Five keys to mastering public speaking

A good speech should recognize the merits of various people but firstly yours as the speaker, the experts say

Ruben Montenegro

The renowned American novelist Mark Twain used to say that there are two types of speakers: those who are nervous and those who lie. Our level of nervousness varies depending on what we have to speak about and to whom. There are lots of occasions when we have to speak in public, be it in front of coworkers at a meeting, at a neighborhood gathering, or giving a toast at our best friend’s wedding. And even though we were never taught how to do this at school, or have had some bad experiences, it is possible to train yourself to be a better public speaker – if you know how. In her book The Brave Method (Método Bravo), Mónica Galán covers five keys to speaking well in public.

The first step is to make a strong introduction. We need to invest time and energy into the opening of a speech. We should steer clear of words such as “Well...” or “You know,” which only reveal that we are a nervous wreck. Mónica suggests beginning with one of the following ideas: telling a story that gets the audience hooked, starting off with a surprising statistic or fact, or asking an attention-grabbing question, such as: “How many of us would like to earn more money?” If we start by thanking, or talking about, all the individuals present (a classic move in formal speeches), the audience will tune out within the first minute.

Our insecurities and doubts are reflected in our gestures, which we are not always aware of

Recognition is the second key. A good speech should recognize the merits of various people but firstly yours as the speaker. If your audience members are already aware of your achievements this might not be necessary, but if not, you can tell them an anecdote about your experience or career. Keep in mind, you must be careful not to come off as too pretentious (unless you are in the United States, where they have entirely different views on the subject). You should also thank the audience for their time and attention. Even though we may feel rude, this “thank you” should come after we speak about ourselves and not before.

The third key to public speaking is to establish authority. We can do this with both verbal and non-verbal language. The best way to calm our nerves is to carefully study what we are going to talk about. But our emotions and personality come out when we are speaking in front of people. Our insecurities or doubts are reflected in our gestures, which we are not always aware of. So as we prepare ourselves, we also need to work on our self-confidence. Mónica Galán sums it up in one sentence: if you want to speak well in public, you have to think well in private.

Facts speak to the audience, but stories win them over James Carville and Paula Begala

Value is another important element. We must offer something to the people listening, because their time is valuable but their attention is worth more. One way to hook your audience is to tell stories. This is how we learn as children and continue to learn as adults. As White House public relations representatives James Carville and Paula Begala put it: “If you don’t communicate through stories, you don’t communicate. Facts speak to the audience, but stories win them over.”

The last step is the grand finale. There are many ways to close a speech: with an emotional personal story, by repeating a main message like Martin Luther King did in his “I have a dream” speech, or by finishing with a famous quote or proverb. In other words, we have to end with a message that will stick in the audience’s mind.

Public speaking can be wonderful if you feel prepared and put into practice these tools. The good news is that you can train and adapt each point to your personality, because, as Voltaire said, “all styles are good except the boring kind.”

 English version by Laura Rodríguez.


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