Creative Success, LLC

Time to Speak Up! Public Speaking Skills

Gail McMeekin

Passivity is out; speaking up is no longer an optional skill. Successful people are both vocal and visible. Even if you’ve managed to avoid communication challenges to date, you will most likely not be able to cower in the back room much longer.

Whether you’re called upon to make a presentation or conduct a meeting, communication proficiency is essential for endurance in today’s marketplace. Sitting quietly by the sidelines could put you at the top of the layoff list or place your business at risk.

Fear of speaking is the number one fear of adults, rated higher than fear of heights or snakes. Yet, chances are that you feel confident in some speaking situations and more intimidated by others where you may lack skills or practice. To help you to identify your speaking strengths and weaknesses, spend a few minutes taking the following Speaking Up Profile:

Speaking up Profile

Rate the items below from 1-5.

1=I feel very relaxed in this situation
2=I feel O.K. in this situation
3=I feel neutral in this situation
4=I feel nervous in this situation
5=I either avoid or panic in this situation

  1. Participating in a committee meeting at work or at a community organization
  2. Listening to your boss or colleague commend your work in public
  3. Attending a small dinner party with friends
  4. Giving a ten minute speech to an audience of twenty to fifty people
  5. Chairing a meeting with five to fifteen people
  6. Meeting someone new that you want to get to know
  7. Attending a large formal party of one hundred people
  8. Listening to your colleagues discuss your proposal at a meeting
  9. Conducting a workshop with an audience of fifty or more people
  10. Appearing on radio or television
  11. Being interviewed for a job or by a new client
  12. Asking a physician or other professional a series of questions about yourself
  13. Asking a total stranger for assistance
  14. Making conversation at a medium-sized party
  15. Answering impromptu questions about your work, your product, or your ideas
  16. Making a sales presentation to one person
  17. Making a sales presentation to five or more people
  18. Giving a dinner presentation to total strangers
  19. Giving a presentation to a group of people you know
  20. Trying to resolve a conflict with a co-worker
  21. Disciplining an employee
  22. Defending yourself
  23. Speaking to people you perceive to be brighter than yourself
  24. Asking for something you want
  25. Networking at a large business meeting

First of all, congratulate yourself for those items you rated 1 through 3. These are communication challenges that are easy and fruitful for you. You want to take advantage of these speaking opportunities as much as possible. For example, Ted, an introverted accountant, feels most comfortable dealing one-to-one with people. So he creates occasions where he can meet with people individually. When he does group presentations, he keeps his audience small and personal and then meets with each participant for a follow-up meeting.

Note in particular the items you rated as 4 and 5. Tanya almost passed up a promotion because it demanded that she run staff meetings, while Jonah avoided social events which restricted the growth of his network. Their fear and/or lack of experience limited their professional growth and earning capacity. So, decide which one of your 4's or 5's, you want to tackle first. ( A word of caution. If you have a history of panic attacks or an intense fear of speaking, it may be difficult to master this alone. You may want to get additional support from a speech coach, psychotherapist, or a group like Toastmasters.) Once you’ve selected your first goal, then you can use these guidelines to help you build your skill base.

To help you overcome your nervousness in most speaking situations, try the following tips:

  1. Keep a log of yourself as a communicator and look in detail at your individual patterns.
  2. In advance of a communication challenge, assertively strategize an action plan to minimize stressors for you. Joel prefers to sit down when he makes a presentation so he always asks for a stool. Barbara finds it helpful to go early to a meeting and network for a while before she is called to speak.
  3. Faithfully use the Presentation Checklist which you will find later in this topic area. Set one personal goal per presentation. For example, your goal may be: I will speak more slowly. Watch out for the demon of perfectionism.
  4. Visualize yourself successfully enacting this presentation. This mental rehearsal will increase your confidence. Some people imagine what could go wrong and plan ahead how to handle it.
  5. Learn and regularly practice a relaxation exercise and use it prior to your presentation. If you begin to get nervous, breathe deeply.
  6. Focus on communicating your message clearly to your audience. Don’t overload them. Simplicity is a communication virtue.
  7. Carefully observe people whose speaking style you admire but then adapt these techniques into your own format that reflects your personality.
  8. Compete only with yourself and acknowledge that speaking up is an ability that develops as the result of building on small incremental goals.
  9. Keep a second log of all of your successful speaking experiences and refer to it when your confidence waivers.
  10. Practice regularly and think about joining a speaking group, like Toastmasters, or taking a class to increase your expertise. If your current job has few opportunities for you to practice speaking, create them. Offer to introduce speakers or moderate a panel at your association or community group, or set up your own practice team with peers.

Our discussion here will highlight developing your presentation and meeting skills. These two areas offer you a chance to demonstrate your leadership competence, organizational and project management abilities, and facilitation mastery. As I said before, if these activities are not currently in your job description, you want find a way to exhibit your capabilities in these two arenas.

Organize Your Presentation

  1. Prepare thoroughly.
  2. Introduce your topic and indicate what you will and will not be talking about.
  3. Relate your topic directly to your audience and tell them why your information will be of interest to them. Refer to the Audience Analysis guidelines coming up.
  4. Outline a few major points and cue the audience as you go through them. For example, I will be covering three major points today and my first is...
  5. Summarize your main themes in your closing.
  6. Ask for questions from the audience and respond graciously. If you don’t know the answer, offer to find out and contact the audience member after your presentation and then do it!
  7. Evaluate your presentation. Note areas for improvement and then think about how to get help with them. Congratulate yourself on what went well and set new goals.

Presentation Checklist

Use this checklist before every major presentation or communication encounter where you feel anxious. It helps you to focus your energy on maximizing your chances for success.


My professional goal for this presentation is...
My personal goal for this presentation is...

Check off the following:

  1. I have organized my presentation to highlight my major points.
  2. I have defined all technical or ambiguous terms.
  3. I have adjusted my presentation to the knowledge and background of the audience.
  4. My presentation notes are concise and legible.
  5. I have prepared for environmental factors such as time of day, size of room, visual aids, mechanical equipment, podium, etc.
  6. I have rehearsed my presentation out loud and reviewed difficult sections.
  7. I have done my relaxation exercises and am physically warmed up and ready to speak.
  8. I have checked my personal appearance in the mirror and feel confident.
  9. I have arrived at the room early and checked the lights, microphone, seating arrangement, and visual aids.
  10. I have a worthwhile message for my audience and I am ready to turn my attention to them.

Audience Analysis

Some of the worst presentation horror stories happen because the speaker neglected to conduct a complete audience analysis. Sonya prepared a dynamic presentation for a group of professional women on managing stress. Since she only had twenty minutes, she decided to focus on the body symptoms of stress and use temperature activated stress cards to illustrate her point. Five minutes into her talk, the audience got restless and told Sonya that they already had stress cards from another presentation last year. Apparently, the program planner was a new member and was unaware of last year’s presentation. Sonya had to abandon her prepared program and improvise an exercise on coping strategies for the group. Talk about stress, Sonya learned a painful lesson.

So before you agree to do a presentation, ask a myriad of questions to insure that this doesn’t happen to you. Ask your contact person for information about the following issues in this group:

  1. age
  2. professional background or work experience
  3. sex
  4. their knowledge of the subject(prior training or other resources they have at their disposal)
  5. evidence that the audience is interested in this topic(i.e. survey results, etc.)
  6. educational level and experience
  7. cultural make-up of the group
  8. possible practical applications with your information
  9. the usual format of the meeting including length of presentation, interactive versus lecture format, special traditions of the group
  10. time for questions
  11. hunger level and if food is served
  12. space for people to write or do group exercises

Typically, you may feel like you’re pulling teeth to get the answers to these questions. Your contact person may sluff you off and say, “Oh, you’ll be fine”. But be persistent so that you are in control and prepared and don’t have an unnerving experience like Sonya’s.

Running Meaningful Meetings

As you know, there is nothing more boring than sitting through a meeting that is pointless or unfocused. It’s a common time waster. Meetings are also very costly in terms of time and productivity. So if you’re called upon to run a meeting, the first question you should ask yourself is, “Is this meeting really necessary or can I accomplish what needs to be done in a more efficient manner”? If you have a better alternative, use it. Today with E-mail, faxes, conference calls, teleconferencing, and computer networks, you have numerous options. But if you’ve decided that an in-person meeting is the best choice, then plan ahead carefully.

Before your meeting, you need to set goals. What is it that needs to be decided? What is the best possible outcome from this gathering? Write down your goals so you have them on hand. Do you need one meeting or a series of meetings to accomplish your intentions? What preparation do participants need to execute beforehand? Do you need to appoint a pre-meeting task force or obtain certain documents or have participants E-mail you agenda ideas or problems to be solved? Historically, how productive have meetings with this group been? What style meeting works best with this group? Meetings are meant to be an exchange of ideas and/or information. There are generally five purposes for meetings: to inform, train, inspire, solve problems, or resolve conflicts. What is the purpose of your meeting? Is it realistic to handle multi-purposes at this one meeting?

Secondly, take the time to analyze your participants. Consider all the people who should attend this meeting and why. More participants often make for longer meetings, so keep your list to a minimum. But also beware of the consequences of overlooking people who ought to be there. Review a staff list to make sure you have invited all the key people. If they are strangers, follow the audience analysis guidelines to help you to prepare. If the participants are people you know, then think about how they interact. Is there a loudmouth in the group who disrupts meetings with long monologues? If so, you are in charge of intervening on the group’s behalf. Is it a quiet group? Then, design activities to get people interacting and working together. Is this a group that works well together or are there festering conflicts that need to be diffused? Think about your participants in detail: their moods, their work habits, their abilities, their gripes, their pressures, their resources, their diversity, etc. Then plan a format that will guarantee that this group can meet its goals. Also, think carefully about the where and when of the meeting. Is the location convenient for everyone? Is the room comfortable and private? Is the room depressing or attractive? Would it be helpful for the meeting to be out of the office? Do you have the right equipment? How’s the lighting? What time of day is best for the group? Would snacks be an asset?

Thirdly, you need to write up an agenda and distribute it to the participants beforehand and ask for additional suggestions. As you are in charge, you must decide what agenda items fit your time frame. Think about the order of agenda topics. You may want to place the easier agenda items first so the group experiences success early on. If you have a lot of agenda items to cover, you may want to note a time allotment next to each item. A critical agenda item is assignments. At the end of a quality meeting, the chairperson needs to list out the results and assignments for each participant. If you can’t resolve an issue at the meeting, assign a study group to outline the issues or poll the participants. Clearly delineate what decisions have been made and what actions will be taken and by whom. Discuss with the group any loose ends and allocate either another time or a person to manage them. Restate conclusions to insure agreement and end on time. People respect a leader who is considerate of their time pressures and actively facilitates the agenda so that there are visible results. Distribute a written meeting summary to the group within forty-eight hours and follow-up with the study groups prior to the next meeting to make sure they are prepared with the right information. Armed with these tools, you can take advantage of growth opportunities and increase your value to your organization.