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4 Musts for Public Speaking

No matter where we are in our careers, all of us, at some point, will need to apply public speaking skills. It could be a formal presentation, a webinar or even an interview. We can present well or we can do this badly, and the outcome strongly affects the way that people think about us. This is why public speaking causes so much anxiety and concern.

Luckily, First 5 is here to share some simple tips to help you overcome your anxieties and improve your public speaking skills:first-5-icon-07-225x225

Assume a Power Pose
If you’ve got a case of the nerves before presenting or going for an interview, there’s a scientifically proven way to channel that adrenaline in a positive manner. Assume a power pose.

Now what is a power pose you ask? In a recent Ted Talk, Amy Cuddy ties science into it. Cuddy ran an experiment where people were directed to adopt either high-power (open, confident, spread out) or low-power (making yourself smaller) poses for two minutes. Then they were asked to gamble. They found that 86% of those who posed in the high-power positions felt more comfortable rolling the dice, while only 60% of the lower-power posers felt comfortable. There were even physiological differences between the two groups after the power poses, where high-power posers had a 25% decrease in stress levels. What this means for public speaking is that assuming “power poses” that help boost confidence and reduce stress can definitely help the way you present.

Humans and animals express power through their bodies. Uncertainty is when we make ourselves smaller like slumped shoulders, hunching over, crossed arms, or avoiding big movements. But when we feel ready to take on the world, we sprawl out. So before you get into that interview room or deliver that speech, stand in a Superman pose with your arms raised straight above your head – make sure you your hands are slightly in front of you so you can still see them. Try and hold them up for about 2 minutes. You’ll be amazed at how much calmer and more confident you feel.

Work Your Pose
It may sound like top model runway stuff here, but there’s something to be said about the way you pose during your presentation. Stance and posture are critical to making you feel more comfortable and engaging your audience. If you display slumped shoulders, crossed arms, or crossed legs, your audience is going to wonder if you really know what you’re talking about.

If you don’t have a podium in front of you – or aren’t holding a microphone or any sort of prop – it’s always important to know what you’re doing with your hands. Chances are, they might be shaking from nerves. In the performing or theater world, we’re taught that if we’re not using a gesture, the hands should either be down at our side or gently clasped around the stomach.

One way to stand and look professional as well as engaged is to play rock, paper, scissors with yourself. Hand (paper) covers your other hand (rock), then rest your hands on your stomach, right above the belly button. It should be like you’re about to give yourself the Heimlich maneuver, but don’t go that far. This helps you keep your hands at rest while also making you look poised and confident.

Choose Your Gesture
For those moments when your hands are not in resting position, it’s critical to practice some gestures you’re comfortable with for public speaking. We know how distracting overly dramatic gestures or lack of targeted ones can be. It can help to choose a signature gesture.

Here are some dos and don’ts when deciding what to do with your hands:


  • Use Jazzy Hands. While “Bring it On” at any cheer event is a great time to use these types of hands, professional public speaking is not. Usually, when people don’t know what gesture to stick with, jazzy hands becomes the end result and it becomes very distracting for an audience.
  • Point. Many politicians do it, but so do preachers. When you’re giving a presentation in a work setting, the last thing the audience wants to feel is chastised or preached to.
  • Do Nothing. While you don’t need a gesture for every sentence you utter, knowing how and when to use your hands can really help your cadence and the flow of a presentation. This applies to standing presentations in particular. If you don’t use any gestures, your audience is going to be disengaged pretty quickly.


  • The Obama: I like to call it the “Obama” because it seems to be his unique go-to. Not only is the former President eloquent, articulate, slow, and deliberate when he speaks, but he also uses emphatic gestures as necessary. This key signature is almost a pointing finger, but doesn’t have the same negative effect. The index finger is actually curved in, so he uses his hand to simultaneously demonstrate his point while steadying his cadence. Many politicians have their signature move, “the Obama” is recommendable because its multi-facilitating abilities.
  • The Ball: For body language, it’s important to be open and enthusiastic. You may not be speaking at a formal venue that requires the Obama. For such cases, like meetings and even interviews, the ball can be very helpful. The ball is simply energy and how you maneuver that with your hands. Think of Tai Chi, for example. It’s all about the moving and channeling of energy. So practice speaking with an imaginary ball in your hands. It can be as large as a yoga ball (for some large, emphatic gestures) or the size of a football, depending on the subject. The great thing is you can pass the ball, which helps you direct your eye contact when you’re trying to meet the gazes of your audience members. It also helps you channel that energy while keeping your body language open and inviting.

Acknowledge Your Audience
Finally, before you leave the stage, the meeting, or the interview, it’s always important to acknowledge your audience. Can you imagine watching a performer on stage abruptly walk off when people applaud for him? It can be very awkward when you finish a public speaking activity and fail to acknowledge your audience.

No need to be dramatic here– a bow is not necessary. If there’s applause, pause a moment. It doesn’t mean you’re a ham, it just means you’re showing gratitude that they appreciate you as a speaker. A simple smile and a nod is all you need. Of course in interviews, you would smile and shake hands. But just take the time to pause, count for at least 20 seconds, and acknowledge the people who were kind enough to give you their undivided attention.

Public speaking is an art all in itself and no matter what profession you’re in, everyone can benefit from being better at it. If you haven’t already, try taking some improv classes, join a choir, or take a course in public speaking itself. Not only can these skills help you be a better presenter, but they can also help your overall confidence as a person and in the workplace.

Please feel free to share any additional suggestions, thoughts, and comments below!


This blog post was originally posted on October 21, 2015. 

For more reading about millennials in public service, check out this weekly GovLoop series, First 5: Advice from millennial to millennial

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Thomas L Datro

I never understood why people gushed over Mr. Obama’s oration skills. HIs speeches were always full of “filler”. “Ahhhh” “Ahhhh” I’m quite surprised that an article on public speaking would not address the use of “Ya know”, and other comfort filler phrases. I have noticed the use of those can be terribly distracting. I’ve seen people counting how may times a speaker will use filler To that end the power posture is a strong piece of advice. Tony Robins is a far better public speaker than Mr. Obama.