Argonne National Laboratory

Improving Your Speaking Skills
"Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at." ―Stephen Hawking

Does your voice shake when you give presentations? Do your palms get sweaty or do you find that your mind blanks when it is time for you to speak? If so, relax. You're not alone. Standing up and speaking to a crowd is a challenge for most people, but the more you practice, the more comfortable and confident you will become. Rehearsing your presentation is a necessary part of the planning process, not only to improve your presentation skills but also to identify any holes in your logic and areas that may need more explanation or fewer details.

As you rehearse, you should challenge yourself to overcome any known weaknesses. For example, if you are someone who has a habit of looking at your slides a lot, practice without the slides. Or if you are normally a very quiet speaker, practice over-projecting your voice until you feel comfortable speaking at a higher volume.

Practice your presentation on your own, and in front of others. When practicing on your own, record yourself doing the presentation, then look back at your recording and critique your performance. When rehearsing in front of others, ask your audience specific questions after you have finish delivering your presentation, such as:

  • What did you not understand?
  • What did you want to know more about?
  • Did anything appear inaccurate?
  • Was there anything that appeared unnecessary and/or distracting?

Nonverbal Cues

Aside from making sure that the contents of your presentation are clear and accurate, it is also important to ensure that the way you deliver the presentation is also clear. This is where nonverbal cues come into play.

A lot of communication is derived from nonverbal cues like posture, hand gestures, and eye contact. So as you are rehearsing, consider the following nonverbal cues and what they "say" about you:

  • Physical appearance

Are you dressed professionally? It's not always necessary to show up in a full suit and tie, just remember that it is hard for audiences to take you seriously if you look like you just rolled out of bed.

  • Eye movements

Are you maintaining eye contact with your audience, or are you reading off cue cards or looking at your computer screen? Maintaining eye contact with your audience is encouraged because it helps your audience feel like you are talking to them, not just talking at them, which makes them more likely to pay attention to what you have to say.

  • Volume

Can people sitting at the back of the room hear you? Speaking clearly and loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear not only benefits your audience but also benefits you by communicating a sense of confidence and authority.

  • Pacing

Think about what happens when you need to pause during a presentation. Are you someone who says “um, yeah, you know,” etc. to fill up the silence? Do you try to rush ahead and find yourself fumbling over your words? These are common instincts, but rather than give into them, simply pause.

Pauses are helpful for you and your audience; they give you time to organize your next thought and give your audience time to process the information you’ve already given them. Learning how to get comfortable with pauses and with speaking at a relaxed pace will help improve the quality of your presentation.

  • Posture

Stand with confidence. If you feel comfortable and the space allows for it, feel free to move around—but do so with deliberate strides. Remember, you are in command of the space around you and maintaining a confident posture, with shoulders square and chin parallel to the floor, conveys that message to your audience.

  • Hand gestures

Pay attention to how you use your hands and avoid gestures that would appear distracting (like playing with your hair or twiddling with your laser pointer). Your body language should convey a sense of openness, so relax your arms and never cross them across your chest or put your hands over your mouth or face.

How to keep it moving

The purpose of movement is to keep audiences’ eyes on you in a manner that is non-distracting. If you are someone who is always itching to move around, try the following approach to help control your movements:

 

  1. Begin your talk at a starting point, a specific spot on the floor. This could be at the center of the room, the space behind the podium, or elsewhere.
  2. As you begin explaining your first main point, slowly move to a different spot in the room. Pause there until you finish your explanation.
  3. As you transition to your second main point, walk back to your starting point. Pause there until you finish.
  4. As you start discussing your third main point, make your way to yet another spot in the room, and pause again.
  5. Walk back to your starting point as you conclude your presentation.