How to Improve Your Public Speaking by Practicing Out Loud

A few weeks ago, Gail and I attended the Dynamic Communicators Workshop (DCW) at the WinShape Retreat Center in Mt. Berry, Georgia. Even though I have been speaking publicly for 30 years, I was ready to take my speaking to the next level. I wasn’t disappointed.

A Little Boy Practicing a Speech - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/RichVintage, Image #14318794

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/RichVintage

DCW was one of the best learning experiences I have ever had. My friend, Ken Davis, along with a world-class faculty presented extraordinary content. That alone would have been worth the tuition. But the most helpful sessions were with our small groups. In these sessions, we each had to prepare and deliver three speeches. We were then video-taped, critiqued, and individually coached.

Though the experience was initially nerve-racking, I can’t imagine learning as much as we did without the hands-on experience. It was invaluable. So much so, that Gail and I are planning to attend DCW again this fall in Vail, Colorado.

I came away with numerous action items. However, the one that had the single biggest immediate impact was this:

Before you give a speech, practice it out loud, on your feet, as though you were in front of a live audience.

I know, that probably doesn’t sound too revolutionary. But for some reason, I had unconsciously come to the conclusion that I didn’t need to do this. Boy, was I wrong.

In the week following DCW, I gave three speeches publicly. I practiced each speech twice in private before delivering it in public. It made all the difference in terms of my confidence and ability to connect with the audience.

Here are the seven steps I took to make my practice effective:

  1. Create a solid, easy-to-remember outline. This is the prerequisite. We spent a considerable amount of time on this at DCW. They teach you an entire methodology that works with both persuasive speeches and enabling ones. (You also learn the difference.) There’s nothing wrong with notes, but you don’t want the audience to be aware that you are using them.
  2. Find a relatively private location. You want to be able to give your speech as though you were giving it live, without feeling like someone might be listening in. This was pretty easy while practicing at home. I just found an empty room, told my family what I was going to do, and shut the door. It’s tougher in a hotel room, but I did it anyway.
  3. Set a timer with your assigned time. This was critical. I used the timer on my iPhone. I also found that my speeches ran about 10–15% longer when I gave them live. So set the timer for less time in practice than you have been allotted. Note: if you are going to use this when you speak live, put the phone in Airplane mode, so you don’t get a phone call or text message in the middle of your speech. Also, turn the screen saver off.
  4. Stand up and give your speech out loud. This also makes a difference. Your physical posture affects your energy level and overall confidence. I put my outline on a podium, countertop, or desktop, and then moved around as though I am presenting in front of a live audience. It’s also helpful to me to visualize two or three people I am speaking to in the practice audience.
  5. Work on your facial expressions and gestures. This initially sounded inauthentic to me. But I think it was because I had forgotten that 70% of all communication is non-verbal. If that’s true, it is more important to practice this aspect of our communication than the actual words. In watching my video tape at DCW, I found that my face wasn’t always communicating what my heart intended! Overall, I found that I was more effective by being more expressive and with bigger gestures.
  6. Practice pauses, inflections, and vocal dynamics. This is also something I did’t often think about. As a result, my overall speech pattern was predictable—and boring. My goal is not entertainment but communication. Regardless, you sometimes have to be entertaining in order to communicate. I am now working on more variation. The only way to keep this from sounding contrived and inauthentic is practice, practice, practice.
  7. Nail your closing. I have traditionally worked really hard on the opening. This is important to be sure. But I think it is even more important to finish strong. The closing is the last thing people will remember. I want to go out with a bang not a whimper. I am now practicing my closing several times, all by itself.

I can’t believe I got by for as long as I did without intentional and disciplined practice. Although I have seen immediate results, I think this will be especially helpful over the long haul. I don’t ever plan to speak publicly again without practicing it in private.

By the way, if you are interested in attending the Dynamic Communicators Summit, October 17–20, 2011 in Vale, you can get a $200 discount by using the special discount code: HYATTVAIL. This offer expires on June 30, 2011.

Questions: Do you practice before you speak? What have you learned? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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