Ten Unusual Tips for Public Speakers

Here are a few unusual tips for public speakers, no matter your setting. These are not your standard tips… it’s stuff I don’t think I’ve ever read, but have learned the hard way, in three decades of public speaking. Here we go:

1. Gesture backwards. Do a quick experiment: count out loud to five, and gesture with your right hand to indicate each number as you say it. Which way did your hand move? We read left to right. Most of us gesture that direction. A public speaker should gesture backwards, so your audience sees it from left to right. So, if you’re outlining America’s wars, you would go from right to left: Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I, World War II, etc. Ditto for physical movement across the stage. Place the Jews in Egypt on the stage right (your right), and then step to the left to talk about the Red Sea, and more to the left to talk about the wanderings in the wilderness, and then even more to the left to talk about the Promised Land. Your backwards is your audience’s forwards. Get it?

2. Speak in the singular, not the plural. Speaking in the singular helps close the emotional distance between you and your audience. When you speak in the plural, you subtly add to that distance. For example, when you say, “Please turn off your cell phones,” your listener feels (without thinking) “I didn’t bring cell phones; I just brought a cell phone.” I do not say, “Open your Bibles to John 3:16.” I say, “Open your Bible” because each person only has one. Sometimes I use the plural on purpose: “Some here today have never made the choice of faith…” But that’s intentional. Otherwise, you should always try to close the distance between you and your audience by speaking in the singular. That’s how you create intimacy.

3. Love consonants. Articulate. The great orators pronounce every consonant, especially final consonants. They don’t get lazy and mumble their words’ last syllables. Babies make unintelligible vowel sounds with weak consonants at the begining… goo goo gaa gaa.  Grown ups close their vowel sounds with crisp consonants at the end. The oldest listener with the most obsolete hearing aid should have no problem deciphering your words. For years I have told preaching students to slow down. Now I tell them to articulate; it automatically makes them slow down. It also forces them to pause more frequently, a very good habit of public speakers.

4. Second person, please. One can only do damage to one’s speaking abilities when one insists on the third person mode of address. Yuchh. I want to get down and dirty and get in your face. Again, if you do it right, you’ll create intimacy; your talk will feel like a conversation.

5. Microphone management. If you have to hold it, hold it super-close. Don’t tap it. Don’t say, “Am I on?” Don’t pop your P’s straight into it; speak across the top, sending your breath into the distance, not into the mic. If you get feedback, and there’s a sound board operator, pull it away, but then bring it right back so the operator can adjust. If there’s no operator, good luck. When you get loud, pull back from the mic. You don’t need volume, you just need intensity, and that will translate without the mic up close. Watch how Frank Sinatra moves the mic in and out. Yeah, like that.

6. Notes on one side. Don’t use both sides of the paper for your notes. Just use one side. That way, your audience won’t mark time every time you flip over a sheet. Slide them, don’t flip them.

7. Don’t look at your watch. Take it off and set it on your podium. If you keep checking your wrist, your audience will join you. Or set your iPhone timer on your podium. Make sure your ringer is off. I learned the hard way — during a radio interview — that the timer’s alarm will sound even with the toggle switch for sound turned off. Ugh. P.S., end on time.

8. Don’t shade your eyes. Bright lights and a dim audience put you at a disadvantage; don’t admit it. Don’t even hint at it.  Only a rookie would say, “Wow, it’s dark in here and these lights are blinding; I can’t see anybody!” You’ve just signed a permission slip for the rowdies to goof off. Again, you’ve created emotional distance — a big mistake. Instead, look into the darkness and make eye contact with nothingness. Do this in random places, all across the space where you think your audience is. Don’t shade your eyes; it’s unprofessional. If you’re early enough, you can work with the light-board operator to find out what your settings will be, and negotiate accordingly.

9. Deliver valuable content. Substance makes up for style [almost] every time. Have something to say — something valuable, and rich, and deep. Especially if you’re a preacher. Sermons should offer meat, not just milk. Give deep truths your audience really needs. We do not enter the pulpit to entertain, nor to make a name for ourselves. We stand and deliver the oracles of God, straight from the Written Word of God, to spread a feast before the people of God. An audience will forgive unpolished speaking if they feel they’ve obtained valuable content, as long as it’s well-organized. Unless you’re Jerry Seinfeld, don’t do a talk about nothing.

10. It’s not about you. Nobody cares how excited you are to be there. They may be excited to hear you, but that’s not the point. All that up-front gushing about how cool it is you got to speak to this group is back-asswards. Instead of telling them how you feel about yourself, tell them how the world feels about them (I’m assuming you’re a guest speaker at a one-time event, not a regular preacher to the same people, in which case they’ll get sick of this really fast, so skip it). For example, “I want you to know that everywhere I go, I hear about your church [say name] and the great things [specify] you are doing. In the pastor groups I’m part of, I want you to know how highly respected your pastor is. When Pastor Melchizedek speaks, other pastors take notes. I’m honored to be here.” Something like that. Don’t be a false flatterer and don’t lie. And never undercut your own credentials (=credibility) by saying how unworthy you are to be there. Just honor your audience and get beyond yourself so you can bless your listeners.

What are some tips you have learned? Or some pet peeves you’ve seen?

How to Handle Stage Fright

I speak in public; I am a preacher. Most weekends I speak 4 times to a total audience of a couple thousand people.  Public speaking is the normal person’s greatest fear — so say the statistics. I have stage fright, yet I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. It’s been said that Johnny Carson had stage fright before every show. He kept paper clips on his desk so he could fiddle with them during the program.

For my first two years as a pastor, I was sick to my stomach before I preached (not barfing, but the other end… sorry… ). So while everyone was preparing to start our church services, I was in the bathroom… Ugh.

I have not fully conquered stage fright; but I’m able to manage my fears and get the job done. Here are some hard-won tips:

  1. PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE. You can reduce a whole lot of fear through thorough preparation. Know your topic, know your main points. I am a manuscript preacher and like to write out my whole sermon. That doesn’t work for everybody — you have to find what works for you. There is no excuse, however, for a preacher, or any public speaker, who wings it. Lazy prep is our unpardonable sin. Prepare well, especially…
  2. FOCUS ON YOUR OPENING. If you don’t want to write out your whole talk, at least try writing the opening. The hardest part is getting started. Once you’re going, you’ll do great. Spend extra time figuring out your exact opening words and sentences. This may include a thank you to whoever introduced/invited you. It may include a Scripture verse (easy, because it gives you permission to read, thus getting your voice properly modulated). Whatever gets the ball rolling, prepare it well.
  3. USE HUMOR. If it suits your topic, use humor. Make sure your funny story contributes to your overall theme — a random joke will come across as just that. But if you have a funny illustration, story, or opening that is RELEVANT to the group, use it.
  4. ARRIVE EARLY TO NAIL DOWN LOGISTICS. Come long before the crowd arrives. Stand behind the podium. Look across the empty chairs. Figure out how to arrange your notes. Do your sound check. Find the clock. Know your stop time (don’t look at your watch unless you want the whole audience to follow suit). Find out how you will be introduced. Find out where you will stand/sit before you speak. That last thing you want is to have to pick your way around instruments, or to discover you have no podium for your notes, right when you’re beginning to speak. No surprises. Do not come late; do not make yourself feel rushed. Yikes! Getting comfortable with your surroundings well before speech-time relieves a lot of anxiety, thus freeing up mental and emotional harddrive space for your talk.
  5. DON’T TALK ABOUT YOUR STAGE FRIGHT. Unless you’re giving a talk about having stage fright, do not mention it to your audience. It’s manipulative. All they can do is feel sorry for you (or disgusted). You are the speaker… you are there to bless your audience, not to unburden yourself. “S..s..sorry, b-but I’m nervous…” only undercuts your speaking credibility.
  6. DRESS COMFORTABLY. I wear a button shirt and nice jeans most of the time. Anything else feels like a costume to me. The real me wears jeans. However, it’s not your call. Honor your host by honoring the dress code for the event. Find out, and then dress as comfortably as you can within those parameters. Wear comfortable shoes. I read an old preacher who said that your attire should not be an issue… Your audience should focus on the content of your talk, not on something you wore or didn’t wear.
  7. PRAY. Before I walk to my pulpit, I pray two prayers: “Casting all your cares upon him, for he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7), and “Lord, fill me with your Spirit, because I can’t deliver what these people need without your help and power.”

You can’t erase your fears, but you can rise above them and bless people with your words.

What other tips can you add to help people overcome stage fright? What has worked for you?