Top 20 Speaking Tips

We’ve learned a lot here at Articulation in our role as speaker coaches over the last two decades.  As we marked 20 years, we celebrated by compiling a list of our top 20 speaking tips. Take a look at these proven techniques to help improve your speaking performance, reduce anxiety, and avoid common pitfalls.

1. Take time to iterate.

We elevate iteration to #1. We have tested for over a decade the impact of messages, practice, storytelling and structure and know that it takes many iterations to evolve a great talk or presentation. From knowing what you think you want to say to what the audience cares about, to more crisply defining your goals and their actions, iteration of your work is central to its success. Make time for it, appreciate the messy middle, and be prepared to know at some point, it will be enough. But beware late night, last minute crammers. You will need to find other “levers” to get you to do some work earlier than normal. We promise it will pay off.

2. Seek Feedback.

Give someone else permission to be your truth teller. If you are trying to break a speaking disfluency (bad habit), want to know if your words resonate, or if you are using too much jargon, these are only achieved with another human listening. Invite someone who sees you often — who knows you and who you trust — to catch you doing good and also when you need a little correction.

3. Listen to yourself.

“We say if you aren’t willing to listen to yourself, why should your audience? Every phone has a voice recorder now, use it. You will be the first to catch when you’ve spoken too long, too technical or too boring. We know it may be painful, but that’s when the learning and growth really happens, right?

4. You have what you need.

Don’t be a collector. Most of the time when you have to assemble a presentation, you have about 80% (very scientifically proven, too) of the content you need to do so. If you are one of those insatiably curious folks, be careful. You may use a presentation as an excuse to learn and and “collect” more info, data, stories and imagery. You usually have what you need in front of you.

5. We don’t write like we speak.

The average person speaks in 8-10 words per sentence. We write, however, in sentences much longer. (Have you seen a technical paper lately?) So when we write out a speech or presentation, it tends not to be in the cadence of our breath and can sound robotic and unemotional. We recommend that you record yourself, transcribe it and then use that as any script you need. If you even need one!

6. Try “Invite” over “Should.”

Many talks we coach want to deliver advice. Or more over, we always encourage a call to action at the end. But saying “should” takes the choice from the audience, something that you want to preserve as a speaker. We love the word “invite” instead, as in “I invite you to follow our progress…” Or “We invite you to give us a million dollars..” 🙂

7. What do you want them to do?

Every one of our coaching calls begins with this question. What do you want the audience to do with the information you are about to transfer to them. Give money? Trust you? Or…. be annoyed and forget about you AND your idea? When you start with the end in mind, your entire presentation will aim for that goal. Define success first, it will come more readily later.

8. What’s at stake for your audience?

While this is hard question to answer, the follow up one is harder: “What’s at stake for them if they DON’T hear your message?” We like to call these the graduate-level WIFTs – what’s in it for them? Why should they care? Listen? or Act? If what’s at stake is only in YOUR best interest, you might want to re-think why you are giving a talk or presentation in the first place.

9. What is their question?

If you’ve ever sat in a presentation and wondered why you were there, it’s likely the speaker didn’t explain what question they were answering and why you should care about it. It’s likely they were answering a question in their own head, a perfect setup for a boring and uninspiring talk or presentation.

10. Use your breath.

Take our advice, if only once. Your breath is best tool, period. It corrects your disfluencies “Uh, Um, You know!” It gives the audience a chance to catch up with your words (especially if you are a fast talker). It fuels the quality of your voice. And it calms your nerves. Please don’t use it sparingly. It can solve a lot of challenges!

11. Prioritize take offs and landings.

A sage speechwriter once told us that no matter how fancy your title or accomplished your speaking career, starting and finishing any talk are the hardest parts of any talk. If you have to over-practice anything, make it your first line and last line. No one wants to hear you wander into your talk at the beginning or repeat your same points over and over at the end.

12. Know your rights (to images).

There are 4 kinds of images: 1. Ones you created yourself, with your own camera, hand or brush. 2. Ones you bought from someone. 3. Ones you got permission to use from someone. 4. And ones you stole. Don’t be #4 ever. Yes, that includes a random google image search. Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s yours to use.

13. Shorter takes longer.

Hemingway was right. Enough said. 🙂

14. You are the guide (not the hero).

A speaker takes the stage and proclaims they are the smartest person in the room (intentionally or unintentionally). Fundamental flaw: The audience is always the smartest in the room. They live in choice whether or not they want to take your information, believe your appeal or trust in your data. Be their guide, show them the way.

15. Story before slides.

We have a serious love/hate relationship with slides. They can really be effective in keeping an audience’s attention, aiding in their understanding and providing texture and pacing to any talk. They can also suck. So do us one favor, write out your story, outline or other content first. Then start to design what the visuals will look like. Every audience will thank you. Oh, and ps. trash, no burn, anything that resembles a bullet point.

16. Step outside your lab.

You may or may not know that over half of our work is coaching deep knowledge fields- medical research, advanced science, data and analytics. Our job is usually to help “make science accessible” – or get our smart NIH-funded types to allow a lay-person to understand what the heck they are studying, solving or breaking-through. If you are one of these folks and want a quick hack to know if your work is understandable, try to explain it to anyone outside your lab – your neighbor, a grandparent, a 6th grade kid.  Because if you only talk to your lab partners, you may not forget how important your work is the outside world, but you may forget how to communicate it to them.

Ps – Conversely: If you are actively preparing a talk for a group of investors, media or other non-scientific folks, do yourself a favor and don’t practice it with your lab friends. They will likely tell you it isn’t scientific enough may not be helpful toward reaching that lay audience.

17. It’s okay to cry.

**But it’s not okay to keep crying.

We are big believers that audiences want you to be honest with them, as uncomfortable as it might be. Vulnerability is a way to connect, and (the overused but appropriate word) authenticity is desired. But what happens if you hit a deep chord while telling a story that triggers the tears?

Let them flow.

But know the next thing you will say to keep the talk moving. Your therapist will be a little more patient to allow you to cry it out. But your audience is always on the clock, and they want to see you recover and get back to your point.  So carry a key word, phrase or image that allows you to take a breath and pivot back to your talk.

Bottom line: It’s okay to cry, it’s not ok to keep crying.

18. Let us see you.

One of the most fabled moments in Articulation’s experiences was when Ruth Milligan, during a TEDx talk rehearsal circa 2011, asked a very seasoned professor “that was a great talk but WHO ARE YOU?” Met with an incredible resistance, furrowed brow and rapid tone he replied “don’t you know WHO I AM?”

Indeed, she had no clue. And he didn’t tell her either. In his talk he revealed the genius of his research but not why he cared, what brought him to this passion or any humanistic detail that could connect to him as a person- not just a robotic generator of data.

Show us your truth, your humanity and why you— when sharing your intellectual property. Because we as audiences truly can’t connect with your knowledge until we connect with you.

19. Fast talkers, pause.

This may come as a surprise. But when we encounter a fast talker, our first piece of coaching is NOT to tell them to slow down.

It’s to pause.

Here’s a quick fact: audiences prefer us to keep our pace in our speaking. Being forced to listen at the rate of your kindergarten teacher is infuriating:  “hello… boys…and…girls….how…are….you…today?”

Conversely: news anchors speak over 150 words a minute, which is pretty darn fast. But why don’t they seem fast?

First, they have incredible breath control and enunciation . And they pass off the show to correspondents in the field, allowing the mind to “jolt” into seeking meaning from the hand off.

But when you talk that fast in a continuous loop (and maybe with some ummms, ahhs, and words slurring together) our brains can’t keep up. We can’t process because you don’t pause.

The image we use is an oscillating sprinkler…  the kind that flows back and forth. We say be the sprinkler with your words, allowing the audience to absorb and prepare for the next cycle. If you are a fire hose, all we feel is drenched by them.

Sentences have periods for a reason. Use the same “pausing punctuation” when you talk, especially if you like speaking in the fast lane.

20. Have fun.

Most talks or presentations are met with long runways of messy work, heavy doses of self-doubt, and seemingly endless iterations. So when we say to a client, “Just have fun,” it seems a little counter to the task. But in truth, the brain needs a reminder that a mindset of “fun” will get you closer to a “performance” and further away from a “chore.”  You don’t need to be a comedian or acrobat. As much as audiences want to learn from you, they want to be entertained even more. The first place that starts is with you having a good time with it. So, go, have fun.


Looking for more inspiration? Check out Ruth’s Top 20 Talks.