Ackroyd; then tell it, then reiterate for your audience. “Deliver on your promise, then remind them [that you did].”

Raise your tone at a sentence’s end and you are less likely to be trusted.

Speak from the diaphragm. Draw your words from the gut. That’s where authority originates. Talk softly, through your nose, or raise your tone at a sentence’s end and you are less likely to be trusted.

Be dramatic. “If you talk about something you are passionate about, convey that passion so your audience feels it,” says Ackroyd. Use arm gestures, body language and facial expression. Vary your tone of voice. Employ pauses. Watch this video about the volunteer firefighter and the shoes, if you want a good example, says Ackroyd. (Note how the closing line resonates.)


Watch yourself. Record a dry run of your presentation on your phone and look for trouble. Do you flip your hair? Fiddle with your tie? Click your pen? Insert fillers like um and uh after every couple of words? The first step to solving the problem is becoming aware of it.

Keep to the time you’ve been given. Though everyone knows this should go without saying, it does not. Respect your audience’s time.

Bad ways to deliver a presentation

how to deliver a presentation badly

Start with an apology. Or a joke. Don’t seek sympathy from your audience by telling them you’re not good at public speaking. And if your joke has nothing to do with the presentation, play it straight instead.

Abuse PowerPoint. “Never read from the PowerPoint,” says Ackroyd. “Everyone in the audience can read it.” Don’t exceed four lines per side, none of which should contain complete sentences, and use 32-point font, minimum.

Neglect your audience. If you’re reading slides, you’re not looking at your audience, Ackroyd points out, which means you're losing the connection. Similarly, don’t look past people’s heads to the back wall to calm your nerves. (“Everyone can tell you’re looking at the back wall.”) And don’t single out a section of the room by exclusively making eye contact with select people. It’s creepy.

“Never read from the PowerPoint. Everyone in the audience can read it.”

Read your presentation. Don’t write out everything you want to say and bring your pages to the podium. If you need notes, Ackroyd recommends index cards bearing keywords only. Glance down for cues as needed and keep talking. This will make for a more conversational delivery.

Share handouts before you start. Copies of your presentation, or any other papers, will probably just distract your audience. Let yourself be the attraction.

Leave to use the bathroom. Genuine emergencies will be rare. After pushing himself through his own onstage jitters, Ackroyd made a discovery: “It’s totally in my head.” With that, he was able to will it away, overcome fear and embrace the idea of embracing his audience. “I would like it known that I never wet myself on stage," he adds. "And at intermission I didn’t even have to go.”

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