Careers advice

Core leadership skills: how to improve your public speaking

How to gain the gift of the gab.

Becoming a leader in business brings a host of changes and challenges, especially if you’ve come up through the hierarchy of your organisation.

One of the things that you’ll need to get used to in your new leadership role is an increased amount of public speaking. Think heading departmental meetings, reporting to the wider leadership team and, on occasion, perhaps addressing the entire organisation on the progress of bigger pieces of work.

For a lucky few, this might not seem like a big deal. However, for the vast majority, public speaking is something that brings a certain degree of trepidation, and isn’t something that comes naturally. If this sounds familiar, this is the article for you. We’ve pulled together some top tips and tricks to help you develop the key leadership skill of public speaking.

How to improve your public speaking skills

1. Accept your nervousness

You may think that ‘conquering’ public speaking comes at the point that you no longer feel nervous beforehand. Wrong. Even the most seasoned public speakers, stage musicians and actors feel a degree of anxiety ahead of addressing or performing in front of a group (the ones who claim they don’t are lying).

What is true, however, is that, with time, you’ll get better at handling these nerves by learning preparation techniques that give you confidence in what you’re about to do. However, when you’re just starting out, you just need to accept that nervousness is natural. In fact, it’s actually a good thing, the pre-talk jitters come from your body releasing adrenaline, which, when harnessed, can improve your focus and overall performance.

Nerves are a part of public speaking, you just need to get them under control.

2. Practice your breathing

One of these coping mechanisms we alluded to above is breathing. Controlled breathing is crucial when delivering a speech as this will have a large impact on your ability to regulate your volume, tone and voice pitch, which are all crucial aspects of good speechcraft. 

“Take deep breaths” may sound like a cliché when it comes to reducing nervousness, but it’s said for a reason. Breathing deeply, and from your stomach (your diaphragm, to be precise) allows you to properly fill your lungs, and this intake of oxygen tells your brain that you’re okay, and helps to reduce panic. 

We’d recommend practising this breathing technique on its own before you try to do it while speaking. Breathe in slowly, and from your belly, for a count of four, and then exhale for a count of four.

3. Rehearse your material thoroughly

It’s one thing to have a vague idea of what you’re going to say, and another to be intimately familiar with your speech.

Reading from notes is never a good look, and it means you have far fewer opportunities to interact with your audience. This calls for a degree of memorisation, although it’s standard practice to bring in notes with some prompts to refer to when needed. The most obvious benefit of going over your speech thoroughly before you make it is that you’re more likely to be able to recover if you lose your place. This happens even to well seasoned-speakers, but it’s all about how quickly you can regain your composure and continue. Having an in-depth understanding of the structure of your speech, and which sections should follow on from others will be a huge help to getting back on track quickly.

Secondly, your practice can reveal areas to work on that you might not have previously considered. Here, we’re talking about things like speed, tone and body language. To help get these things right we’d recommend videoing yourself or delivering your speech to a friend or family member once you’re feeling confident enough. We know this can seem excruciating, especially as no one likes listening back to the sound of their own voice on a recording, but this is where you can iron out any little issues and end up with a much more polished performance. 

Sometimes, being still is the most powerful way to deliver your point.

4. Consider your body language

Many a good speech has been undermined by poor or distracting body language. Among some of the most common culprits are:

  • Unnecessary pacing – if standing, depending on the size of the space, some movement is good, but too much can be a distraction.
  • Hand fidgeting – if you know you're the type of person who will twirl a pen around your fingers, don’t bring one with you. Remove anything you reasonably can that you might be tempted to mess about with.
  • Over-exaggerated hand movements – of course, some hand gestures can be used to underline a key point, but choose your moments. Sometimes, being still is the most powerful posture.

YouTube can be a great resource here. Try searching for examples of great public speakers and watch how they use their body language to emphasise their points.

5. Know what you want to get across

Good speeches grab the audience from the beginning and re-emphasise their key takeaways at the end so that these points are indeed taken away. This means you’ll need to structure your speech carefully, thinking about:

  • How long you’ve got to speak – it’s very poor form to take up more than your allocated time. But equally, you don’t want to burn through your talk and be done too early. Again, this is where practising your material is vital. 
  • Your audience – what do they need to know, and how’s best to get this across? This will likely differ between an informal weekly catch-up and an important pitch to the board of your organisation.
  • The must-knows – think in advance what are the two or three things you most want your audience to come away understanding? If you’re practising with a friend or family member, get their feedback – what have they taken from your talk?

There are two other important things to mention here. Firstly, injecting humour and your personality are good things, but should be used in moderation. No one likes to listen to a dry speech, but also remember that you’re not a stand-up comedian – keep things on track. 

Secondly, if you’re going to use audio-visual (AV) elements in your presentation, consider carefully if they really add something, and how they work with the flow of your speech . There’s nothing worse than a dynamic and engaging speech being put on pause while you fiddle with a PowerPoint presentation or projector. Also, while well-used bullet points on a slide can help the audience stay with you, don’t start reading off your slides or turning your body away from the audience when you talk.

6. Make use of speechcraft clubs

As we mentioned, struggling with public speaking is very common. As a result, there are plenty of clubs and groups you can join that will help you hone your skills. When it comes to this key leadership skill, there really is no substitute for practice, so such organisations are very much worth considering.

7. Get feedback on your public speaking

Ultimately, the only way you get better at something is by practising, and improving on the aspects that need to be improved upon. But working out what these areas are for yourself can be tough, and this is where feedback comes in.

Even as a people leader, you’re likely to still have a manager yourself, and this is often the best possible person to provide constructive criticism of your public speaking, so you know where you need to improve. And, as your manager is unlikely to be a mindreader, they need to know that this is something you’re looking to get better at, and something you’d welcome their feedback on.

Ideally, you’ll weave public speaking into your professional development programme, so that it becomes a goal that you can work towards over time, with specific, targeted mini objectives along the way. This way, you can take a truly holistic approach that looks at everything from planning a talk through to delivering it and ensuring your message gets across.

Of course, as part of this, you need to be willing to accept the feedback, take it on board and think about how to make the necessary changes. As long as you’re both constructive in your approach to this process, it’s one that can really pay dividends.