Communicate with Confidence – Taking the fear out of public speaking – Part 3

Communicate with Confidence - Part 1
Communicate with Confidence - Part 2
Communicate with Confidence - Part 4

In the last article, we talked about having difficult conversations. We addressed location, positioning, and posture as well as a few things you should and should not do.

Now we are going to dig into public speaking. When you hear “public speaking”, what is the image that comes to mind? Do you think of a conference you attended previously and heard others speak? Or maybe you watched a TED talk of someone you admire. Maybe you think of a politician giving a speech or a sports figure answering questions at a press conference.

These are all legitimate examples of public speaking. However, public speaking can include technical briefings to management, presenting proposals to customers, delivering a status report at a project meeting, being on a panel, or even leading a workshop. Maybe you’ve been asked to present an award, give a toast, or accept an award in front of a group of people or maybe you are just speaking at a team meeting, a going away lunch for a co-worker, or sharing your accomplishments and challenges with your supervisor. These are all forms of public speaking.

In this article, we’ll touch on audience, room, and visuals including appearance, voice, and visual aids.

The Audience

You’ve been asked to speak at a technical conference. Isn’t the most


important aspect to focus on your speech content? Yes and no. Even if you have a brilliant speech, if you do not  to your audience or they cannot understand your message, your speech will go over like a brick falling from the roof of a ten story building.

So just what do you need to know about your audience? First, you need to understand their needs – why they are coming to hear you speak. Do they want to learn something from you, or do they want to be entertained? Maybe they want to be inspired or motivated to take action. Each of these will cause you to tailor your delivery in a different manner. Is your audience expecting a keynote speech, a sales spiel, or a technical presentation from you? If they are expecting a sales presentation and you dive into the underpinnings of PowerShell scripting, you will have lost them from the start.

This is a technical conference you are attending so let’s assume you will be delivering a technical presentation. How technical is your audience? Are they entry level people? If so, making your presentation overly detailed and complex will cause their eyes to glaze over. On the other hand, if your audience is technically savvy already, covering basics will illicit groans of irritation and frustration at their time being wasted.

Because you want to connect to your audience, you will need to understand if there are cultural or geographic differences to consider. Examples should be relevant to the culture or geography of which most of your audience can relate. You don’t want to make any gaffes that could cause you or your audience to be embarrassed. Gestures that are widely used and accepted in one country, may be considered offensive in another. Be sure to do your homework. There are many websites out there that will help you navigate what is and isn’t acceptable wherever you may be speaking.

Unable to learn about your audience beforehand? Greet them at the door, ask questions at the beginning of your talk to learn about them. This will also help you determine the mood. Humor can help keep an audience’s interest; the wrong humor or humor used at the wrong time, can offend audiences. If the topic is a serious one, cut to the chase and avoid the use of humor or at the very least, use it cautiously. Your goal is to not only deliver relevant material to your audience, your goal is also to bond with your audience, so they buy into what you are telling them.

The Room

Whenever possible, you should always visit the room in which you will be speaking prior to your presentation. Ensure the layout of the room is conducive to your talk. If you are doing a panel type discussion, you may want the layout to be different than if you are presenting a keynote address. Likewise, a small group sessions should have a different setup than if you will be doing a demonstration for the entire audience.


Is the room large, small or somewhere in between? Will you be using a microphone or projector? Do you need an easel and markers, or will you be using a whiteboard? The easiest way to look like an amateur is to walk into the room five minutes before your speech to find there is no microphone, the projector doesn’t work, and the room is so hot, most of your audience will doze off in the first few minutes.

If you plan to walk around the room or on a stage, are there obstructions or can you easily walk where you want to walk? If the presentation is being taped, do you know where you can walk and still be seen by the camera? Do you have a “parking lot” or some other way to record questions for which you have told the person, “I will get back to you on that?”

Taking care of these things before your presentation will make your audience perceive you as the true professional and subject matter expert you claim to be.

The Visuals

Visuals will include everything from your appearance, to the appearance of the room, your body language including your voice, and any visual aids you choose to utilize.


Let’s start with appearance. As a speaker, you are trying to inject your ideas into the minds of your audience. You want the audience to take what you have to say seriously. If you show up in a suit for a presentation to a group of mechanics, they will likely make the assumption you have never seen an engine much less worked on one. A better choice would be a pair of khaki pants with a polo shirt. This is a step up from what your audience members may be wearing while not being overdressed. You want to dress one notch up from your audience. What you wear will also become your brand so be consistent in style.

Make sure your clothing is comfortable. Sounds reasonable right? However, if you wear jeans and polo shirts to work every day and have never donned a suit, your uncomfortableness will show in your mannerisms and in your speaking. Your audience will pick up on this and may unconsciously see you as less than honest or knowledgeable. Steer away from new or high heeled shoes if you will be on your feet much of the day. Speaking from experience, there isn’t much worse than having your feet start working an hour or two into an 8-hour day.

For public speaking events, when in doubt, go modest and conservative. This could mean dark colored slacks with a button-down dress shirt. You can always dress it up or have fun with a coordinating tie or scarf. If you will be wearing a skirt or dress, it should fall at or below the knees and be comfortable to walk in. Keep in mind, if standing on a stage, you may be above your audience and don’t want to give them anymore of a show than they paid for! A jacket can dress up the outfit to make it less casual as can accessorizing.

Keep in mind the following when choosing colors. Black is a power color that exudes confidence and strength along with authority. Don’t go overboard though! Throw in a splash of color to keep from looking to serious. Wearing white will make you appear sharp and composed. Be careful with white as it can make your skin tone appear washed out.


Blue is a safe color and has a calming affect on people making you approachable. Dress it up with contrasting shades of blue. You will be viewed as honest and trustworthy with blue. Grey is also a neutral color. However, too much grey will make you look stuffy and cold. Again, dress it up or down with a splash of color.

Red is a power color. I wear red when I need my confidence to be at its best. However, always take the event into consideration as well as it can come across as aggressive and challenging. For public speaking, red will serve you much better as an accent color.

Finally, we have yellow and green. While yellow is a happy color for most, it can be hard on the eyes and not too many people can wear yellow without it making them look washed out. Green on the other hand, can be a neutral color or a terrible color for public speaking. A bright green (think lime green leisure suit) will detract from your speech. However, a darker green suit properly accessorized will make people feel safe and secure.

While you may not think of a technical presentation as a sales pitch, in a way it is just that. You want your audience to understand and buy into your solution. The way this is accomplished is by getting your personality in tune with the audience. What does this mean exactly? You want the audience to respect you at a minimum, and if they like you as well, that is icing on the cake. An audience that sees you as irritable, irritating, or unapproachable will not react well to what you have to say.

Traits that will be considered by an audience, whether consciously or unconsciously, include character, popularity, age, intelligence, self-confidence, ability to think clearly, tact, enthusiasm, experience, self-control, presence of mind, subject mastery, concepts of effective public speaking, knowledge of the audience, subject, occasion, voice, appearance, and past record as a public speaker.1 How do you prepare for that many variables? Practice, practice, practice!

A good public speaker will not attempt to manipulate the audience, make up answers, embellish, plagiarize, or speak down to an audience member. Instead, the speaker will be honest, give credit to others when necessary, be charming, and maintain a friendly demeanor.


Your voice will leave a lasting impression on your audience. I’ve never liked the Christmas song, Santa Baby, simply because the artist’s voice drives me up the wall. You don’t want your audience to walk away from your talk and the only thing they remember about your speech, is your irritating voice. “But I’m nervous and I can’t seem to control my voice when I’m nervous,” you say. You can with a just a few simple techniques.

When I get stressed, my voice goes up a couple of octaves. My mother would tell me to quit whining. It wasn’t so much I was whining as it was a natural response to stress. One of the first things you can do to calm your voice is to breathe! Yes, I said, “just breathe!” Many of us, myself included, are shallow breathers. If you are someone who’s throat muscles feel strained after speaking for a bit, you are most likely breathing from your chest rather than your diaphragm. Breathing and speaking should come from your diaphragm (as should singing).

To change this, breath in deeply for a count of four. You sh


ould feel your diaphragm rise (just below your rib cage), followed by your chest and shoulders. You should feel as if you have grown an inch or two. Hold your breath momentarily and then exhale fully to a count of five. As you exhale, you should feel your diaphragm collapse back down and your chest and should follow. This time you will feel as if you have shrunk an inch or two. Repeat this several times a day.

Another issue I have is holding stress in my throat. I can tell when I am doing this as my tongue is typically planted firmly on the roof of my mouth. Often, just taking the conscious action of relaxing my tongue in my mouth goes a long way to reduce the tension I feel in my throat muscles. I will also tilt my head back, open my mouth as wide as I can then close it pulling my jaw up and feeling the stretch in my neck muscles. I repeat a couple of times and do this whenever I feel strain in my voice or throat. To relax the area near your vocal cords, using your tongue, touch the back of your throat. Then, stick your tongue out of your mouth as far as you can while opening your mouth. Repeat this several times and you should feel much of the tension fade away. Finally, yawning deeply will also help to relax the throat muscles.

Now that the stress and tension are gone, and you know how to breath, let’s talk about pitch and tone. Be sure as you begin to speak, you pull your breath from your diaphragm. Be sure to use your full range of motion with your mouth, jaw, tongue and lips. Using the full range of motion will help ensure your sound is full and rich instead of high pitched and nasally. For a melodious sounding voice that will keep your audience engaged, vary your pitch as you speak to keep from speaking in a monotone voice.

There are many exercises you can do to strengthen your vocal cords and help with articulation and enunciation. One of the best ones I have found is to practice saying tongue twisters. Do this slowly and deliberately.

Finally, speak slowly. From personal experience I have found when I deliberately speak slowly, I am talking at a normal rate speed. When we are nervous, we naturally speed up how fast we talk. If this happens, your 30-minute presentation could take 10 minutes leaving you to figure out how to fill in the remaining 20 minutes! Pausing in your speech after an important point to drive it home can be very effective. For an a pause to be effective, make sure you are placing it in a appropriate spot and then when you reach that place in your speech, pause, count to 10 and resume speaking. If you forget your place in your speech, or are searching for an appropriate word or answer, it’s okay to pause. Pausing is much better than using ‘ums, ahs, so, or like’ which will cause you to come across as inexperienced and inadequately prepared.

Visual Aids

With today’s technology, visual aids are a very large topic. I will only touch upon a few important things to keep in mind here. Use the same logic and apply it to any visual aid you decide to use.

While it is true different people learn differently, it is also true most people benefit from learning new retaining new information when it is presented to multiple senses. For instance, if I am telling you about a new technology, you may remember a few tidbits of what I said. If I tell you and I show you pictures, diagrams, or maybe a model, you will remember even more because now you have heard and seen the information I am sharing. Having said that, Toastmasters International provides the following best practices for the effective use of Visual Aids.2

  1. Show the visual aid while you are talking about it. Cover or turn it off when you want the attention back on you. Few people can concentrate on two things at once.
  2. Be sure the entire audience can see the visual aids. Think back of room viewers. Be sure to follow the seven-seven principle. No more than seven lines with a maximum of seven words per line for effective viewing.
  3. Limit the amount of information on any one visual to the main point. The visual is a summary not the entire speech.
  4. Use title phrases to increase comprehension. For example, use “Growth in Revenues” rather than “Chart 1.”
  5. Talk to the audience, not the visual. Maintain your eye contact with the audience and be sure not to stand or walk in front of your visual.
  6. Don’t overdo it. You don’t need a slide or visual for every point. Stick to the main points you want your audience to remember from your speech.

Visual aids may include a projector, microphone, white board, easel/flip chart, video clips, etc. Earlier, I mentioned a best practice of checking out the room prior to your event. This is the time you will want to ensure the microphone


works correctly and does not have feedback. Is the projector working and is the resolution optimal for your presentation? Is the room set up in manner conducive to your audience being able to see the visual aids from all areas in the room?

When using white boards, flip charts, etc. ensure the markers work and the ink is fresh in them. It is always recommended that you, as the speaker, bring an extra set or two along with an eraser. This ensures your markers work when you need them rather than looking unprofessional when you can’t get them to write or have to grab towels out of the restroom to use as an eraser.

My biggest and best piece of advice when it comes to the use of visual aids is this: Use visual aids sparingly  and only when they will enhance your message helping you to drive a point home.  You want the audience to remember your message, not some fancy special effects.


In this post, we talked about the importance of understanding your audience and ensuring the room is set up to enable all audience members to be active listeners. We also learned how your appearance can affect your audience’s reception of your message, what you can do to calm your voice, and best practices for visual aids.

In my next and final post in this series, I will briefly review the types of speeches you may have to present along with some tips on how to do so effectively.

Until then,

– pjz-

Resources:, The Professional Speaker Series. Notes 1 and 2.