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Public speaking – practice makes perfect

Whether you have to give a speech in front of hundreds of people, present research findings at a scientific conference or discuss a project in front of a student group, you are a public speaker.  Most of us avoid such situations as much as possible. Unfortunately, not always is it possible. 

Public speaking, i.e. a situation in which one person speaks to a larger group of listeners, does not only involve speeches of politicians during election rallies, but also presentations in class, during seminars or oral exams. 

a lecture

These forms of public speaking are common when you are a university student and they can be a major cause of anxiety and stress (Nash et al. 2016). Moreover, stress can result in an educational failure. The good news is that building a good rapport with listeners, structuring your message and controlling the non-verbal messages you send can be mastered with systematic training. Communication researchers confirm that the time spent preparing and practising a speech results in a higher evaluation of your performance (Pearson et al. 2006). 

The basis of public speaking is to prepare a plan of your presentation. You need to start with an introduction that grabs the attention of the audience and presents the main thesis/idea of the speech. The introduction sets the tone for the whole speech and aims to engage the audience in the rest of the presentation. It is a good idea to limit the speech to one main concept and explain it clearly.  

Secondly, you need to develop the thesis/idea point by point, using metaphors and examples to help those unfamiliar with the topic understand your message. It is necessary to use the language that is adapted to the audience and explain any technical terms in an accessible way. At the final stage of the speech, it is worth to recap the thesis/idea once again, summarising the main points and concluding the speech, leaving your audience with a memorable message (Morreale et al. 2019). However, usually our fear of public speaking is not so much about what to say, but how to say it. 

David Phillips, a communications expert, spent seven years analysing speakers in public situations to identify the qualities that make a speech successful. It would be impossible to list all of the 110 (!) selected elements here, but we should focus on at least a few of them. First, a good speaker establishes a good rapport with the audience. Such a relationship can be created by asking a question related to the topic of the presentation (e.g. I could ask the question: How many of you feel stressed when you know that you will have to give a presentation soon?), as well as by maintaining eye contact with several people and speaking to the entire audience, not just one person or, worse, the window/ceiling/floor. A mistake, often made by students, is delivering a presentation and looking only in the direction of the lecturer. Other students, to whom the presentation should primarily be directed, stop listening, start glancing at their phones and - as a result – will never remember the presentation. If maintaining eye contact is too stressful, look at the foreheads of your audience members - no one will notice the difference. 

Your body language, i.e.  non-verbal communication, has a significant impact on how you are perceived by your audience. The gestures you make must be coherent with the verbal message and should illustrate the flow of your thoughts, emphasise the most important words and even give a rhythm to the speech. When speaking in public, stand up straight, with your weight evenly distributed on your feet. It is important to keep an open, neutral position and take a step towards the audience rather than back away, let alone turn your back on your listeners. A trick mentioned by David Phillips is also to tilt your head slightly to the right or left.

A technique you should take advantage of in public speaking is to modulate the tone of voice and change the pace of speaking. On the one hand, when you speak too fast, you risk being misunderstood. On the other, speaking too slowly makes the audience bored to the point when they stop listening and start day-dreaming. The pace of the speech and the tone of voice should be changed as the presentation progresses, thus controlling the tension among the audience. This is also a way to avoid monotony. When you suddenly slow down the pace of the speech, the audience will focus, convinced that what you are about to say is the most important message. A similar effect can be achieved by pausing. Slow down when you are explaining important concepts. Speed up when you are telling anecdotes. Emphasise the most important words, use intonation to determine whether a sentence is a statement or a question and try to avoid (although it is very difficult!) sounds like ‘uh’ or ‘uhm’. 

Finally, let me repeat the most important, yet trivial advice: practice, practice, practice as practice makes you perfect. Every speech should be practiced a few times before a mirror. In this way you will become comfortable with your own body, increase your comfort level and reduce stress. If you know you have to comply with the time limit of 15 minutes - measure the time each time and if necessary, shorten your speech. Give your speech to a friend to make sure he or she can understand the contents. Stand up straight, lift up your head and the stage is yours.

Reference literature:

Nash,G., Crimmins, G., Oprescu F., If first-year students are afraid of public speaking assessments what can teachers do to alleviate such anxiety?, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41:4, p. 586-600, 2016, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2015.1032212

Morreale, S.P., Spitzberg B.H., Barge, J.K., Human Communication, Cengage Learning, 2000.

Pearson, J.C, Child, J.T., Kahl, D.H., Preparation meeting opportunity: How do college students prepare for public speeches?. Communication Quartely:, 54 (3), 2006, p. 351-366.

David Phililips, a TedTalk speech available online:

(access date: 30 September 2020). 

Anderson Ch., TED TALKS: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 

About the author

Dr Aleksandra Piłat-Kobla is an employee of the Chair of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, where she teaches sociology of medicine, including social communication, sociology and social problems. She is a graduate of Sociology, Journalism and Social Communication.