BBC Capital

First aid for your speaking skills

About the author

Alina Dizik is a freelance journalist who covers consumer trends, careers, lifestyle and small business for national publications. Her work appears in the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Men's Journal and BBC.

  • Presentation preparation

    Sooner or later it happens in every career: you get handed a speech or an interview, with only a few days or hours to prepare.

    Sure, chief executives often work with diction coaches for years; you’re expected to rise to the occasion with nothing but a power point presentation and a smartphone clock.

    Fortunately, there are more tools, apps and exercises than ever to help you prepare. BBC Capital spoke to several top speaking coaches, who offered seven ways to brush up fast for emergency speaking engagements or just for a quick refresher on the basics.

    The better you get about speaking professionally in public, the more you may find you enjoy the experience — which will only help as you rise through the ranks in your career, said Virginia-based speaking coach Kristi Hedges, author of the Power of Presence.

    The conference room “is a place where people see our leadership skills on display,” she said. (Getty Images)

  • Tap into apps

    A variety of smartphone and tablet apps on the market now offer quick-hit lectures on public speaking. Sam Westlake, 36, regularly taps into an app called Presentation Skills on his smartphone before he talks. The app offers video, podcasts and factsheets on speech preparation, delivery, props and feedback for both newbies and those just trying to brush up.

    At a recent speech, the app’s lecture on getting audience feedback reminded him to gauge whether he was losing the audience by speaking too quickly.

    “I regularly use it as a warm-up tool before a public speaking session,” said Westlake, the owner of a business solutions firm in Bournemouth, England, who speaks to corporate clients about their technology needs.

    Presentation Skills is available on iTunes by Marton House Plc for less than $1. Another app, Tips to Boost Your Presentation Skills, is available for $15 on iTunes and offers short video pointers.

    Photo: Mitt Romney dictates into an iPhone. (Getty Images)

  • Watch yourself, over and over again

    Use your computer or your smartphone to record yourself while practising, and then play back the recording to get a sense of where to improve, said Allison Shapira, a Washington DC-based public speaking coach who works with international clients.

    “Nobody likes to hear the sound of their voice, but it’s essential,” she said. Look for inflection in your voice, eye contact and gestures.

    Use the video to figure out which nervous gestures you use, suggested Matt Eventoff, a New Jersey-based trainer. Be mindful of slouching, fidgeting or repetitive gesturing with your hands. Notice if you fuss with rings, watches or even clothing buttons while speaking.

    “If you are going into a high stakes presentation, you don’t want to wear big jewellery or anything you might play with that could distract the audience,” he said. Practising good posture throughout the day can help you when it’s time to speak, he added.

    Once you spot your weaknesses, use a phone or computer camera to track your improvements. Most public speaking apps offer advice specific to these trouble spots. (Getty Images)

  • Master the art of eye contact

    Skip the old wisdom of speaking in front of a mirror, which might make you feel unnatural. David Tomlinson, a Paris-based corporate speaking coach, suggested practising the following pattern to make eye contact with objects or people: Allow your eyes to trace the shape of a “W” and then invert the shape to an “M.” Hold your gaze in each area for 4 to 6 seconds.

    Practising eye contact during regular interaction, both at home and at work can make it easier once you’re asked to give a presentation. Keeping your eyes focussed on the audience helps keep them engaged in what you’re saying, he added. (Thinkstock)

  • Know what you say without speaking

    Gestures are more important that most people realise, said Tomlinson. If you’re not careful, you’ll communicate messages entirely at odds with what you really want to say. For instance, if you stand with your back to the audience, you signal what you say has little value. You signal disinterest if you keep your hands in your pockets or stand still with your hands at your sides.

    Gestures can also enhance what you are saying. Pinch your fingers together to show precision. Reverse gestures from left to right. They will look correct to the audience — and signal your concern for their comfort.

    For examples of smart gesturing consider news shows or viewing taped speeches online. Using gestures during specific points of your presentation can help emphasise certain points and help the audience focus on your message, added Tomlinson. (Thinkstock)

  • Study other speakers

    If you need some last minute inspiration, browse through more than 1,500 Ted Talks available online to find speakers you want to emulate.

    “Find some good role models,” said Hedges, who also tells her clients to ask effective speakers at their companies for feedback.

    Once you found them, jot down a list of things that makes these speakers stand out and try to incorporate them into your own presentations or even simple interactions. The more presentations you assess, the easier it becomes to find speakers to emulate, she added.
    (Getty Images)

  • Focus on the beginning and end

    If you only have a little time to prepare, use your time to practise your opening sentences and how you’ll close the speech, said Eventoff who adds that he likes to begin some presentations with a quote.

    Having a well-practised beginning and end can help you seem polished to the audience, because those are the parts of the speech that leave a lasting impression, he explained. (Thinkstock)

  • Seek low-risk opportunities to practice

    Finally, don’t get caught off-guard next time. You could volunteer to speak up in meetings or during lunch workshops.

    Katrina Dixon, 41, London-based marketing executive for a technology company, signed up for Toastmasters International, a global nonprofit public speaking organisation. She pays £12 per ($19) month to join the meetings, where she gives long speeches as well as impromptu two-minute-long presentations.

    “It’s a part of the programme which is both nerve-wracking and exhilarating,” she said. After the presentation, people get feedback from other members about how to improve.

    “Mend your speech a little, lest you may mar your fortunes,” King Lear told his daughter, Cordelia. She didn’t listen — but those who do, like Dixon, are likely to see the rewards. (Thinkstock)