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Your Top Public Speaking Questions -- Answered

This is the third installment in a three-part series covering GovLoop’s virtual training event on effective public speaking. The first installment collected the top tricks for improving your public speaking, while the second installment provided lessons for repurposing your emotions to help deliver a stronger speech.

Public speaking can often seem like a solitary occupation. You usually find yourself alone, standing in front of a group of peers or strangers, trying to convince them of the importance of your material.

Fortunately, you aren’t alone – at least when it comes to preparing for your speech. On Tuesday March 11th, GovLoop hosted a virtual training session on how to become an effective public speaker. The event ended with a lively question and answer session, addressing many of the audience’s urgent questions. You can view the archived version of the webinar here.

For now, we’ve compiled a recap of a few of the most common questions from the audience. Webinar panelists included Steve Ressler, Founder and President of GovLoop, and Michael Lawyer, Special Assistant to the Human Capital Officer, Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Q: How do you keep energized when you are trying to talk slowly?

“That’s a tricky one,” Ressler conceded. In his presentation, Ressler emphasized the need to keep the audience energized by keeping one’s energy level up, but also reminded viewers that slowing down and pausing is key to delivering a more compelling speech. Ressler advised finding a rhythm that is natural.

“I start with being energetic and then start speaking slowly. That’s how my brain works,” Ressler said. But for some people, the opposite may be the best way to go. The important thing is to find a balance that works for you.

Q: How do you reign in your nerves when you are speaking in public? Specifically, how do you keep your voice from shaking?

“I let mine shake,” Lawyer responded, adding, “You have to recognize that it is going to happen. Have a glass of water ready, take a sip and keep going.” Lawyer continued by explaining that turning red, or having a shaky voice or hands, is just your body’s way of responding to the adrenaline pumping through your system in preparation for your talk. The best speakers use that emotion to convey their message to the audience. This is especially true for public service professionals, who may be speaking about changes that affect people’s lives or communities. Harnessing that emotion in a positive, compelling way is just as important as having data or supporting evidence.

Q: How do you get rid of ‘um’ and ‘uh’ when giving a speech?

First, it is important to familiarize yourself with the way you speak. This means recording yourself or having a friend or colleague provide notes on your speaking habits. The second piece is to understand that ‘um’ will happen from time to time, and it is crucial not to let it throw you off.

“It’s a pausing thing, a thinking thing,” Lawyer noted. It occurs when your brain is ‘spinning’ to get to where it needs to be, and your mouth is filling in that space in between.

But the more you practice, the more engaged you are, the less your brain will need to ‘spin,’ which provides openings for the dreaded ‘um’ and ‘uh’ to spill out.

Q: What is the best way to engage the audience? Should you tell jokes? What if it falls flat?

Ressler noted that most jokes fail during speeches and presentations because the speaker doesn’t commit fully to the joke. “If you go for it, go big. Tell the joke, laugh, have fun, show that it is clearly a joke,” Ressler advised.

But jokes are not the only way to engage an audience. “Don’t feel obligated to do a joke, but definitely do something that’s fun and lighthearted to kick things off,” Ressler noted. Tell a story, kick things off with an icebreaker, or toss some questions back into the audience.

Q: How do you prepare? Specifically, how much should you practice? Do you use notes?

Both Ressler and Lawyer noted that they do not read off note cards. Instead, each emphasized practicing the presentation all the way through more than once before delivering a speech. “I have essentially given the talk enough times that it’s memorized, and then I have my slides to bring me back to the big feeling or big idea I am trying to convey,” Lawyer said. Ressler agreed, but noted that he was less likely to have his speech memorized. “I’m big into the Lawyer method – love the content, love the audience, rock it and have fun,” Ressler added.

Cure the lonely public speaking blues by watching the archived webinar in its entirety. You can listen to more answers to audience questions, as well as learn from two public speakers with years of experience.

Additional Resources

  • NextGen Speaker Contest - Enter here to be one of five lightning speakers at NextGen 2014. Share an innovative project at your agency or a great idea to revolutionize government.
  • Managing Stress: Michael Lawyer referenced a must-watch TED talk on making stress your friend. Click here to watch it.
  • Design Matters: Steve Ressler recommended reading these presentation design reference books by Duarte. He also recommended SlideShare, a free repository for slideshow presentations. Each day the top slides are featured on the site.

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