9 Tips for Becoming an Effective Public Speaker

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Talk Like TED" by Carmine Gallo. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to improve your public speaking skills? How can you become an effective public speaker?

Being a an effective public speaker is one of the most powerful talents you can possess. According to Carmine Gallo, the key to becoming a effective public speaker is applying nine key principles, including speaking with passion, incorporating an element of surprise, and presenting something new to your audience.

Keep reading for what it takes to become an effective public speaker.

How Can You Become an Effective Public Speaker?

According to communications coach Carmine Gallo, the key to becoming an effective public speaker lies in learning to “talk like TED”—in other words, applying nine principles of effective public speaking that frequently feature in successful TED talks.

Tip 1: Speak About Something You Are Passionate About

Choosing a topic that you’re passionate about is important for a number of reasons. First, if you deeply care about the subject you’re about to talk about, you’re less likely to feel nervous about your presentation. You’ll be so excited about getting to share your passion with the world that the idea of your speech going wrong won’t even cross your mind. 

Second, when you’re passionate about your topic, you’re likely to speak  enthusiastically. You’ll therefore be more interesting to watch than a bored and lackluster speaker. People are more likely to actually pay attention to you and what you’re saying, and your message is more likely to sink in.

Finally, studies have shown that feelings are contagious—they spread from person to person. Therefore, if you speak with passion, your audience will feel your excitement, and they’ll listen intently to what you’re saying.

Tip 2: Use Storytelling

Including stories in your presentations is important for four reasons. First, stories are much more likely to engage your audience than other methods of sharing information. For example, imagine you’re giving a speech to potential customers about the effectiveness of your new product. Telling a gripping story about how your product has already helped an important client will be much more exciting than listing statistics about the product’s efficacy. 

Second, people are more likely to understand a concept if you tell them a story about how it works in the “real world.” For example, imagine you’re giving a presentation about a complicated new sales process that you’ve been testing out for a while, but that your team has yet to adopt. Your team members will probably understand the new process much quicker if, rather than bombarding them with the dry theory of how it works, you tell them a story about a sale you’ve made while using it. You can use your story to guide them through each step of the new process, thus illustrating how it works.     

Third, stories can serve as “proof” that the claims you’re making are legitimate. For instance, if you’re making a sales pitch that details how great your new product or service is, potential customers will want to see evidence that backs up your claims before they become willing to part with their money. Real-life stories about how your product or service has already benefited customers will provide this evidence. 

Finally, stories can influence your audience’s thoughts and emotions. Studies have shown that when people listen to a story, they experience identical brain function to the person telling the tale. For instance, if the storyteller experiences increased function in the area of the brain dedicated to emotion, so does the listener. This neurological connection allows speakers to “plant” certain ideas and emotions in their listeners’ minds. For example, if you want your audience to feel excited about a new product, tell a story that makes you feel excited about it. The audience’s brains will automatically mimic your emotion.

Tip 3: Present Something New

The next tip for becoming an effective public speaker is using your talk to present something new. This new content can take two possible forms:

1) Information that was previously completely unknown to your audience—for instance, a little-known fact about your area of specialty. 

Make this information as niche and unexpected as possible to maximize the chances that your audience hasn’t heard it before. For example, if your area of expertise is space, present new information based on cutting-edge research that the general public probably isn’t aware of yet.

2) An innovative new solution to an old and well-known problem—possibly even a fix for an issue that previously seemed unsolvable. For example, when Albanian politician Edi Rama gave a TED talk in 2012, he presented a novel and unorthodox solution to the long-standing issue of crime in Albanian cities: painting previously dull and gray Soviet-era buildings in bright colors.

Tip 4: Include an Element of Surprise

According to neuroscientists, elements of surprise are memorable because they’re “emotionally charged”: Our emotions are heightened. 

Research has shown that when the brain recognizes we’re experiencing an emotionally charged event, it begins to perceive things more vividly. We internalize even the tiniest details of what’s happening around us. Therefore, the memories we create of the event are much more comprehensive. 

For instance, if you think back to the morning of September 11, 2001, you probably remember everything from where you were, to who you were with, to how those people reacted. Because you were experiencing an emotionally charged event, your brain absorbed all of these details. In comparison, you may sometimes struggle to recall where your keys are. Since putting your keys down wasn’t an emotionally charged event, the details of what you did with them failed to stick in your mind.

Other studies have shown that emotionally charged events are memorable because they cause the brain to release dopamine. This is a hormone which, as well as being associated with pleasure, has the secondary effect of aiding information processing and helping to create memories.  

Tip 5: Use Humor

Incorporating humor into public speaking is important because, according to research, it will increase your likability in various ways:

  • Humor makes a good first impression on strangers, particularly in group settings. Therefore, using it is a simple way to gain favor from an unfamiliar audience. 
  • Making people smile or laugh puts them at ease. The more relaxed you make people feel, the more likely they are to like you. 
  • If people believe that you have a good sense of humor, they’re more likely to associate other positive traits with you, too—for example, friendliness, emotional stability, and consideration for others. These are all qualities that will make you even more well-liked.

Ultimately, the more your audience likes you, the more likely they are to listen to and support what you have to say. 

What Types of Humor Should You Use?

There are many different types of humor, from telling knock-knock jokes to making sarcastic comments. However, only four forms should be incorporated into speeches and presentations:

1) Sharing an anecdote: Telling a short, amusing story about an experience you—or possibly someone else—had. For example, during her TED talk about her stroke, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor related a humorous anecdote about her thought process when she realized that she was unwell. First, she couldn’t stop thinking about how “cool” it was that she—a neuroscientist—could study her own stroke. Then, she realized with annoyance that she was far too busy to be having a stroke.

2) Making an analogy: Humorously drawing attention to the ways in which two different things are similar. For instance, in a 2012 TED talk, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt compared two different situations that had similarly bad consequences: attempting to run Congress without encouraging social relationships between its members, and to trying to drive a car that doesn’t have any motor oil. 

3) Quoting someone else’s humor: This “someone else” could be anyone from a friend, to a famous person, to a stranger you met on the subway. For instance, the author Carmen Agra Deedy added humor to her 2005 TED talk by quoting some of the witticisms of her mother. Quoting is an easy way of using humor because you don’t have to spend time devising your own funny comment or anecdote. 

4) Showing a funny video or picture: This could be a picture or video you’ve produced yourself, or—to make things even easier for yourself—one created by someone else. For example, when Kevin Allocca—YouTube’s Head of Culture and Trends—gave a TED talk on why videos go viral, he played his audience a number of amusing viral clips. 

Tip 6: Engage Your Audience’s Senses

The next principle of effective public speaking is presenting content that triggers multiple senses. For instance, give your audience something to look at—such as PowerPoint slides—as well as something to listen to—such as your voice.

Triggering multiple senses is important when making a speech or presentation because it’ll help your audience to remember what you’ve said. Research has shown that multisensory experiences are much more memorable than single-sense experiences. For instance, in one study, students were more likely to recall information from a lesson if that information had triggered two senses—sight and sound— rather than just one. Their brains created both visual and auditory models of the information, making it much easier to recall in the future.

Tip 7: Be Brief

Keeping your talks and presentations brief is important for three reasons:

1) It prevents your audience from becoming too tired to listen to you. Research has demonstrated that the brain uses up a lot of glucose as it absorbs information, thus making listening to a speech or presentation incredibly tiring. If you talk for too long, you risk depleting your audience’s glucose levels to the extent that they simply don’t have the energy to keep listening. In contrast, if you only talk for a short time, your audience will hopefully not only have enough energy to take in your ideas, but extra energy left over that they can then use to share and act on your ideas. 

2) It takes the pressure off your listeners. Studies have shown that the longer a speaker talks, the more anxious their audience becomes as they realize just how much information they’re being expected to absorb. In extreme cases, this anxiety becomes so overwhelming that the audience simply stops listening and disengages from the speaker’s ideas entirely. By keeping your talk short, you can avoid this situation.

3) It promotes discipline as you craft your talk. If you know that you only have a limited time to speak, you’ll put more effort into only expressing your key ideas and cutting out “fluff.” 

What If You Have to Speak for a Long Time?

Sometimes, you can’t avoid speaking for a long time—for instance, if your manager orders you to give a one-hour presentation to your colleagues. In such situations, every 10 minutes, take a “break” from the complex ideas of your talk. For instance, you could play a light-hearted video that’s still relevant to your topic, but is less mentally taxing to comprehend than the facts and statistics that are the main “meat” of your talk. 

Including breaks will give your audience’s brains a rest from listening to you, making it more likely that they’ll have the energy to take in the rest of your talk. Likewise, it’ll briefly remove the pressure on your audience to take in complex ideas, thus preventing them from becoming overwhelmed and mentally “checking out” from your presentation. 

Tip 8: Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

Once you’ve fully planned your speech or presentation, practice it again and again. If you don’t rehearse before you speak, you won’t know your talk’s structure or content very well. As you present, you’ll spend all of your mental energy contemplating logistical issues such as when to move on to the next slide and what’s actually on the next slide. Consequently, you won’t have the focus required to state your ideas clearly and smoothly. 

You might think that the most important element of practicing your presentation is memorizing its content. This is undoubtedly important—you don’t want to get up on stage only to find that you can’t remember what you’re supposed to be talking about. However, there are three other things you need to practice as well. These are:

  1. Verbal delivery. Verbal delivery is how you say the words you’ve prepared. It involves many factors, such as how loudly you speak, the pitch of your speech, and how often you pause between points. 
  2. Confident body language. Rehearse holding your body in a way that suggests you’re sure of yourself and your opinions. If you fail to appear confident in your convictions, your audience will trust you and your opinions less. After all, why would they believe or agree with what you’re saying if you don’t seem certain of it yourself?
  3. Hand gestures. As you speak, don’t simply hide your hands in your pockets. Instead, use gestures to add emphasis to what you’re saying. For example, if you’re talking about how much a problem has grown in size, create a small circle with your hands and expand it.

Tip 9: Be Yourself

Finally, an effective public speaker is someone who lets their true personality shine through as they speak. For example, if you’re a naturally calm and measured speaker, don’t go on stage and fake being exuberant. Likewise, if you’re a naturally enthusiastic presenter, don’t tone down this element of your personality because you feel you need to be “serious” in professional situations.

Part of being yourself during a speech or presentation is allowing yourself to be emotionally vulnerable: giving yourself permission to express your true emotions as you speak. For example, if you’re giving a presentation a product that you’ve created, don’t be afraid to let your audience know that you’ve poured your heart and soul into the product and deeply care about its success. Likewise, if you tell a personal story during a speech, be honest about the emotional impact of the events you’re relating.

9 Tips for Becoming an Effective Public Speaker

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  • The 9 key principles to good public speaking
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  • How storytelling enhances your appeal to audiences

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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