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New York Times “A Year of Living Better” Guide: How to Speak in Public

November 26, 2018

Public speaking can tap into a viper’s nest of dread with seemingly infinite possibilities for messing up and creating scar-tissue embarrassment in front of a crowd. If you do a Google search with these four words – “public speaking scarier death” – you’ll get more than 50 million results, many of them about surveys noting that people list speaking in public as their No. 1 fear, with death coming in second. If you find yourself agreeing with those surveys, even reading these words may be causing your pulse to quicken or your palms to sweat (apologies for that). But here’s the good news: You can do this. We’ve broken down the art of public speaking to make it less overwhelming and potentially even rewarding. (Seriously.)

This is part of “Year of Living Better,”a monthly series of how-to guides for subscribers that will help you improve your life, community and world.

Start at the Beginning
Before you can get on stage, you need to think about your presentation.

Preparation will ensure that you can effectively deliver a speech that relays the message you want to deliver.

One of the best insights I’ve ever heard about speaking to large audiences came from Marcus Ryu, the C.E.O. of Guidewire Software. In my Corner Office interview with him, he explained what I’ve come to refer to as the “Einstein Theory of Communication.”

“I’ve come to realize that no matter how smart the people are you’re communicating to, the more of them there are, the dumber the collective gets,” Ryu told me. “And so you could have a room full of Einsteins, but if there are 200 or 300 of them, then you still have to talk to them like they’re just average people. As the audience gets bigger and bigger, your message has to get simpler and simpler, and the bullet-point list has to be shorter and shorter.”
This isn’t to say that simple is easy or means simplistic. It means that you should really home in on the core insight of your talk and call that out in clear language at the beginning and at the end.

Ask yourself: What is the central question you are asking and answering? If you’re creating a presentation you’re going to use many times, aim for 30 to 35 minutes to make sure you have something substantial, and then be prepared to do a shorter version if need be.
Then, use bullet points to crystallize your subthemes. Make sure that nobody can miss the point of your talk.

You may feel like you’re “dumbing down” your talk to make it so clear, but that’s not the point. Ryu’s insight will help you resolve competing impulses – yes, you know your audience is smart, but you have to keep it really simple.

Get an editor. Everybody needs an editor and speeches are no different; find somebody whose judgment you trust and pressure-test your talk with them. Is it clear? Does the arc make sense? What is the key insight? Are the takeaways clear?


The theory of “keep it simple” applies to more than just what you say; it also applies to how to present it. Many speakers still subscribe to the “more is more” philosophy of packing as much as they can into their slides – dense text, long lists and hard-to-read charts, with small fonts that require squinting to read from the back of the room.

There are lots of books and websites that will explain best practices about design, but all you really need to do is follow these basic rules for slides:

  • No more than a dozen words per slide.
  • Make sure the font size is big enough for easy reading from the back of the room. Because you might not know how large the screen is that you’ll be using, better to err on the side of larger rather than smaller. (I’ve never heard anybody complain about big fonts.)
  • Use only two different fonts, and use a consistent framework for why you use one or the other (headlines vs short blocks of text, for example). Some pairs of fonts work particularly well together, and a Google search will turn up some good suggestions.
  • Use photographs, not clip art, that capture the spirit of the point you’re making in a clear but clever way. There are plenty of websites, including Unsplash and Pixabay. that have good search tools. And if you’re going to use a photo that doesn’t take up the full slide, put a thin border around it. These small design touches will add crispness to your slides.
  • Don’t be too clever with the formatting of your slides. Design should be in the service of the point you’re making, not a distraction from it. There are many programs and software features that do nifty transitions between slides and make images do pirouettes. But again, less is more. Making your presentation clear and memorable is your goal. The same goes for video clips and other multimedia. They can help make your talk more engaging, but make sure they are not adding sizzle just for the sake of sizzle.
  • Don’t read your slides out loud for your audience. Let them read the text, while you provide some commentary or further insight about the idea.
  • If you’re going to present a list and talk about each item on it, do not present the whole list at once, because people will read ahead. Build your slides so each new slide adds another bullet point to the growing list.

Build Up to It
You don’t have to start in front of a crowd of thousands, just push yourself a bit every time you speak.

We’ve all seen and admired those people who seem like they were born on a stage. They speak in full paragraphs without notes, and look as relaxed as if they were heading out for a Sunday stroll. That could be you someday.

The key is to work up to it.

If You’re New to Public Speaking: Write your speech out in full beforehand, to reduce the risk of any big flubs. Be sure that you are writing for the ear, with conversational words, phrases and sentence structures. People often write in somewhat more formal language when they write (“we engaged in heated debate,” rather than “we argued.”) so make sure your talk sounds as natural as if you were speaking at a dinner party.
Then, practice, practice, practice. Practice it enough that you can look up at the audience as often as possible between sentences. And don’t just practice by yourself. You want to get comfortable with your material in front of others.

Try this: Take one piece of your speech, and try it out at the right moment during a meeting at work or at a gathering of friends. Don’t make a big deal of it; just weave it into the conversation. In those settings, of course, you always talk without notes, so it’s a good testing ground for yourself. Get comfortable with your material in front of smaller audiences, and then work up to larger ones.

Try to see the stage and lectern as an extension of everyday life, rather than as foreign and scary terrain. There are plenty of moments in life when you’re the center of attention, so just see the lectern and stage as simply another one.

The second, third or fourth time you speak: Push yourself a bit to talk, even for a sentence or two, without reading your notes verbatim.

Once you’re a bit more experienced: Work up to the next step, where you’re giving yourself just bullet points or cue cards to remind yourself of the notes you want to hit.

“But wait!” you say. “What if I forget something I wanted to say?” Here’s a secret about speaking in front of an audience: Nobody knows what you forget to say. If you didn’t mention something, no big deal. Just focus on hitting the key points.

Once you’re super comfortable: You may find yourself enjoying the same sense of exhilaration you felt as a kid when you took off those training wheels and rode your bike for the first time. Hard as it may be to imagine, it can be thrilling, even fun.

The nerves never fully go away. And you should feel a bit nervous before a talk. The key is
channeling and focusing that nervousness in a positive way. Remember this clever saying: “It’s okay to have butterflies; just get them to fly in formation.” Over time, you learn to trust yourself, and know that once you’re on stage, you can be confident and deliver a great talk.

Turn It Up
Tune into your presentation style and then turn it up a few notches.

There is a hilarious scene in the 1984 mock documentary about a heavy metal-band,
“This Is Spinal Tap,” that provides an important lesson about speaking in public. In the scene, the dimwitted guitarist Nigel Tufnel, played by Christopher Guest, is explaining to Rob Reiner’s Marty Di Bergi his decision to change the dials on his Marshall amplifier so that they go to 11 instead of 10. The rationale makes no sense to anyone but himself – only the numbers have changed, after all, not the amp’s ability to play louder. And when Di Bergi presses Tufnel on the squishy logic, the guitarist is stumped and can only repeat himself: “These go to 11.”

What does any of this have to do with public speaking? Here’s the insight: You need to turn up the dial on yourself to 11. Not in terms of how loud you speak, but in terms of your personality. Bring your best self to the lectern.

It’s a lesson I’ve learned first-hand. During the break of a session I did earlier this year, a woman in the audience came up to me and offered some feedback suggesting that I could be an even bigger presence. As memo-to-self moments go, it was a powerful one, and has freed me up to be even more energetic.
After all, it’s your energy that people will remember about you long after your talk is done. It’s unlikely that they’ll remember any of the specific words you said. They might remember some of the photos or video clips you used. But if you inspire people a bit, they will remember how you made them feel. So turn up your dial to 11. Even though you may feel like you’re a bit over the top, it will feel like a 7 to the audience.


And sometimes audiences have low energy. One of the more unnerving moments of speaking to groups can come when you’re looking at all the people in front of you and they are just sitting there or, even worse, are on their phones. You try to read their body language, and you can’t tell if they are bored or tired or listening quietly. Don’t let it throw you. Every audience is a bit different, and even though you may be feeling little to no energy from the crowd, people will likely come up to you afterward and say how great you were. In any crowd, there are always some head-nodders – people who are engaged and listening intently. Feed off their energy. And those people on their phones? Some of them are taking notes from your talk.

Bonus tip: Do not apologize. I’ve seen far too many people over the years start off their talks by apologizing for some aspect of the talk they are about to give. They probably are nervous and maybe want to lower expectations. Resist the temptation. Step up and own it.

Connect With the Audience
Gain respect and attention by making it clear that you are here for them.

When you speak in front of a crowd, there is a kind of invisible wall between you and your audience. Many speakers make no effort whatsoever to break it down. They show up, give their talk, and leave, which has all the personalized feel of watching a TED talk on YouTube.

You can do better. The first step is simple. Thank people for their time, for the invitation and the opportunity to speak. You might also acknowledge that you know how busy they are – a sign that you respect their time and are going to make the most of it.

The second step requires some creativity: Find some personal connection with the audience and what they do. It doesn’t take a lot, and the connection can take many forms, like a shared interest or experience. But put in the effort and time to find something.

Another reliable way to engage the audience is to drop in the occasional “Show of hands, how many people have … ?” questions. Move around the stage, and look at people in different parts of the room, making eye contact with as many of them as you can.


Consider this connective tissue as Plan A for your opening, but then during the event or milling around before your talk, be on the lookout for something that feels more of-the­moment. It could be an offhand remark that you overheard during a break that you can use to make a larger (and ideally funny) point. If somebody is speaking before you, show up and watch them, because that may spark an idea that you can use as a bridge to your own talk. Again, you just need something that shows you’re making an effort. If you’re hoping for a laugh, don’t deliver the punchline and worry about crickets. Just deliver it in a more casual way, so that a chuckle or laugh is a bonus, and keep going.

Since we’re talking about opening strong, it’s worth mentioning here that you should finish strong, too. Save your best stuff for your opening and the closinge. That’s how people will remember you.


As much as you should make an effort to connect with people, some audiences just don’t click, and you shouldn’t take it personally (mostly). I’ve done enough talks over the years to know that I can give the same talk back-to-back to two different audiences, and the reactions could be completely different. It might be the time of day, the temperature in the room, what they served for lunch – plenty of things that aren’t about you.

A big factor is also the physical space of the room you’re in for your talk. There is simply nothing better for creating energy than a person in every seat, and a room that feels tight in a good way. It makes people feel like they are having a shared moment. If I walk into a vast conference or convention room and there are empty pockets of space or seats, I know that trying to create some energy in the room is going to be a Sisyphean struggle.

Bonus tip: If you’re doing a Q&A session on stage with the audience after your talk, do not say “great question” to some of the people who raise their hand. The question they just asked you may in fact be great, but calling it out signals that all the other questions that came before or after didn’t impress you. Just answer the questions.

Be Proactively Paranoid
Nothing will go wrong if you come prepared for everything that does.

If things can go wrong with your talk, they will go wrong. Here are a few tips that I’ve learned the hard way over the years (so you don’t have to).

  • Find out what the AV set-up is beforehand. Show up early to your presentation, introduce yourself to the tech people and shake their hands. They will help you if they want to help you, so treat them with respect. You have enough to worry about with delivering your talk. Don’t let AV challenges add to your stress levels.
  • When possible, use your own computer. It’s (hopefu I ly) the one you practiced on at home, and therefore your most comfortable tool.
  • Arrive technologically prepared. There have been plenty of moments when the set­up can’t accommodate my computer on stage. So bring your own multi-prong adapter, charger, clicker to advance your slides and anything else you could possibly need. The AV staff probably has what you need, but it’s always safer to bring your own.
  • Give the AV people a backup version of your slides on a thumb drive just in case things go awry. This has saved me on more than one occasion. Any backup you share should be in a PDF format because fonts can change between different systems.
  • Look in a mirror. Always check yourself in a mirror before you go on to make sure there is no errant thread on your clothes or something in your teeth, and that everything is in place and done up.

Follow these tips, and you’ll set yourself up for success. You’ve earned the opportunity to be invited to come share your thoughts. So be your best self, create some energy in the room (and maybe a bit of inspiration) and people will remember you long after you’ve left the stage.

The ExCo Group’s Adam Bryant wrote this article for The New York Times. It was originally published here.