“Just Wing It” and 3 Other Confidence-Boosting, Public Speaking Tips


I don’t know about you, but I tend to over-prepare for public speaking opportunities. Recently, I was reminded of one of my very first gigs, which began with an email that read:

“I hate to tell you this, but I am really sick and cannot make it to Virginia Beach tomorrow to deliver my presentation. Can you cover for me?”

I received that message less than 12 hours before my colleague was expected to speak.

Having delivered what I considered my first-ever major public speaking performance that morning, I was feeling good. But I certainly didn’t feel ready to deliver another presentation, especially with content that was not mine and not that familiar.

So I said, “Yes.”

I spent the night rehearsing the material, but still walked into the room of 40-50 people the next morning feeling relatively unprepared. I gave it my best and delivered most of it “off the cuff.”

And I crushed it — at least, that’s what the crowd told me afterward.

But I could even feel it during the presentation – people were laughing and having a good time. I saw several nodding heads throughout the 75 minutes, and many of them appeared to be taking copious notes.

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Since then, I’ve probably delivered dozens of presentations. Yet I still consider that workshop back in Virginia Beach to be one of my best deliveries. Why?

Well, fast forward to two weeks ago when I was preparing to serve on a panel. I was worried that I had not done enough background research and was studying up a bit on the topic. I mentioned that I was “cramming” when a colleague said something akin to:

Don’t worry.

Trust yourself.

You know this stuff.

Just go in there and wing it.

So I did. And you know what? I felt like I got some mojo back – some creative juice that I’d lost somewhere in the last few months.

I tried it again at another presentation this past week. I did very little prep and trusted my knowledge of the topic. Again, based on crowd response, it seemed to go really well.

What have I learned from all these experiences? Well, let’s break down my colleague’s advice:

1. Don’t worry: How often do you fret right up until the moment you’re in front of the crowd, making last minute changes or taking notes – afraid that you’re going to forget to say something particularly brilliant? Stop it. Give yourself a 12-hour window where you just refuse to change anything else and let the material stand.

2. Trust yourself. The audience knows when you and I don’t feel confident about our content. We appear uneasy or restless or frazzled. Rather than using the time before your delivery to worry about the content, start building up your confidence. I often will visualize looking into a crowd of smiling faces and nodding heads or hearing someone say, “Great presentation” afterwward — it gives me a positive energy charge right before I take the stage.

3. You know this stuff. If you’ve been asked to speak somewhere, its’s pretty likely that someone thought you are: (a) a subject matter expert and (b) considered an effective communicator. Focus on the fact that you’re familiar with the material. Often you’ll end up creating mental blocks for yourself if you think too much about forgetting an important point…making it much more likely that you will!

4. Just wing it: I’m serious about this one. Based on my recent experiments with it, try doing absolutely zero preparation for a speech that you’ve done before and are being asked to give again (i.e. if it’s only been a couple months and not much has changed in your field). What I have found is that a different, more creative and spontaneous part of the brain is triggered and I perform more freely and more effectively. It sounds crazy, but you might be surprised by the results. If you’re nervous about it, return to points 1-3 until you know that you know that you know: you’ve got this.

Go crush it.

What are your time-tested, public speaking tips?

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Update: I also noticed that there is a public speaking presentation at the Next Generation of Government Training Summit being delivered by a friend of mine. Here’s the description:

Presentation Design for the User Experience
Dave Uejio, President, Young Government Leaders

From giving a presentation to your SES to presenting your ideas in a meeting, it is essential to be a great public speaker. In this session, you’ll learn from Dave tricks on preparing a great presentation, creating compelling Powerpoint and presentation materials, and how to quickly and effectively pitch your idea at a meeting.

See the full agenda here

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19 Comments

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Profile Photo Corey McCarren

It’s definitely all about being confident in yourself and the material. I agree largely with #4, there are instances where memorizing a speech is the right way to go, but at the same time you risk losing acting like a human being and being unrelateable during the speech if you are just going line by line of what you had written down.

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Profile Photo Alan L. Greenberg

Interesting thoughts. You can do this when you have confdence and expertise.

I’ve done my share of speaking and I find I must at least have an outline, even if it’s just in my head. I then can stray depending upon the audience makeup and reactions. I often cite what I call the “Chauncey Gardner theory,” from the Peter Sellers character. This means that when you have been around as long as I have you can get up in front of an audience and recite any kind of incoherent nonsense and people will think you are a genius. Just kidding, of course.

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Profile Photo Dennis R. Still

I think the “wing it” is often true. Being over prepared means you have too many thoughts, bullets, points in your head. You try to spew all of that out and it becomes boring for the audience. Having to wing it now and again gives you an edge because you are scrambling (internally) to make sure you pick out just the key points and ideas. Plus, I have had some amazing insights during that stress related period. I wouldn’t recommend it all of the time, but give it a try once and see how you do.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Corey – The moments when I have used a script for a live delivery have been among my top 5 worst presentations, so I agree that there is something less human and real – automated – about memorization and reading verbatim (or something that approximates it).

Alan – I am prone to hyperbole, so I might be exaggerating when I say “zero” preparation. I definitely always have an outline in front of me or via slides. But what I can say with confidence: there is definitely a point of diminishing returns on preparation that I often surpass which does nothing to improve the content itself and everything to erode my sense of confidence.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Dennis – Good point. That’s the other thing…you started creating way more content than you have time to deliver and you end up rushing through it all…which also hurts performance.

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Profile Photo David Dejewski

Drink more water the day before your presentation. Being well hydrated helps the vocal chords stay loose. Get a good night sleep if you can. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect. Have fun.

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Profile Photo Pattie Buel

I think #3 is the most important. You were asked to speak for a reason – whether it’s because you know the material better than most or because you’ve got a unique take on it. And remembering that part is the key to being confident. And if you’re ever asked to cover for someone else like you had to, the audience is usually pretty forgiving if you start off with “Andrew couldn’t be here today but his slide deck is. I’ll try to stick to it but, in the words of Prince, forgive me if it goes astray”

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Profile Photo Dick Davies

Andrew – I still think that success comes from your over-preparation…and all the other tips you mentioned are just as important. *grin*

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Profile Photo Allison Primack

Here are some tips from users on GovLoop’s Facebook:

Sebastian Haselbeck don’t overthink

Jeff D’Andria Bring your topic to the presentation. i.e. If doing a resume workshop, bring a resume for your audience to work with.

Amy Williams Toastmasters has been a great asset for me. http://http://www.toastmasters.org/

Jean Kapala Brown Be concise. Your audience is smart – they get it.

Paul F. Bove Practice, practice, practice. It helps to overcome your fear and also gives you more confidence. I began volunteering to give presentations just so I could get more practice and it made a world of difference. Also, it’s good to have some trivia facts related to your discussion that you can throw out to lighten the mood if you get stuck.

Trish Bachman I always beging with a very hearty and loud Good Morning or Good Afternoon! It causes the audience to shout it back at you, which kind of wakes them up and engages them from the get-go. When someone loses me right off the bat, I tend to let my thoughts just kind of drift away.

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Profile Photo Allison Primack

We also got this tip over on GovLoop’s LinkedIn Group:

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Profile Photo Dave Hebert

Most of us don’t know how to read a script like an actor, so I completely agree on not reading your notes that way. But you better know your stuff and be sure of the points you want to make.

Also, assume that the people in the room know how to read and therefore don’t need you to recite your PowerPoint text for them. Speaking of which, don’t have much PowerPoint text. If any.

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Profile Photo Tom Scibek

I have found that Toastmaster Clubs are an excellent place to pratice your public speaking. Toastmasters allow you to overcome the fears you have about speaking in public, supply opportunities to pratice and improve your speaking skills with helpful feedback and evaluations, and gives you a chance to rehearse your speech beforehand!

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Profile Photo Greg Mt.Joy

Good stuff. I don’t write out entire speeches, but use bullet points. If you practice a couple of times you’ll know the in-between bits anyway. Plus the easiest way to get flustered is to forget something, then beat yourself up over it for the rest of the speech. If you don’t have a set script, you can’t technically forget something–you are just winging it.

I also find it helps to scan the audience beforehand for friendly faces. And take some deep breaths of course.

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Profile Photo Dawn Nester

When I know the topic inside and out, I’m confident. Therefore, when I’m at the front of the room, behind a podium or out in front of it or whatever the speaking arrangement is, I look for the most uncomfortable looking person in the room and make eye contact, smile reassuringly, as if to say, “It’s going to be alright,” and then it is. I started doing that when I was first married and my husband would leave me at the door to go talk to his buddies. I’d look around the room and find someone who looked more uncomfortable and miserable than I felt and go talk to that person to reassure the person that we weren’t alone; someone else felt like they did. And, before long, we were relaxed and talking and other people came up to join us, asking what we were talking about, and joining in. My husband was at first taken aback, but then he relaxed, too, seeing I was holding my own. He never got over his bad habit of forgetting to introduce me to his friends and abandoning me at the door, so I just make a life-long habit of looking for someone in a crowd who looked as miserable in a group of strangers as I felt. Helping someone else “feel at home,” whether actually in a home or in a training room, took me out of myself and eased my nerves so that I found I could speak to my expertise without butterflies.

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Profile Photo Rex Castle

Mark Twain is said to have said “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” (That’s not an exact quote of what he said, but it’s from Brain Quotes.)

I agree with Mr. Twain. I think the advice to “wing it,” to those who do not do a lot of public speaking, respectfully, is probably not extremely good advice. There’s great science behind presentation and the expression of ideas. I recommend (the short list) Chip & Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick (if someone is looking for ways to get an audience to remember their ideas), Cliff Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points (is an exceptional book at how to actually use PowerPoint or another tool as part of a presentation), either of Nancy Duarte’s books although I found resonate stunning, any of Garr Reynolds’ work (he has three books at the moment and all are fascinating), and I’d suggest, too, Carmine Gallo’s book The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs for anyone who wants to get an idea about appropriate levels of practice. Ted.com has a multitude of exceptional presentations that can be viewed and all are totally free and spam-less, if someone likes watching great (for the most part) speakers.

After years and years of doing this stuff (and I very, very rarely present with any notes or an outline in front of me, and never with bulleted slides as an outline–my slides, when I use them, are almost always text-free graphics) my best advice is (1) be yourself; (2) know your material; (3) practice: and (4) practice in front of a critical audience and listen to their criticism.

I’d say “wing it” if that’s what reality dictates, but, then, I’d tray and follow Mark Twain’s advice on impromptu speaking.

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Profile Photo Jack Shaw

I agree with Rex when it comes to inexperienced speakers. I “wing it” everyday as a teacher of public speaking, but then I am a professional. Most of what I do I do quite naturally because it’s embedded in my brain. Natural speakers can do this; but there are many who do need practice and review before doing it. Not a criticism or a put down, but some people are just made that way and they still have to speak. I do agree, however, the more spontaneous you sound, the more enthusiastic you sound and make no excuses your audience is in your court all the way. Good post. Just watch the “winging it” part. Some may think they are ready for it when they are not.

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