How to upgrade your public speaking

Top tips from the newly crowned Toastmasters International UK Public Speaking champion to help you increase your confidence as a public speaker as you represent your startup.

How strong are you communication skills?  As a startup founder you need to be at the top of your communication game as you sell your ideas, gain investment and grow your company.

That means you’ll be speaking to audiences of various sizes, often in stressful situations. So how can you make the most of your speaking opportunities?

Get a good understanding of your audience

Who are you presenting to and what do they most want to hear from you?  If you are delivering a sales or investor pitch for example, do some research in advance on the people sitting across the table from you. By checking out their LinkedIn profiles, you’ll get feel for whether they’re interested in getting straight down to business or if they prefer to shoot the breeze and get to know people first. This will allow you to adjust your presentation style accordingly.  If you have bad news to deliver in your presentation, get it out of the way early. And if you are presenting online, ask people to turn their cameras on, keep them on mute, but encourage them to ask questions and add comments in the chat.

Always visualise success

Imagine the audience reacting positively, see them smiling and applauding and run that image through your head a few times before you begin to speak. If it is a live presentation, turn up at the venue early and greet the people who are attending as they come in. Then when you are delivering your presentation, look for the positive faces in the crowd who are wishing you well as you are speaking. 

Record and review your presentations

Use your phone and record one of your practice sessions.  Watch it back and check your content, your body language and your eye contact.  If there are elements you need to improve on, change them.  If you are presenting online, practice in front of a mirror. Facial reactions are really important on the small screen, so keep your expressions in check.

It is also a good idea to record the actual session, so you can review it afterwards. Think about how you did after your presentation.  Did you connect with the audience? Did you feel comfortable as you spoke?  How could you improve when you present next?  Use your presentations as a learning experience and as an opportunity to grow and improve. It can also help to ask someone in the audience to give you a private evaluation afterwards to get an objective view of how you performed and how you can do even better next time. And if you have concerns about particular areas, you can ask your evaluator to focus on them.

Embrace the art of the pause 

Take the time to pause when you say something really important in your presentation.  Highlight those moments in your script in advance and when you deliver them, take the time to look around the room to ensure the audience is getting the message. Ask yourself what single sentence you would like the attendees to take away and remember from your presentation. Once you identify this key message, make sure you focus on getting it across effectively. Repetition is good here and don’t forget to pause after you deliver it!

Be adaptable

Be prepared to alter your tactics during a presentation, particularly during a sales or investor pitch.  If you notice you are not connecting or people don’t seem as interested as you would like them to be, change your approach. Maybe you could ditch the slides and speak to the audience directly.  Perhaps you could interact with the attendees more. Think on your feet and if you feel it isn’t working, do something differently.

Look for speaking opportunities

Take every opportunity you can to practice and improve your public speaking and presenting skills.  Volunteer to chair meetings for your local charity, sit on committees, attend conferences and speak up at work. It is also worth watching and listening to other top speakers to pick up tips from them on how to improve. You can do this in person or online. Whether you enjoy speaking in public or not, the way to improve it is to do more of it.

Drop into a Toastmasters club meeting

Visit a Toastmasters club, either online or in person. There are more than 16,000 clubs in 145 countries.  Toastmasters teaches you how to manage your fear of public speaking, schools you in leadership and communication skills, helps you run meetings effectively, and encourages you to develop listening and evaluation skills.  As a guest, you are welcome to turn up for almost all of these meetings, to see if the club you have chosen suits you. As a member, you are assigned a mentor to help you on your speaking journey, to achieve your communication and management goals.  Although Toastmasters clubs originally met in person, the organisation has adapted and many of its clubs are now hybrid or online only.

Work hard on your preparation for your Q&A sessions

Many speakers work hard on their presentation, but they often forget about the Q&A session afterwards.  You need to work just as hard on the Q&A session as you do on your talk. Try and anticipate what the questions might be and prepare some good answers. If you can, practice and prepare and refine the answers to these questions with a trusted colleague.  If you are speaking live at a venue, it can also help to get the event organisers to ask the first question or two, especially if you agree in advance what they are going to ask.