Five Slightly Unusual Public Speaking Tips to Improve Your Delivery and Reduce Nervousness

And you probably haven’t read these tips elsewhere!

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There are plenty of useful articles about public speaking, but many of them repackage similar tips. Remember to pause; practice your presentation thoroughly; maintain eye contact; focus on your audience; tell stories; and so on. Don’t get me wrong — it is all great advice! But I am always looking for fresh insights.

In this article, I have put together five less-known tips. Some of these I have discovered through my own practice and all of them I have put into effect or tested for myself.

Tip One — Try Elongating Your Vowels to Slow Down

A lot of people speak too quickly when they are nervous. The traditional advice is to pause more frequently. The powerful pause is an effective tool to slow down your speaking, but it is not your only option.

Another way to slow down is to elongate your vowels. I often hear people who have a slight clipped or ‘staccato’ quality to their speech. Their consonants are prominent, and it sounds as if they are spitting out their words. Listening to them makes me feel like I am driving fast across cobblestones!

Why this tip is important

Drawing out your vowels slows you down and improves the quality of your speech. It softens your voice so that it is no longer abrupt or jarring, and is much more appealing to the audience.

It also has other benefits, including adding emotional quality to your speech and aiding relaxation.

This article Empower Your Speech by Using Vowels, describes how we can lengthen vowels to convey emotion. The author, Emily Serlin, explains that vowels are a space to put feeling.

Drawing out vowels will also improve your breathing because you require oxygen to form vowels. And breathing properly will help you to relax.

How to apply it

I intuitively know how to apply this tip which means I don’t have to think about it as I speak. But if you are having problems, practice elongating your vowels by reading out loud to yourself.

Reading to yourself will help you establish good habits so that it becomes automatic when you are presenting to an audience. You don’t need to overdo it by elongating every vowel. For example, try these:

The man yaawned

A cloouudy day

The fire buurned ferociously

The fire burned feroociously.

Tip Two — Reading a Script Sounds Unnatural Because You Are Pausing in the Wrong Places

Until recently, I was aware that reading a script sounds different from conversational speaking, but I had not thought much about why. Then I read this article about how to read aloud so that it sounds natural.

Jason Feifer explains that when we read aloud, we pause at the periods and commas. But we don’t do this when we speak. Instead, we tend to run sentences together and pause mid-sentence.

Why this tip is important

The best public speakers sound like they are having a conversation with the audience. I now know why this is hard to achieve if you read (or even memorise) a script.

I would still recommend that you do not read when presenting to a live audience. It is much harder to connect with your audience when you are looking at notes or slides.

But if you have to read a script — say from a teleprompter — you can make it sound more natural by ignoring the punctuation.

How to apply it

Practice reading a script by pausing where it feels natural and not where you see a comma or period. Start by removing the punctuation, and use trial and error to find the right places to pause. Eventually, you will be able to ignore punctuation and use your intuition to know when to pause.

Tip Three — Expressive Body Language = Expressive Voice

If you use gestures as you speak, your voice will sound more animated, and your face will light up. I discovered this tip myself and surprisingly have not read it anywhere else.

I demonstrate this tip to my classes by pairing people off and asking them to do the following exercise. One person has to think of something they are looking forward to and describe this (preferably standing) to the other person. For example, “This weekend, I am going to try out a new restaurant that has had great reviews, and I am really looking forward it to it.”

I ask them to say the same thing four times, and their partner has to make notes about what happens each time. These are the instructions for what they need to do each of the four times.

  1. Keep your hands by your sides and use a flat voice.
  2. Now put some expression into your voice but keep your hands by your side.
  3. Go back to having a flat voice but use your hands to express your excitement.
  4. Don’t hold back. Tell your partner how much you are looking forward to this event or occasion.

Next, I ask their partners to tell us what they have observed.

Not surprisingly, the first time is not convincing. There is a disconnect between what the person says and how they say it. The second time, their partner notices that the speaker’s face lights up and their eyes widen. And this happens without the speaker being aware.

The third time is the funny one! Partners observe either that the speaker’s gestures looked awkward and jerky, or that their voice gets more expressive despite trying to keep it flat! No one manages to use natural hand gestures and keep their voice monotone. This is the critical insight. It is just not possible for your voice to remain flat while using naturally expressive body language.

The fourth time the speaker’s voice and body language accord with their message, and it is much more convincing. I point out that this did not require any effort on behalf of the speaker.

Why this tip is important

When you are trying to improve your public speaking delivery, you have a lot to consider. You may be trying to reduce your filler words, make eye contact with audience members, pause, eliminate distracting habits, etc.

By the time you get to ‘use more vocal variety,’ you may be starting to despair! This tip is a short cut. Focus on using natural gestures as you speak, and the rest will follow. Your body language will automatically make your voice more expressive, and having an expressive voice will make your face light up.

How to apply it

Keep your hands free as you speak. Don’t put them in your pockets or behind your back, and don’t clasp your hands or cross your arms.

Keeping your hands free and accessible allows you to use them naturally. Often this is enough. But you may want to mark places in your presentation where you can use gestures deliberately — for example to indicate size or emphasise a point. Adding gestures for effect will take your presentation to another level.

Tip Four — If You Find Eye Contact Uncomfortable, Focus on the Forehead!

Nervous speakers often dart their gaze around the room, look down at the floor, or look past their audience to the back of the room.

An ex-member of my Toastmaster’s club was so tired of people telling her to make eye contact that she gave a whole speech on how she was uncomfortable making eye contact because it felt too personal. I approached her afterwards and suggested that even if she couldn’t make eye contact, she could shift her gaze more slowly, as she had a habit of darting her eyes around the room.

Months later, after she had left our club, I discovered what would have been even better advice! I heard another Toastmaster say that people can not tell the difference if you look at their forehead instead of their eyes! I have tested this myself, and it works!

Why this tip is important

Making eye contact with members of your audience for a few seconds at a time makes you look trustworthy and engaged. It is one of the most effective techniques you can learn as a speaker.

This tip provides a practical alternative for anyone who finds eye contact uncomfortable for personal or cultural reasons.

A word of warning. For me, making eye contact is a two-way experience. When I lock eyes briefly with someone and see their acknowledgement, it boosts my confidence. For this reason, I personally prefer to make eye contact rather than forehead contact.

How to apply it

Apply this tip in the same way as you would if making eye contact. Direct your gaze to someone’s forehead for a few seconds and then move on to someone else. Often it works well to shift your gaze as you pause. Try to cover the whole room. Some people like to adopt a pattern, such as following a figure of 8!

Tip Five — Others Probably Won’t Hear Your Voice Shaking

Many of my clients feel self-conscious about having a shaky voice when they are nervous. While your voice might have a quiver, the chances are the audience can’t hear it — even if you can!

I read this tip several years ago, and although I can no longer find the source, I have tested it on many clients. Very often they tell me that their voice was shaking as they presented — but I can hardly ever detect it. And others in the group agree with me! Even when I do hear a slight quiver, it is barely noticeable.

I understand that the reason other people can’t hear the shake in your voice is the same reason that your voice sounds different to you than it does to others. When you speak, you hear your voice both externally and internally (travelling through your bones). But others only hear your voice externally.

Why this tip is important

Some people don’t mind feeling nervous, but they hate appearing nervous. However, usually, their nerves are not as noticeable as they believe. The shaky voice is an excellent example of this. Some people are put off when they hear their voice shaking, and this tends to make their nervousness worse. It can be very reassuring to learn that others can’t tell!

How to apply it

If you don’t believe me, arrange for someone to video your next presentation. While you probably won’t like the sound of your voice (few people do!), you will most likely agree that your shaky voice is mostly in your head (literally!)

I am constantly reminded that public speaking involves a set of skills that anyone can learn. It is easy to assume that great speakers were born that way — and in a few cases that is probably true. But most of us have worked hard to develop our skills. I know that I still have plenty to learn, and often it is simple but non-obvious tips like the ones that I have shared here that help me improve.

I love hearing new tips, and so please feel free to post a comment if you have discovered a way to improve your technique or reduce nerves.

Public speaking coach specializing in helping people with public speaking anxiety. “All great speakers were bad speakers at first.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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