Online Public Speaking

Training & Practice

How to Present to an Audience - Part 2 of 3

4) To read, or not to read

You’re at the podium now. You’re full of positive energy, you’re ready to be sincere, your body language is dialed in, and you have a well written presentation.

It’s time to speak.

But wait – are you going to read your speech?

The answer is preferably not.

Listening to someone read a speech can be pretty boring. We once watched an attorney reading a “speech” to a group of real estate agents (this speech was nothing more than reading pages out of a law book!). He literally had his head down and traced the pages with his finger.  His words were very boring and technical. The audience, needless to say, was horribly bored. The fact that he was an “expert” might have saved him, but it’s hard to call that presentation a success.

The trouble is, not everyone can memorize an entire speech, or should. If you’re trying to get a lot of ideas, information, or technical data across to the audience, how is this possible unless you have a teleprompter or a photographic memory?

There are two options.

Option one is to memorize most of your words and concepts and use an outline as a guide, filling in the presentation with well prepared information that you know well and are passionate about. This is really the ideal method depending on the situation because it sounds more natural and extemporaneous.

The second option is to have a full speech in front of you, but still memorize most of it and just glance at it periodically for a reminder. Be careful about this method, as it may sound canned and unnatural, and makes reading tempting.

In either case, an audience will rarely find checking a piece of paper on a podium to be unprofessional or inappropriate. Steady reading can cause that, but glancing is generally expected and accepted.

These are two good options. There is another.

Advanced public speakers often memorize themes or have a list of ideas in front of them to remind them of what they want to say, yet nothing more. No pre-written speech or words. This is an advanced technique so we’re not going to recommend it at this stage, we just want to point it out as food for thought.  If you know your material cold, it might be worth a shot, but for most beginning public speakers this is going to present an unnecessarily difficult challenge. 

We recommend trying different methods until you find one that works for you. Some people don’t do well when they try to memorize a speech, so memorizing the concepts and just using an outline is better for them. Others prefer to have predetermined speech to recount almost word for word.

5) Tempo, tone of voice, volume, non-words, and eye contact

You just started to speak. You already either memorized your speech and have a copy of it for reference, or you memorized the concepts and ideas and have an outline as a guide.

Either way, you have to choose a tempo for your words. Most people tend to speak faster when they give a presentation. This is probably due to the extra  energy they are experiencing. One troubling element of this is that a presentation intended or required to last x number of minutes now lasts only y number of minutes, and the speaker can suddenly be worrying that he’s finishing too soon, or worse, running out of things to say.

Another problem with speaking too quickly is it may limit breathing, which can exacerbate nervousness (more on this in our public speaking fear section).

We recommend that you speak a little more slowly than you are normally inclined. This may seem uncomfortable at first, but your presentation will sound more  natural than you think it does. It may also make you seem more relaxed to the audience and give you more time to breathe, which will have the added benefit of making you less nervous!

To decide how fast you want to speak in your next presentation, here’s a great idea: When it’s time, go to our live practice area, try a few presentations out with a practice audience, and ask the “audience” which tempo they liked best. Note it down and use it at your next presentation in the brick and mortar world!

As for your tone of voice, this isn’t always something you can magically alter, but we do all use different tones of voice in our daily lives, often without even realizing it. We won’t spend a lot of time on this; just remember you need to be aware of which tone you prefer to use when you’re speaking publicly. Consider your audience and give it some practice in the live practice area and you’ll soon have know which tone works most effectively for you.

It’s time to discuss eye contact. There are too many “experts” who recommend that the nervous public speaker not engage in eye contact with the audience. “Look above the heads of the audience members”, they say. We completely disagree: If you want to do a great job with an audience, especially an audience who can tell where you are looking, make and maintain some eye contact with the people in the audience. It is actually off-putting if the speaker is clearly staring at the ceiling to avoid eye contact.  

The audience is much more likely to stay engaged with a speaker who looks them in the eye than with a speaker who does not.

The ideal method is to make eye contact briefly with as many audience members as you possibly can, unless your point is directed towards a specific individual, and then it makes sense to make eye contact with that person. Spend about the same amount of time looking at each person—try one sentence per audience member, and then move on. If you look at one person for too long or too often, they may either fall in love with you or become uncomfortable; if you look at someone too little compared to others they may feel neglected or even offended.