Throughout your professional and personal life, you will encounter situations inviting (or requiring) you to speak in front of a group. Whether you view public speaking as terrifying or an opportunity to shine, we all have the capacity to become more successful and persuasive public speakers.
There are a tremendous amount of resources available providing advice on what to do and to avoid in regards to public speaking. As with most things in life, there is not a one-fits-all approach to developing communications skills. The goal of this page – and the Communications Studio – is to provide advice, guidance, and resources for identifying opportunities for you to further develop your own public speaking skills, style, and voice.
Lose the awkward fillers.
The vast majority of us commit this offense, including those who love the limelight of public speaking. Make a conscious effort to drop those uh’s, um’s, like’s, you know’s, right’s, etc. from your vocabulary. Need a moment to think? Just take a breath instead.
Don’t hide behind the podium.
Sometimes it makes sense to remain steadfast behind a podium. The mic is there. There is a teleprompter. The floor around you is lava. But most of the time, a podium will make you seem smaller and removed from you audience. When you can, try to stand beside, in front, or across the stage from the podium.
Stand with a good, open posture.
By doing so, you appear more inviting to your audience, thereby making you more likeable and credible. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Push your shoulders down and back. Keep your arms open, to your sides, and not crossed in front of you.
Check out this TED Talk by Amy Cuddy to learn more about body language dynamics: Your body language shapes who you are . It introduces both how your body language conveys a message to your audience and how to physiologically ‘trick’ yourself into feeling more comfortable and confident onstage.
Strike a nice, natural balance between standing still and moving.
This is truly an art. It looks unnatural to stand in one place completely unmoving. It is distracting when a presenter moves too much, e.g. seemingly running back and forth across a stage, fidgeting, or rocking like a metronome from one foot to the next. It is difficult to strike that balance of movement, but one I challenge you to find.
Eye contact: Make it or Fake it.
This is likely to be the public speaking tip you have heard most often, and is crucial for keeping your audience engaged. You should glance at your notes or visual aids; you should look at your audience. Avoid staring down a particular audience member by selecting at least 3 individuals (or spots) to alternate where you are looking.
If making eye contact with the audience has been a challenge for you – there are ways to fake eye contact. Look at foreheads instead. Pick a spot on the wall just above the audience’s heads. Or look at empty seats.
Developing your skills
The best way to hone your public speaking skills is to practice. It is important not only to rehearse before a big presentation, but also to continually practice and refine how you practice. Below are a few different techniques that you can employ to develop your skills.
Practice in front of a mirror
A common tip, practicing your presentation while standing in front of a mirror is a great way to begin. Use this method to identify your posture, movement, and eye contact.
Practice in front of a group
Your time at the Nicholas School is an excellent opportunity to develop your public speaking skills. Take advantage of having fellow classmates with the same presentation assignment and a substantial community sharing your interests. Refine your presenting skills and elicit constructive feedback from your peers.
Actively watch presenters: professors, guest speakers, TEDTalks, your peers. Identify one thing that you can work on the next time you give a presentation. Questions to consider: what you like about their presentation style? What do you find distracting? Is there a particular habit you share with the presenter?
Videotape yourself and watch it
Arguably the most awkward and most beneficial strategies for developing your public speaking skills, videotape yourself practicing a presentation and then watch it. It will open your eyes to how an audience (may) perceive you. You’ll likely notice habitats, nervous tendencies, and areas of your speech that you are not as confident in. Just remember – you are your own biggest critic, so make sure to identify the positives too.
Join a club
There are many opportunities to practice public speaking with likeminded individuals and organizations. Toastmasters International is one example with an exceptional reputation for developing strong public speakers. Duke has 3 clubs to choose from! Find a local Toastmaster Club here.
The Toastmasters’ website contains a collection of short videos on various presentation topics, including Managing your Fear, Five Basic Tips for Presentations, and Keeping your Audience Engaged.