Public Speaking 101: Presentation Basics

The most important key element in public speaking is developing a rapport with your audience. Capture your audience's attention with facts, stories, anecdotes, comedy, or sobering details.

Don't think you will ever stand up and address an audience in public?  Before you take a seat on that one, take a deep breath.  You never know . . .

As a teacher, whether my students were 5th graders or college students, I put them to the "podium gridiron".  Like it or not, they were challenged to get up in front of the class and deliver a presentation.  In nearly every case, the students embraced the task and most of them gratefully thanked me when the process was over.  Why?  Despite their initial reticence, after trying and succeeding, they gained a new confidence and sense of accomplishment.  Plus, they learned a new set of skills to fall back on should they ever face public speaking later in life. 

So, let's look at the basics:

Most people start with being prepared to speak on something, and while that is good advice, it won't help if you're called on to speak without warning.  Ugh!  That's where your preparation must lie in a different vein.  So, prepared or unprepared, what do you do?  Here's a few simple points to remember:

The most important key element in public speaking is developing a rapport with your audience.  If you don't have your audience's attention and interest, from the very start, you may as well sit down.  How do you engage their rapport?  Try these:

--Capture your audience's attention with facts, stories, anecdotes, comedy, or sobering details.

Professional speakers say emotional engagement will go a long way toward getting your audience pulled into your subject.  For example, in a presentation on child abuse appealing to your audience's emotions by providing stories they can relate to or empathize with will definitely draw them in and get their attention.  You must make it important enough and relevant for them to honor you with their attention.  The idea here is not manipulation, but when people are touched or awakened on an emotional level, they are more likely to listen and pay attention to what is being said.  This can be achieved by shock, excitement, comedy, empathy, or even curiosity.

--Be personable, friendly, and sincere.

Don't be afraid to step out from behind the podium.  If there is room, walk in front of the audience, and maybe up and down the aisles.  This puts you in close proximity to your audience and allows you to see their reactions.  It also leads to my next point:

--Make eye contact with your audience.

It's uncomfortable to listen to someone speak who not only cowers behind the podium, but their eyes are glued on their notes on the podium.  Make sure your notes are brief enough for glancing at--not reading verbatim.  Glance at notes and as you speak, look up, out, and over your audience, making eye contact with people intermittently.  Remember, it's people you are speaking to, not the back wall, or the podium.  People will sense your insincerity if you cannot connect with them in some way.

--Be time-conscious.

Respect your audience's time.  Don't ramble, over-explain, or wander in words or thoughts.  Stay within the time constraints you were given for your presentation.  When I do prepare in advance for a presentation, I prepare more material than I could possibly need so I will have more material if I need it.  You don't want to under-use or over-use your time.

--Be professional.

Professionalism lends an air of credibility to what you are saying, and makes your audience respect your knowledge and expertise.  Dress professionally for public speaking.  Be prompt and on-time.  Courteously answer questions.  Use a pleasant tone of voice without mumbling or shouting.   Which brings me to an important point:

--Practice speaking clearly and distinctly.

I've heard hundreds of speakers that bored me to tears simply because they failed to do this one thing--speak clearly.  It's important to remember that public speaking is not like normal conversation on the street.  When speaking to an audience, no matter the size of the crowd or the size of the room, you must clearly enunciate your words.  To accomplish this, you must speak at a much slower rate than normal talking and it will feel awkward at first.  Work your mouth and tongue to say the words clearly.  Speaking clearly and distinctly will probably sound unusual to you as you listen to yourself, but that's normal; with time it will sound more natural.  Vary the inflections of your voice so as not to sound monotone, or your audience will all be snoring!

--Project your voice.

My last point is perhaps one of the most important in public speaking, and the one most often ignored to the speaker's peril.  Voice projection does not mean shouting.  To project your voice you must stand up straight and force the sound up from your diaphragm muscles in your abdomen.  Just as you would if you were to sing or call out to somebody, you want to use the control of that muscle for projection.  Adjust your voice for the needs of the room, and whatever amplification you may have available, and send the sound of your voice out over your audience with power so it can be heard clearly without straining.

Remember, the mastery of public speaking lies in the practice.  The more you do it, the more you will gain confidence and become better at it.  Then, if you only do it occasionally, don't despair, you will be the more confident and self-assured for it.  Who knows, you might even end up making it a career.

Leslie Pryor is a published author, teacher, and freeland writer and is available for speaking engagements, seminars, lectures, and talks on many subjects.  Please visit my website for more information: or

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Colin Dovey
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Posted on Aug 6, 2010