Posted by: ayounglove | June 22, 2008

Professional speaking

I am currently 6 months away from graduating with a Master’s in Library Science and recently I was invited to give a speech at the upcoming NWILL Conference. I have never delivered a speech in front of a large audience before and so consequently, I’ve been thinking about ways to improve my presentation skills. I’ve read several excellent books on the topic of speaking professionally recently, and since this is a political season, I’ve been paying close attention to how master speakers like Obama work a crowd.

Apparently some of this information gathering has already begun to pay off. In class yesterday, I participated in a formal debate assignment that required two and four minute speaking segments. After my team won the debate, I was approached by a classmate who noticed I have improved my speaking skills and asked if I had any tips or resources for him.

I will try to briefly summarize here the principles that I learned and have newly put into action.

Have an attention grabbing opening and conclusion:

Don’t waste time introducing your topic. The audience likely has already been informed about who you are and what you are going to speak about. Use your first few moments to present an old idea in an original way or share an interesting anecdote. This way the audience is hooked into wanting to hear more.

Similarly, don’t end on a vague or analytical note. Close with a memorable quote or empowering directive. Audiences are more likely to recall the beginning and ending five minutes of your speech than the entire hour or so in between. Use your intro and conclusion time wisely to achieve maximum impact.

Be concrete:

Never present an abstract idea when a concrete illustration will do the trick. For instance, consider the difference between saying, “money can be good,” or “poor people need money,” and “Have you ever been or known someone who was so poor that a five dollar bill seemed like a fortune?” Using the leading phrase, “just imagine for a moment . . .” will also help you more powerfully appeal to what people already know and experience first hand.

Make eye contact:

Making eye contact is about more than just looking up from your notes occasionally to reassure your listeners that they aren’t being read to. A truly good speaker will pick out individuals in the crowd to the right, to the left and in front of herself or himself and really lock pupils. Not only does this help the listeners who are being looked at directly feel a personal connection to the speaker, it also helps everyone in that listener’s general area feel like they are being acknowledged.

The audience is your friend:

Forget the old adage about imagining the audience in their underwear. Imagining a foolish audience could cause you to project a tone of arrogance. Similarly, if you anticipate a hostile audience, you are more likely to be nervous and defensive. If you choose to perceive the audience as basically friendly, then you will feel more relaxed and will be more able to connect to them personally.

Make sure all your subpoints relate back to your main point:

Poor organization, more than any other pitfall, will reduce your credibility and keep your speech from being a success. Before you give your speech, write out the speech’s main objective. That is, sum up in one sentence what you want your audience to learn from you. Then, write down your main points and compare them to the speech’s objective. It may seem harsh, but if they don’t directly support the main objective 100%, cut them out of your speech and replace them with more relevant points. This will keep people from becoming confused and trying to guess what the point is or from falling asleep because you wander too much.

*These general principles are available in a variety of books on public speaking, but the two books on the topic that I found most helpful were: Power Speak by Dorothy Leeds and Knockout Presentations by Diane DiResta.

What about you? Are there tips and tricks that you have learned about speaking either to library stakeholders or to a professional audience?



  1. ** Practice out loud. Cats make a great first audience. Then try it on a human who can give feed back.
    ** Use humor and stories. Don’t be personal; be universal.
    ** Your audience is unlikely to come away remembering more than three points. Think about what three points you want to leave them with and how you will ensure they got them.
    ** Use PPT sparingly (if at all). If you do, make it count. Visuals are better than print. Do NOT read it!
    ** Don’t memorize what you’re going to say; it’ll sound stilted. Use an outline to keep your place, but speak spontaneously.
    ** Handouts are good for supporting your key points.
    ** Stand tall. Speak loudly and clearly and with passion. Smile. Smile some more. And don’t forget to breath. 🙂

  2. Thanks Monique! I especially agree with your suggestion to use PowerPoint sparingly.

  3. Thanks for sharing this April, and good luck on your presentation. I’m sure it’ll be great!

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