Public Speaking in the Twenty-First Century

When we watch celebrities, politicians, or business leaders speak on television or in public, they seem so at ease that we may wonder:  are great speakers made, or are they just born that way? While it is true that some individuals are definitely born with this gift, the overwhelming majority of effective speakers have trained themselves to be so. Either they have received formal media training or they have delivered so many speeches that over time they’ve learned what works for them. So what is the true secret to effective public speaking?Here are seven principles of public speaking that I’ve developed in my role as a media coach.  Keep them in mind the next time you find yourself presenting before a group.

1. Perception: Stop trying to be a great “public” speaker.
People want to listen to someone who is interesting, relaxed, and comfortable.  In the routine conversations we have every day, we have no problem being ourselves.  Yet too often, when we stand up to give a speech, something changes.  We focus on the “public” at the expense of the “speaking.”  To become an effective public speaker, you must do just the opposite: focus on the speaking and let go of the “public.”  Think of it as a conversation between you and the audience. If you can carry on a relaxed conversation with one or two people, you can give a great speech.  Whether your audience consists of two people or two thousand and whether you’re talking about the latest medical breakthrough or what you did today at work, be yourself; talk directly to people and make a connection with them.

2. Perfection: When you make a mistake, no one cares but you.
Even the most accomplished public speaker will make a mistake at some point.  Just keep in mind that you’ll notice more than anyone in your audience.  The most important thing a speaker can do after making a mistake is to keep going.  Don’t stop and—unless the mistake was truly earth shattering—never apologize to the audience for a minor slip.  Unless they are reading the speech during your delivery, the audience won’t know if you left out a word, said the wrong name, or skipped a page.  Because “to err is human,” a mistake can actually work for you, because it allows you to connect with your audience.  People don’t want to hear from someone who is “perfect;” they will relate much more easily to someone who is real.

3. Visualization: If you can see it, you can speak it.

Winners in all aspects of life have this in common:  they practice visualization to achieve their goals.  Sales people envision themselves closing the deal; executives picture themselves developing new ventures; athletes close their eyes and imagine themselves making that basket, hitting that home run, or breaking that record.  The same is true in public speaking.  The best way to fight anxiety and to become a more comfortable speaker is to practice in the one place where no one else can see you—your mind. If you visualize on a consistent basis, your mind will become used to the prospect of speaking in public, and pretty soon you’ll conquer any feelings of anxiety.

4. Discipline: Practice makes perfectly good.
Your goal is not to be a perfect public speaker.  There is no such thing.  Your goal is to be an effective public speaker.  Like anything else in life, it takes practice.  We too often take communication for granted because we speak to people everyday. But when your prosperity is directly linked to how well you perform in front a group, you need to give the task the same attention as if you were a professional athlete. Remember, even world champion athletes practice every day.  Try taking a class where you practice giving speeches.

5. Description: Make it personal.
Whatever the topic, audiences respond best when speakers personalize their communication. Take every opportunity to put a face on the facts of your presentation.  People like to hear about other people’s experiences—the triumphs, tragedies, and everyday humorous anecdotes that make up their lives.  Tell stories.  Whenever possible, insert a personal-interest element in your public speaking.  Not only will it make your listeners warm up to you, but it will also do wonders at putting you at ease. After all, on what subject is your expertise greater than on the subject of you?

6. Inspiration: Speak to serve.
For a twist that is sure to take much of the fear out of public speaking, take the focus off of yourself and shift it to your audience. After all, the objective is not to benefit the speaker but to benefit the audience, through teaching, motivation, or entertainment. So in all of your preparation and presentation, you should think about your purpose.  How can you help your audience members achieve their goals?

7. Anticipation: Always leave ‘em wanting more.
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in my years in communications is that when it comes to public speaking, less is usually more. I don’t think I’ve ever left a gathering and heard someone say, “I wish that speaker had spoken longer.” On the other hand, I imagine that you probably can’t count the times that you’ve thought, “I’m glad that speech is over. It seemed to go on forever!” So surprise your audience.  Always make your presentation just a bit shorter than anticipated.  If you’ve followed the first six principles outlined here you already have their attention and interest, and it’s better to leave your listeners wishing you had spoken for just a few more minutes than squirming in their seats waiting for your speech finally to end.

Want to learn more about public speaking? Watch our free webcast on delivering your message with authority and confidence.

About the Author(s)

Richard Zeoli Richard Zeoli is the founder and president of RZC Impact, an executive communications training firm.  He is the author of The 7 Principles of Public Speaking (Skyhorse Publishing) and is a Visiting Associate at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.  For more information, visit