How to Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

Young woman giving a speech at a podium to a small audience

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Public speaking is a useful skill, whether you're called upon to make a speech at a friend's wedding, inspire volunteers at a charity event, or memorialize a loved one at a funeral. Even if you don't make regular presentations in front of a group, developing strong oratory skills can help you cope and improve your overall confidence in emotional or stressful situations, especially if you live with social anxiety disorder (SAD). Here are a few public speaking tips to get you started.

Know Your Audience

Do some research on the people who will hear your presentation. What you learn can help inform what you say and how you say it. Consider:

  • Their makeup (age group, sex, likely opinions—anything that might affect how they perceive your message and delivery)
  • Their familiarity or expertise with your topic. Get on their level. For example, don't bore a room full of experts with the basics. Likewise, if your audience is new to the topic, fill in the gaps so you can begin on an even footing.
  • Their purpose in hearing your speech. Why are they here?
  • Their expectations. How will your presentation benefit them? What can they get out of their investment of time?

Know Your Material

Don't fake your way through; your speech will come off as lifeless. Instead, learn all you can about the subject. Be a confident, credible authority your audience can trust. If you're presenting a certain position, your passion can help engage and motivate your audience.

Making yourself an expert on the topic will reduce your reliance on notes and flashcards, which can distract your audience. It will also help you present in a way that looks and feels natural, not forced or robotic.

If you're taking questions afterward, don't worry if you get stumped. It's OK not to know everything, and your audience doesn't expect you to. Simply say you'd like to research the question more so you can give the most informative response possible.

Grab and Keep Their Attention

At most, you have about 60 seconds to introduce your topic and get your audience's attention. Use this time to ask a rhetorical thought-provoking question, tell a captivating story, or share a shocking statistic—anything that might intrigue them enough to continue listening. Acknowledge your audience as soon as you take the stage so you seem like a "real" person inviting a conversation.

Now that they're paying attention, work to keep it. Depending on the audience and topic, humor can be very effective. Involve your audience in your speech by addressing as many of their five senses as possible. Props can be effective if not overused. Pass around an object that illustrates a point, for example.

Use Diaphragmatic Breathing

Your voice is your most important tool as a public speaker. One simple way to improve your voice is by learning to breathe fully and deeply from your diaphragm.

Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, helps you access your most powerful voice. Professional singers use the technique to support their singing voice and help them hold notes long after most people would be out of breath.

Practicing diaphragmatic breathing also reduces feelings of breathlessness caused by speech anxiety. This type of breathing controls the following aspects of your voice:

  • Tone (quality)
  • Pitch (high or low)
  • Volume

Before your speech, place one hand on your abdomen, and breathe into your hand. Count to 10 as you inhale and fill your stomach, then count to 10 again as you exhale. Remember to breathe from your diaphragm as you deliver your speech.

Use Effective Body Language

Body language helps you communicate without words. The combination of facial expressions, gestures, and movements conveys what's going on in your mind. Practice strong, confident body language to fuel your presentation:

  • Stand up straight. If you're physically able to stand up straight, do so.
  • Exude confidence. If you feel anxious or stressed before your presentation, take a moment to stand in a powerful position. Doing this for just a few minutes can raise your testosterone level and increase your self-confidence while reducing anxiety and cortisol. One of the most popular power poses is the "superhero" pose: Put your hands on your hips, keep your chin up, and push your chest out.
  • Be facially expressive. Your facial expressions should match your message. If you're giving an upbeat speech, wear a relaxed, joyful look on your face. If appropriate, try smiling, even if you don't feel like it—it may just help boost your mood.
  • Walk or move if it helps your delivery. Casually moving can help you destress and keep your audience following your message.
  • If you prefer to stay in one place, maintain a tall and strong pose. If you're standing, try not to shift your weight from side to side; it can have a hypnotic effect on your audience.

Make Eye Contact

Connect visually with the individuals in your audience. If they feel seen, you're more likely to be heard. Moreover, eye contact conveys sincerity, empathy, honesty, and intimacy.

Start with one friendly face and pretend that you're speaking only to them. Then, move on to the next face. If you're feeling shy or anxious, this can take some practice, but it's well worth it.

Speak Slowly

Talk too fast, and you'll sound nervous and hard to understand. Talk too slowly, and you'll risk putting your audience to sleep.

To measure your speech tempo, deliver one minute of your speech (use a stopwatch to time this). Then, count the number of words you spoke in that time. The most effective rate of speech for a presentation is around 140 words per minute—slightly slower than normal conversational speech.

Speaking more slowly will also help you articulate clearly. Don't muddle your message with mumbling.

Don't Fill the Pauses

Great public speakers often pause for two or three seconds (or even longer) between thoughts. A well-placed pause can:

  • Give the audience time to digest what you've said
  • Help you sound confident and in control
  • Convey drama, thoughtfulness, emotion, or the importance of the point you just made

Don't be compelled to fill pauses with "um," "ah," "you know," and "like." These common fillers can diminish your credibility, distract from your message, and make you sound anxious. Instead, try to let the pauses exist naturally.

Ask for Feedback

After your speech, request feedback. For example, distribute a short survey, or simply ask your audience, "Is there anything I could improve upon in this presentation to help your understanding of [topic]?" The answers can help you identify areas in which you need to improve and thus advance your public speaking skills.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Now that you've put it all together, practice delivering your speech in front of a mirror, using all the tips here. Even better, do a trial run for a few friends who can create distractions, ask questions, and provide feedback. Consider recording yourself so you can see the presentation from the audience's perspective and smooth any rough spots.

If you feel that your stage presence is lacking, view clips of speakers you admire. Try imitating parts of their style that might work for you. But more important than emulating another person's style or adhering to so-called "rules" for presenting is practicing confidence until you feel confident.

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A Word From Verywell

Fear of public speaking is common, but most people face delivering a speech at some point. Developing your public speaking skills can help you face your fear confidently and even help with social anxiety. If you have extreme anxiety while speaking in public, however, seek help from a healthcare provider or a trained mental health professional.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I overcome my public speaking anxiety?

    If you have glossophobia, or public speaking anxiety, therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or systematic desensitization can help you replace negative thoughts with positive ones in stressful situations.

  • How do I calm my nerves before giving a speech?

    Visualization, deep breathing, meditation, and even medication in some cases are just a few strategies for managing pre-speech stress. Practicing and knowing your material thoroughly can help you feel confident, too.

  • What are the "three P's" of public speaking?

    The "three P's" of public speaking vary among experts, but they're generally some variation of "preparation, practice, and presentation."

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Price D. Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results. AMACOM; 2012.

  2. Carney DR, Cuddy AJC, Yap AJ. Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychol Sci. 2010;21(10):1363-1368. doi:10.1177/0956797610383437

Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."