Four Tips for Public Speaking

Four Tips for Public Speaking April 15, 2013

During a call for post topics, I signed up to write a post on speaking tips for LessWrong, which is up today.  I thought it might be fun to cross-post here.  Most of it is tailored to talking, but it can be applicable to writing anything from comments to posts.  I’ve done a fair amount of debate and murderboarding (helping people prepare for interviews) so these are the four tips that help the people I’ve talked to have the most marginal improvement:

  1. Fortissimo! Don’t apologize for talking
  2. Know the first and last line of your comment before you open your mouth
  3. Think about speeches/comments as having a narrative arc
  4. Look for additional emotional tones to layer on your content


1) Fortissimo! Don’t apologize for talking.

In E.L. Konigsberg’s About the B’nai Bagels, the protagonist is preparing for his bar mitzvah and asks his brother for advice on how to sing his Torah portion. After listening to him, his brother has the following feedback:

“I have only one word of advice to give you”
“Give already”
“That word is fortissimo… it’s Italian for loud. When in doubt, shout, that’s what I’m telling you.”
“I should shout? Everyone will hear for sure how bad I am.”
“But, my dear brother, if you sing loud and clear, it will be easier on the audience. You’re making it doubly hard on them. Hard to listen to and hard to hear.”

Not everyone needs to be louder when they speak, but a lot of people who are uncomfortable with public speaking signal that discomfort in posture or vocal tone (a lot of freshman and sophomores had an about-to-cry sounding tension in their voices when they were speaking). If you’re apologizing for talking, your audience will assume there’s a reason and start to resent it or feel uncomfortable.

So, don’t apologize for talking. Don’t start with disclaimers (“I’ll be fast, I don’t want to waste anyone’s time”). And don’t apologize with your voice or your body language. You can get specific feedback by taping yourself talking and have a friend watch it with you and have you practice standing taller or speaking a bit more intently. You can pay a theatre grad student to meet with you a couple times about posture of voice projection. You can also just consciously review why you are talking in the first place before you open your mouth, so you remember why your comment is useful and you’re giving people a gift by talking, not being an imposition.


2) Know the first and last line of your comment before you open your mouth.

It’s pretty obvious why you want to know the first line of your speech/answer/whatever before you start talking; you don’t want an awkward lag or a spot where you might panic. But most people don’t plan their conclusion ahead of time (totally neglecting the peak-end rule!).

I hear a lot of novice speakers start strong, and then kind of peter out at the end of their response. Sometimes people will just trail off, hoping someone else will pick up the slack. Sometimes people have essentially already given their closing thought, but not noticed, and then they end up repeating it awkwardly.

If you know what your closing image/sentence/line/etc is when you start talking, you know what you’re aiming at from the beginning, so you won’t get diverted as easily. You’ve removed one common cause of failure/panic in speaking, so you can speak more confidently in the first place. And your point will be more memorable/easier to engage with if you have a strong conclusion.


3) Think about speeches/comments as having a narrative arc

So that’s the opening and the closing of the talk, but what goes in the middle? In English class, you probably leaned this model:

  • Thesis
  • Evidence 1
  • Evidence 2
  • Evidence 3
  • Thesis restated

This is terribly boring and difficult for people to retain. It’s a lot more fun and memorable if you can put things in the framework of a story. Here’s one formula for creating a narrative structure from Miss Snark:

X is the main guy; he wants to do:
Y is the bad guy; he wants to do:
they meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don’t resolve Q, then R starts and if they do it’s L squared.

When I’m teaching class, I tend to use one that’s more like:

Ever notice how you always X when you’d really like to Y? So did I! I tried Z and it turned out to work, but I wasn’t sure why! I poked around in the literature and found A,B, and C, which caused me to tweak my solution to Z’ and now I Y all the time, and you can too!

Basically, instead of just having a point and supporting data, you take your audience through a couple emotional arcs. It’s easier to remember stories than just data. It’s also more fun for your listeners to repeat, so they’ll get to share your idea with others. It helps you stay away from a monotone or totally even affect while speaking (more in the next tip) and keeps the structure of your comment really clear in your own head.

Planning plot summaries of my speeches means I don’t need to carry notes or memorize lines, anymore than I recite funny stories I share with friends. I can just remember the outline of the story and then expand or contract individual parts depending on what the audience responds to. The structure gives me a safety net. This way, I’m not unsure what I’m saying when I open my mouth, but I’m not stuck saying specific lines.


4) Look for additional emotional tones to layer on your content.

It’s boring to just listen to someone explain facts. Having a narrative arc (as above) will automatically inject some variance into your tone and affect. In my teaching example above, the emotional notes look something like this:

Frustration: [Ever notice how you always X when you’d really like to Y?] Shared identity, all of us looking at the frustration together: [So did I!] I tried Z and it turned out to work, but pleased but perplexed: [I wasn’t sure why!] I poked around in the literature and surprise, but increasing feeling of catharsis: [found A,B, and C, which caused me to tweak my solution to Z’] and triumph: [now I Y all the time], return of fellow feeling and pleasure at sharing something cool: [and you can too!]

But there’s more you can add. One friend of mine was explaining a counterintuitive study in a fairly matter of fact way, but it was a lot more enjoyable and memorable to hear about if she shared her surprise at how it turned out. A lot of the time, it’s simplest to just make sure you’re letting your honest reactions to what you’re saying come across.

But, if you’re not sure what those are, or want to explore other options, you can try dividing what you’re saying into beats. (Beats is a phrase used in theatre for subdivisions within scenes. In one conversation or story, the dominant emotional tone can change, and that transition is the start of a new beat). So, try dividing up your notes or your outline into sections and just experiment with the dominant tone for the section. Here’s a reworking of the emotional beats in my teaching outline:

Sadness, regret: [Ever notice how you always X when you’d really like to Y?] Shame shared as vulnerability: [So did I!] I tried Z and it turned out to work, but tentative, a little uncertain: [I wasn’t sure why!] I poked around in the literature and feeling of tinkering and assembly: [found A,B, and C, which caused me to tweak my solution to Z’] and peace, tranquility: [now I Y all the time], warmth, joy: [and you can too!]

Try looking at this list of some possible emotional tones, and see what it’s like when you using them as you talk through your outline. Try reading wrong tones to a friend, to notice why they’re wrong or to catch yourself if you were unnecessarily restricting your options. Sometimes tone can change a number of times in one passage (as in this marked up example), just pay attention to what prompts the shift. You can try picking a speech or a sentence that already exists, and reading it deliberately with different tones each time to get some practise and comfort using them.


So, if you work on these tips, people will be more comfortable listening to what you say (1), you’ll open and close strongly (2), with a narrative arc that keeps you on track and makes your points memorable (3), and enough emotional variation to keep your audience engaged with you and your content (4). Huzzah!

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  • My subscription to Traces magazine arrived in the mail today, and as I was thumbing through it, I was suddenly delighted to see that they did a profile of you. I was even more delighted after I read it.
    Next subject: I am in training to become lector at my parish. Do you have any public speaking advise for lectors?

    • leahlibresco

      Well, the links at the end (on tone) are actually from the handouts they gave lectors at my DC parish! Basically, I worked on preparing the reading by praying lectio divina and using the possible reading tones as a guide for contemplation.

      • Thanks; I just checked the links.

        • Joe

          Are you involved with Community and Liberation? I was just wondering because they have a group at my parish, and I have been to a few meeting and was very impressed with the group and its spirit. My wife and I didn’t join because at the time we had a lot of other things going on. Do you think it’s worth looking into again?

          • leahlibresco

            I’m not involved, so I know pretty little about it.

    • deiseach

      Unsolicited advice from my very brief time as a lector in our parish:

      (1) Slow down. I don’t know if you’re like me, and nervousness about public reading/speaking makes you tear through the text like Usain Bolt in the 100m, but Slowwwww. Down.

      (2) You should know what reading you’ll be doing beforehand (again, unless like me, you’re nabbed going into church ten minutes before Mass starts, asked/told “You’ll do the second reading, great” and that’s your first clue you’re on) so practice. If you get stuck with the reading from the Epistles, there will be plenty of odd names to stumble over, so practice, practice, practice. You don’t have to get them right, just that you won’t trip up in the middle of the reading wondering where the heck the stress goes when pronouncing “Thessalonians”.

      (3) Find out if you’re expected to read from the lectionary or from the missalette/worship aid/whatever they call it in your parish.

      (4) Likewise, find out if you’re sitting in the pews at the front and come out to do the reading, or sitting in the sanctuary from the start

      (5) Likewise likewise, find out if you’re expected to genuflect, bow to the presider, both, neither (because whatever you do or don’t do, someone will complain about it) 🙂

    • Theodore Seeber

      I don’t know about Leah- but the big one for me was this:

      Since I’m a sight reader who is good at phonics, I rarely look up how to pronounce a word. The Bible is full of words that are spelled a completely different way than they sound. ALWAYS REHEARSE WITH THE PRIEST BEFORE MASS!

  • Pedro Paulo Jr

    Very interesting and useful post.

    Did you get any feedback on your last year’s talk at Chicago ideas week that served for this post?

    One major challenge is to give a talk in a language you’re not native. It feels kinda strange because you sense that you lost maneuver space and it requires much more effort and preparation.

    Another major challenge is to give a talk you already gave dozens of time, because you have the sensation that you’re being bored because you have listened yourself over and over saying the same thing.

  • grok

    Great post Leah, very instructive! I really like the idea of layering emotional “tempo markings” onto one’s speech. I usually script out what I’m going to say in doing powerpoint presentations and rehearse out loud in an empty room. But the thought of writing in emotional “tempo markings” had never occurred to me. I also liked the two different “narrative arcs” you gave and also the two different emotional “tempo markings” you spelled out for your preferred narrative.
    Further on your theme is today’s lectionary reading from Acts:

    “Stephen, filled with grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people. Certain members of the so-called Synagogue of Freedmen, Cyreneans, and Alexandrians, and people from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and debated with Stephen, but they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke…All those who sat in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”

    I, for one, have always wanted to know more about that Synagogue of Freedmen. I wonder if was connected to the group that did the Septuagint translation.

    I agree with your 4 points- they all make sense and one should do them. I think perhaps one might suggest a 5th point:

    “Prepare (furiously) but “wait for”/allow the Spirit to speak through you.”

    And I don’t just mean when one is speaking on religious matters…
    Mark 13: But when you are arrested and stand trial, don’t worry in advance about what to say. Just say what God tells you at that time, for it is not you who will be speaking, but the Holy Spirit.

  • Joe

    It’s pretty awesome that you shared your lector notes on Less Wrong. You got guts!

  • One thing that has always stuck with me from public speaking class is how bad it is to use the word “Um”. It breaks the line and generally leads to a more negative reception of a speech. Getting rid of that word yields a substantial ROI and it can be done by anyone, even those unable to craft a narrative.

  • Shaan Goerge

    Great tips for improving your public speaking skills. Speakers
    need to constantly be learning and updating their knowledge, skills and