Public Speaking Success Requires This, Not That

The idea that every talk will be flawlessly thought provoking is obviously wrong. What’s less noticeable is that aiming for perfection amplifies fear and substantially increases workloads.

Photo: Diane Rubino, Activist, Humanitarian, and Consultant; Source: Courtesy Photo
Photo: Diane Rubino, NYU Graduate Studies Instructor, Activist, Humanitarian, and Consultant; Source: Courtesy Photo

A national fixation about public speaking phobia obscures a prosaic truth: By recognizing and rejecting your own unreasonable expectations and adopting a few simple strategies, you can make preparation less taxing and get better results.

Despite the superficial differences among the graduate students and professionals I coach, they have a remarkably similar self-defeating approach, making them the least likely to succeed.


Progress, not perfection

The most crippling obstacles are self-imposed.

Wherever there’s a lengthy delay, I find a speaker with great expectations. I asked Peter, for example, why he’d delayed giving his short talk for a year.* In response, the organic farmer expressed frustration with his presentation. He wanted to describe the chemical composition of four cuisines to laypeople. Peter rejected my suggestion that this was too much information for the time limit (5 – 7 minutes) and audience. He deemed my simple alternative—describing one dish from each style—“boring.”

Then I asked Peter to focus on his goal, which was to become a skilled speaker. When I highlighted the mismatch between his straightforward aim and complex speech, he realized he was sabotaging himself. Then we discussed straightforward questions, such as “How can you organize the material?” In about fifteen minutes Peter drafted an outline with an opening hook, an inspirational close, and a handout.

Other would-be speakers tell me they’re hampered by embarrassment or fear of sounding “stupid.” I ask these people if they’ve ever made a mistake in public. We share a smile when I point out they’ve survived earlier gaffes.

The idea that every talk will be flawlessly thought provoking is obviously wrong. What’s less noticeable is that aiming for perfection amplifies fear and substantially increases workloads.

Accepting fallibility is common sense. But it is not common practice.

Psychologist and business coach Douglass B. Clark fosters more realistic expectations. He reminds clients, “Your presentation doesn’t have to be great. It doesn’t even have to be good. It just has to be good enough.”


Carpenter’s rule: measure twice, cut once

After enduring countless mistimed presentations, I believe that most people write too much. Even when they rehearse, speakers run out of time—often before delivering important ideas, ending their talks in disarray. Others confuse audiences with a breakneck delivery speed. In either case, the opportunity to share knowledge is foiled.

“Presenters are trying to educate audiences about a topic,” explains Columbia University communications lecturer Jesse Scinto. “To do that well, you have to understand how audiences learn. Most speakers use too many words, too many images, too many graphics. They’re unaware that audiences have capacity limitations when it comes to learning. We can only hold so many things in our active memory at once.”


Photo: © Monkey Business, YFS Magazine
Photo: © Monkey Business, YFS Magazine

Most speakers have time limits. Yet they’re unaware how to use this information. Instead, those I coach write whatever’s on their mind. What lands on the page becomes their presentation.

“I used to start by writing a report,” Reynolds recalls. “Then I would identify themes from that. That’s part of what takes so long—you spend so much time paring down, rather than writing.”

But the answer to one question will transform your public speaking process: How many words do you speak a minute? A quick calculation will save you a great deal of time.

Record yourself reading aloud for 60 seconds at a comfortable pace. Paste that text into a word document and use the word-count function—this is your words-per-minute rate. Multiplying this number by the allotted time provides a reliable estimate of how much to write.

For example, I speak 130 words per minute. For a ten-minute talk, I write 1300 words. You’ll be surprised at how little you should write, compared to what you do write.


Answers lie not in our computers, but in ourselves

Experts advise starting a presentation by considering audience interests. I begin earlier in the pipeline by asking struggling presenters, “What are you talking about?” A majority will reach for a physical object—laptop, notes, books—to grasp for answers “out there.” I then instruct people to put down the materials and talk directly to me.** Knowing they can articulate ideas without assistance has a calming effect as people realize they know more than they think they do.

There’s much to be gained by discussing the content before writing. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the information available on a topic. Even with fewer resources, it can still be hard to organize material and determine what’s important.

A short chat is more helpful than text or email exchanges. I find even the most tentative can unearth basic organizing principles during a conversation. Those with limited knowledge can more easily identify where they need to do more homework. Grounded in a clear structure, then they can focus on audience needs.


A humble suggestion

These effective public speaking techniques are easily adopted because they don’t require special training. Yet protégés often resist the changes. So my last suggestion is humble: do one thing differently for your next talk. I suggest forgiving yourself in advance for making mistakes.

“Perfectionism is a demon,” says Clark. “What connects is authenticity, not smooth polish. It is always better to speak from the heart with conviction. That will connect.”


* The identifying details in this true story have been changed.
** This insight comes from social demographer and policy analyst Ashish Bajracharya.


This article has been edited and condensed.

Diane Rubino, a graduate school instructor at New York University, is an activist, humanitarian, and consultant. She has spent the past 25 years helping people communicate and lead more effectively. Rubino has worked with audiences in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Rubino earned her degrees from New York University, where she now teaches. She also runs workshops to help individuals build their skills in areas like expressing personal values in difficult circumstances. She spent summer 2015 in Turkey as an applied communications scholar conducting workplace diplomacy sessions. Rubino’s primary aim is to help make the world more healthy, humane, and peaceful. Connect with @nyuniversity on Twitter.


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