Public speaking is not just an academic need or a requirement for some jobs, it’s an essential skill. It’s entwined with your ability to think on your feet and communicate effectively in any situation.Thankfully, you only need to learn a few techniques to become a solid speaker.

I constantly hear from my former high school students just how valuable the public speaking training I forced upon them proved to be. My students had to make formal and informal presentations both in and out of the classroom. I taught all levels of English, Journalism, Theater Arts—and yes, even Public Speaking.

Regardless of your background or your speaking circumstances, learning to handle two key things makes the difference between being an effective speaker or learning the hard way that you are not. The skills you must master to succeed are how to deal with ever-present stage fright and how to prepare for your time in the spotlight.

Using these tricks of the speaking trade, none of my students ever failed a presentation. Why? Because they knew how to appear calm under pressure and how to fake it as a last resort. Of course, they also learned how to prepare their presentation and came to understand the truth in the old adage, “practice makes it perfect.”

Confront Your Fears

First, learn to confront your fears. You’ve undoubtedly heard about actors and actresses who suffer terrible fits of stage fright. As a journalist, I often interviewed headliners in their dressing rooms prior to performing. I watched these seasoned performers repeatedly wrestle with stage-fright. They had bouts of panic, nausea, cold sweats and tension headaches.

We all share those same symptoms when we have to speak in front of even small groups of people. Stage fright is normal—so just ignore it. Some public speakers never get over stage fright. Stage fright is simply the body’s reaction to stress, insecurity, lack of confidence or fear of failure when facing an audience.

Always remember the following important secret about stage fright. You can be terrified on the inside, but if you prepare and practice, your audience will never know.

Your audience—classmates or potential employers or whomever—only sees what you show them. They only hear what you say, not what your nervousness made you forget. Have an outline, or use note cards or a mobile device’s display screen for reference.

The BEST thing you can do about stage fright is to ignore it. Once you start giving your presentation, the symptoms will get less severe. You can, however, minimize them before you get to the podium by being better prepared. Confidence that the speech WILL work for this audience helps to keep fear under control.

Pick the Right Delivery Method

Think about teachers and other speakers who’ve impressed you. What did they do?

Did they look at notes briefly as they talked or stare down at reams of paper? Did they rattle off sentence after sentence like a machine or talk as if they were having a conversation with the audience?

There are four methods of delivering a speech to an audience. Two of them are deadly dangerous because they make it easy for the audience to tune you out. Memorizing is one killer delivery method. Reading aloud is the other one.

A memorized speech is difficult and time consuming to learn. It requires an actor’s skill to deliver without sounding mechanical and lackluster. Reading a speech verbatim forces you to keep your eyes on the page. This prevents sustained eye contact with the audience, which is a primary delivery goal. Eye contact makes your speech personal to the audience. It keeps your audience listening and watching you.

Instead, concentrate on using one of the other two delivery methods: impromptu or extemporaneous. You use the impromptu method whenever you give a detailed answer to a question. When you talk about something you know a lot about, you can do an effortless job of speaking with an impromptu delivery. The extemporaneous method gives you a conversational style of talking. You speak extemporaneously when you prepare and practice ahead of time. But you should never memorize the speech word for word or read it page by page.

Plan Your Content

Jot down the main ideas of your speech topic or presentation. Start with your opinions and the facts and circumstances. Do not use complete sentences. Just write down the ideas. Then cross out what you do not like and rearrange what is left into groups.
Next, do some topic research if necessary. Fill in the gaps of your own knowledge about the subject at hand. Then rearrange the ideas so the content flows smoothly. This is how you build your speaking outline.

When you are ready, stand in front of a mirror and look at yourself as you give your extemporaneous account of the content. Compose sentences as you look at the outline. But then always look up at yourself to continue speaking. Say as much of the information in your own words without worrying about repeating the exact word order of your notes. If you lose your place along the way, just look at your outline and keep talking.

Repeat this process several times. Each time you go over the outline, you will modify the words you use to tell the information. It does not matter that you are changing words as you compose your sentences. The end result is a more conversational presentation that does not lose any information. The more you do this process, the better you learn the content without memorizing it. You will become comfortable with the speech outline and with delivering it to your image in the mirror.

Turn On Your Voice

Effective oral presentations result from two elements—the words you select and the sound of your voice. The most well-organized content misses its mark if your audience has to work too hard to pay attention to you. Once you get comfortable with your outline, record yourself speaking to your image in the mirror.

Then play it back listening for any of these common articulation errors. Think of the handy acronym, S-O-D-A.

  • S – substituting sounds
  • O – omitting sounds
  • D – distorting sounds
  • A – adding sounds

As you listen to your recorded voice, notice if you clearly pronounce every word. Are you jumbling words together and mixing up some of their sounds? Pronouncing your words clearly is called articulation. This vocal element is one of the first things an audience hears. People do not know what to call it, but they always notice what amounts to sloppy speech.

No Slips of the Tongue

How many of these basic articulation faults do you hear in your vocal pattern?

Do you say “gonna” instead of “going to?” Do you substitute the “t-h” sounds in the middle of words, such as when saying what sounds more like “mutter” than the word “mother?”

It is also very easy to substitute a “d” sound for the sound of the letter “T” and the sound of “t-h.” When this happens, we say “dat” for “that” and “posd” for “post.”

Do you change or substitute the “t-h” sound to a “d” or a “t” sound? This happens frequently when the “t-h” sound ends a word. You can hear this substitution when the word “with” is pronounced “wit.”

Another basic articulation error involves dropping sounds from the end of words. In this type of error, words ending with an “er,” such as “father,” sound like “fathah.”

Do you add sounds? The classic example for this is pronouncing the word “film” as “filim.” Another example of this articulation error is when we add an “er” sound where there should be a short “A” sound, as in “soder” for “soda.”

The last basic articulation error occurs when sounds are reversed or distorted. For example, the word “spaghetti” is sounded “spisgetti” or the word “ask” is pronounced “aks.”