There are a bunch of public speaking related questions that I keep hearing (and probably will keep hearing) during my training sessions or business consulting sessions. Usually, these are the same types of questions and therefore I call them “Frequently Asked Questions about Public Speaking” Here are my top 22 most common questions about this topic.
Table of Contents
1. Why is public speaking important?
If you hate public speaking, it means you’re normal. Most people can’t stand public speaking.
So, don’t worry about it. You should learn how to give an okay presentation even if you hate it, and you should learn how to get through it because let’s face it: there are so many opportunities in life or in your career that you would probably lose out on if you can’t give a basic speech.
2. How do I prepare for a speech?
In a nutshell, do the following:
- Brainstorm every message you could say to this audience on the topic at hand
- Narrow it down to the top five
- Brainstorm on a story or two and an example for each message point and come up with a fact or a number for each message point
- Create a simple, one page outline that has no more than three or four words per line
- Practice the speech on video; you can even use your own cell phone.
- Keep practicing until you like it
If you do these things, you will be ahead of 95% of the public speakers in the world.
- How to Outline a Presentation: A Complete Guide From a Pro
- Speech Writing Tips: 27 Key Tips from Seasoned Pros
Great Books about Public speaking
- “The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast!” Josh Kaufman
- “Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln: 21 Powerful Secrets of History’s Greatest Speakers” James C. Humes
3. How do I know what topics are going to be of the greatest interest to my audience?
Keep in mind that your best source of information quite often is your actual audience.
Therefore, I have a radical suggestion for you. If possible and you have the contact numbers, just pick up the phone and ask the participants. If you’re giving a presentation to 50 people at a trade conference on Friday, then call one or two of them and ask what interests them and what they think would interest others.
Then, you could perhaps list 20 ideas out of these interests; see which three or four jump out and here you are – ready to rock and roll.
People often forget that the simplest way to get information is to just pick up the phone and have a brief 3 – 4 minute conversation with someone.
Now, if you are leading some kind of a seminar, and you have a database of people who are supposed to be there, you can also send out a questionnaire in advance.
List your 20 possible messages or topics of themes and ask people to list three or four they’re most interested in or put them in priority. Also, with open-ended questions, ask them what they would like you to address.
It’s not a hard thing to do.
- Audience analysis: A comprehensive guide for the public speaker
- How to make a presentation? 10 short (but thorough) steps
Good Public Speaking Books
- “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right” Atul Gawande
- “The Art of Public Speaking (Communication) Standalone Book” Stephen E. Lucas
4. How many times should you rehearse a speech?
Yes, you need to rehearse every speech and every presentation you give, but you need to rehearse in a particular way. You need to rehearse on video and that could be as simple as talking to your own cell phone and recording it.
The real key to rehearsal is to keep doing it until you like the results. Maybe you can do that in one take; maybe it takes ten takes or maybe it takes two days.
Guess what? Your audience doesn’t care. They simply want your best, so it’s your job to rehearse enough to get you to the point where you’re at your very best.
So, you should rehearse as long as it takes for you to be great.
- Prepared speech: 10 effective tips on how to practice a speech
- How to be comfortable in front of a video camera? 14 great tips
Essential read on Public Speaking
- “Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds” Carmine Gallo
- “Public Speaking for Success” Dale Carnegie
5. What’s the best number of messages to try to communicate when I’m giving a speech?
Before I answer that, I want you to think for a minute of the best speaker you’ve heard in the last year or the last five years.
Now, tell me…how many messages do you remember from that presentation? I don’t mean that you like the person’s style, they are funny or they walked around the room, etc.
I don’t mean any of that. I mean the actual content. How many messages do you remember?
I’ve asked people that question for more than a decade, and I’ve never had anyone really remember more than about a minute’s worth of content or a handful of ideas from the best speaker they’ve seen in the last year to five years.
So, that’s why I would recommend that you try to communicate no more than 3 – 5 main ideas per presentation.
Good Books to read
6. Should You Memorize Your Entire Presentation?
It’s certainly true that audiences don’t like it if your head is buried in your notes, or you’re staring at a PowerPoint slide. But some people go too far by trying to memorize every single word in the speech.
The problem is it’s just really, really hard to do unless you’re a trained actor. It is going to sound kind of like you are reading a teleprompter in your brain. It’s not going to sound natural because you’re going to sound like you’re thinking about, “What do I say five seconds from now?”
So, even if you’re normally great at memorizing something, it’s not going to be as effective when you’re giving a presentation.
The other problem is if you’re giving this speech and everything’s going well and all of a sudden you forget the word or next sentence. You don’t want that to be the case when you’re giving a presentation.
That’s why I do not recommend that you try to memorize a presentation.
7. Is it OK to read from notes during a presentation?
Now, I also don’t recommend that you read it. What I do recommend is having a simple sheet of notes at which you glance down occasionally – it should consist of simple bullet points or a few words to keep you on track.
You need a roadmap. Then focus on the ideas, examples and stories you want to tell.
Don’t worry about getting word-for-word everything. Don’t try to memorize the speech. Just make a simple, one-page outline for yourself and work from it.
8. How do I prepare and use notes?
The technique I use is very simple:
- I create bullet points
- I number it
- I make the font large so I can look at it without using my glasses, and I have it on a lectern or on a table
- I have it on a single sheet of paper
- I cut out the sides and the edges to make it as small as possible
Typically, what I do is have three copies of my speech, and I will have them around the room. That way, I don’t ever have to stand in one spot consistently and I don’t have to stand behind a lectern.
I can walk around and appear to just be talking to and having a real conversation with people. Any time people hear me speak, they just assume I’m talking to them and I’m not using notes. But the fact is I’m always using notes.
Also, this way I don’t have to put myself through any pressure to memorize anything. So, it’s quite easy to use notes. And if you follow these simple tips, you can do it, too, and you can get credit as though you were speaking with no notes.
9. What is the best way to start a presentation?
The best way to start off your presentation is by saying something interesting to your audience. You don’t have to start with a joke.
It doesn’t have to be something amazingly emotional and compelling, but you do need to start off with something of interest to your audience.
Most speakers start off with:
- “Good Morning”
- “As you know, my name is…”
- “My title is…”
That’s how most speakers start. And guess what – it’s deadly dull.
So, what I recommend is dispensing with all the phony baloney. Start by getting some content, some ideas and/or some messages of interest to your audience.
And if you start with a story – even better. Do that and you will hook them and they will stay with you for the rest of your presentation.
Now, if you want to thank the person who invited you or introduced you during the middle of the speech, do it near the end.
10. How do I start a speech with an icebreaker?
The main thing is you can’t seem overly manipulative. You shouldn’t start off with, “How many of you would like to make more money?” because that seems cheesy. It seems like you’re just overtly manipulating people.
I also don’t like it when certain motivational speakers say, “Well, turn to the person next to you and tell them your five greatest aspirations in life and why you haven’t succeeded.”
That’s just too personal.
You’ve got to make it relevant to whom you are, what you’re about and what you’re trying to convey.
So, if, for example, you are someone who helps people with their elevator speech, you may just want to ask people as an icebreaker, “Turn to the person next to you and tell them in 30 seconds what you do for a living” and then ask a couple of people, “Okay; what did your partner say?”
That could be an interesting way of getting people to talk.
So, pay attention: a good icebreaker is getting them to think about the concept you’re going to be revealing today and engaging people in a way that doesn’t seem canned, phony or overly manipulative.
11. How to make your presentation memorable?
You’ve got to have compelling, interesting stories about actual conversations with real people – not made up stories and not stories from a book. You need real stories that relate to the message that’s important to your audience.
The next thing is you have to bring some passion to the subject. You’ve got to have compelling stories and deliver them in a way that you’re reliving the emotion.
If you ask people from all over the world, “What speeches do you remember?” these are the two things that people remember over and over again.
That’s what will make your speech memorable.
Great Book about Public Speaking
12. How do I manage time when giving a speech or presentation?
For starters you should have a pretty good sense of how long it takes to give the presentation, because you should have rehearsed on video and checked the time.
The worst thing you can do is time your speech during the rehearsal by reading it silently to yourself. A speech that takes a half hour to present to people can take only eight minutes to read to yourself. So, that’s not going to have any relationship to the actual length of your presentation.
When you’re speaking, you need to factor in more time because:
- The audience may have questions
- There may be reactions (laugh, applause, etc.)
- You have to go in deeper and explain more
In most situations, you also want to allocate time for a Q & A session.
Now, there are several ways of managing your time when you’re in the middle of a presentation. For starters, most cell phones have a timer function. You can also get a timer app and have it in a fairly large font, sitting on a table.
You could do what I do – remove my watch and put it on the table so I can glance down if there are not clocks around.
Rehearse on video and also keep an eye on clocks, watches or timers, and if you do that, you’ll know exactly how much time you have left.
Also remember, though, if you speak and you finish a little bit early – but you really deliver the goods – nobody is going to get upset if you only took 25 minutes and they told that you had 30 minutes.
13. What do I do with my hands during a speech?
I talked a little bit about hands in an earlier article. I want to go more in depth here because it really is huge and, in some cases, dominant part of your body language, and there’s a lot of information out there about hands.
Here is the dirty little secret most body language experts won’t tell you.
You don’t need to learn how to do new things with your hands.
Most people move their hands naturally when they’re in a work situation, especially if it’s a talk at a briefing, a presentation, a PowerPoint or a Skype video.
What you need to do is to simply move your hands the way you do when you’re relaxed and comfortable in talking to a friend about your favorite sporting event or music event or something you like doing.
We tense up and once you stop moving your hands:
- You start moving your arms
- You tense your arms
- You tense your shoulders
- You tense your vocal chords
So, my recommendation is to try to move your hands naturally and since you’ll be doing the things that comfortable, confident people do when they speak, you’ll at least look more comfortable to your audience.
What you’re after is natural movement. If you do that, people will feel you’re relaxed and comfortable, and you’ll feel more relaxed and comfortable.
Your voice will be richer, more conversational and have a greater range. Everything will be in sync and you won’t look like you’re acting and being phony.
14. How to pace a speech?
The biggest problem most people have is they get a little nervous and therefore they start speaking too quickly.
When you speak too quickly, it tends to flatten your voice and essentially destroys the punctuation of speaking. So, you need to put in pauses.
You need to catch your breath. Sometimes, you can do this by walking a few feet and not saying anything.
You need to look at audience members and see whether they are getting it. Sometimes, toss out a question to the audience and actually have them answer. Sometimes you toss out a rhetorical question and you let people think about what you said.
You need pauses throughout your speech, and you need variation in speed and tone. You ought to be conversational. That means sometimes faster, sometimes slower, sometimes louder, sometimes softer and sometimes inserting a pause. And that’s how you pace your speech.
15. How to close a speech?
The worst thing you can do with a speech is just sort of finish abruptly – act like you’re nervous and scurry off the stage or away from the front of the room.
“That’s it. Any questions?”
Now, you don’t have to have some big, overly dramatic ending, and you don’t have to get down on bended knee.
You don’t have to bring tears to people’s eyes, but you do need to conclude with some finality. Simply restate your main point, or your main couple of points, or maybe even have a story that fleshes out your main point.
Let people know exactly what you want them to do and to remember and finish on purpose. Finish as though you planned it.
You don’t want to be like a car that is going down the highway 70 miles an hour and simply runs out of gas. That’s what many speeches seem like.
So, how to close a speech?
- Sum up the main point
- Step back
- Wait a second or two and then say, “I’ll be happy to take questions” (if there’s time for that)
That way, you’ll come across as polished; like you’ve put thought into it. It leaves a good final taste in the mouth of your audience and you’ll have a much stronger closing.
16. How do I find out if my speech or presentation was effective?
This is actually quite easy – all you have to do is ask your audience afterwards. But you have to ask them the right questions.
Ask them what messages they remember from your presentation. If they remember all of your key messages, then probably it was one of the greatest speeches of all time.
If they don’t remember, then you were ineffective. You can test if your slides were effective the same way.
So, if you get have a big presentation to 30 important clients on Thursday, get three colleagues who work in different departments together at lunch on Tuesday.
Present your presentation in the lunchroom. When you’re done, don’t ask them what they think because they’re going to want to be nice, and that’s not helpful advice.
Ask them what messages they remember, and if they don’t remember your messages, you know you were not effective.
Also, when you’re giving a speech for real, and if you’re talking to more than 20 people, typically someone will come up and say, “Good job, I really liked it.”
If that happens, then say, “Hey thanks! Tell me what stands out. What do you remember?”
If they can’t tell you a specific message, example story, case study, etc. then you probably failed miserably. So, don’t be afraid to ask people for feedback. That’s honest feedback that you can take to the bank.
17. What’s the best way to put my audience at ease?
First, start by making sure you have great, interesting content, because if they find you interesting throughout, they’re going to be relaxed.
Also, try to get there early (ideally an hour early) and have real conversations with people. Show them that you are not just some random person who arrived to bestow your wisdom.
Ideally, you can weave some of these conversations into your actual presentation. That way, people feel like you’re not just giving something canned – something off the shelf -you’re tailoring your speech to their needs and they were a part of it.
A word of caution, though: you want your audience comfortable but not too comfortable. Because what happens if people are really comfortable? You know once your audience is falling asleep, this can be a problem
Therefore, they need to see that you can see them, that you care about them and that you’re trying to help them with your speech.
And their temperament will be exactly as you want it. Not uncomfortable but not asleep.
18. How do I eliminate public speaking anxiety?
The number one way to get over being afraid of public speaking is you’ve got to focus exclusively on your audience and helping them.
If you’re really focused on helping your audience understand something and learn something, then you won’t even have the luxury of thinking about yourself. AND: your nerves will melt away.
The problem with most speeches (even with confident speakers) is they are just big data dumps. It’s like:
- “Here’s a stack of every single fact about what my organization has done for the last quarter,” or
- “Here is everything my business has done for the last two years and I’m just going to throw it all at you.”
It’s boring and tedious. But the solution is simple: don’t give a boring data dump.
It all comes down to this:
- Narrow your presentation down to just five ideas
- Have an example (preferably a story) for each idea
- Practice on video until you’re happy
If you follow these few tips, you can just forget your fear of speaking.
You can be a great speaker, and you can be a world-class speaker if you just follow these simple tips.
- How to overcome the fear of public speaking – less commonly used methods
- How to overcome public speaking anxiety: 7 effective and proven tips
19. Is PowerPoint always bad for presentations?
There’s no such thing as “PowerPoint is bad.” That’s like saying television is bad. You can get and give a fantastic PowerPoint presentation every time, but you can also give an awful presentation using PowerPoint.
A particular PowerPoint presentation might be awful because the tools were not used effectively. There are only two types of presentations in the world you should know about:
- Interesting, relevant and useful
- Boring – Let me pretend to pay attention but really check my e-mail
So, the first thing you’ve got to figure out when you’re going to use PowerPoint is not how to give a great PowerPoint presentation – or even how to give a PowerPoint presentation.
Your first challenge is to figure out how to give an interesting, relevant, memorable presentation every single time.
A must read for those who work with PowerPoint
- “Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences” Nancy Duarte
- “slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations” Nancy Duarte
20. How many slides do I need in a PowerPoint presentation?
I know some of you want a very firm answer, like 7 or 10, but unfortunately, it’s really not that simple.
Here’s the bigger test I would give you: for each slide, ask yourself these two questions:
- “Does this slide make my idea more memorable than me simply saying it?”
- “Does this slide make my idea more understandable than simply saying it?”
If you don’t get a “yes” answer to both, you should probably throw the presentation away.
Now, having said that, I’ve seen people who only have two or three slides give an awful presentation because there was nothing interesting or memorable in the slides. Nothing that enhanced it at all.
I’ve also seen well-known speakers with tons of slides give great presentations. They weren’t necessarily great because of the number of slides, but the slides didn’t bring them down.
So, remember: your focus should not be the number of slides. Your focus should be what are the ideas you have to communicate to this audience.
One tool is by telling a story; another tool giving an example; another tool a visual that you display in a PowerPoint slide, etc.
Focus on what the real goal is: communicating your ideas with all the tools available. If you do that, the number of slides will take care of themselves.
21. How many bullet points should I put on a PowerPoint slide?
It’s a frequent question and there are a lot of people who have very specific, ironclad rules… “three or five.”
I think you’re missing the point when asking that question. The real question should be what ideas do you have and how can you communicate them more effectively to your audience?
Think about how you can make your ideas more understandable and more memorable. Bullet points with text on PowerPoint slides that you project while speaking are completely ineffective. So, it frankly doesn’t really matter.
Now, if you’re e-mailing people a PowerPoint presentation or giving them a PowerPoint hand out later, include as many bullet points as you want because people can read at their own speed, and if it’s interesting they can reread it. They can highlight it, file it away and reference it again.
But when you are speaking, and you’re standing in front of people, and you’re pointing to a whole bunch of text and bullet points behind you, then I would suggest using as few bullet points as possible.
And if you are going to use bullet points – and I can’t dissuade you from that – then I would simply say that the fewer bullet points per page, the better off you are.
22. How do I black out my screen during a PowerPoint presentation?
If you’re looking for a simple technique to get your audience to focus on you during a PowerPoint presentation, try this: hit the letter B on your laptop – it will black out the screen. Hitting any key whatsoever brings it back to life.
This way, your audience isn’t distracted, and you can get people to focus on one thing at a time.