Mastering the Essentials of Public Speaking

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By Goke Ilesanmi


The elections of 2011 are fast approaching, prompting public outcry for credible elections come 2011. This is because we know the type of elections we normally have in this country.

Politicians who are not sure of their chances must have begun their desperate groundwork for election rigging come 2011, just as academically lazy students always look for question papers when examination days are getting near. Research shows that one of the reasons for election fraud in this country is lack of what it takes to convince the electorate and even win opposition over during electioneering by most politicians.

President Barack Obama was able to change the status quo in the United States of America by becoming the first Black President because of his skills of public speaking and persuasive discourse. He has the skills of logical presentation, didactic articulation, communication clarity and linguistic simplicity and creativity. He is simply a charismatic orator.

We also have back home here, people like Senator Ahmed Tinubu, former Governor of Lagos State; Governor Babatunde Fashola, incumbent governor of Lagos State, among others who are great politicians with enviable oratorical skills.

As a public speaker, you have to motivate listeners to make them want to hear you talk. Now that our visual world of instant information is available to all, it is harder than ever to make people sit still and just listen.

Paying attention to just anyone is not something you do willingly. Attention is a hard-won prize and not given freely. So if you are the speaker, your audience want to know your personality and identity. You have to interact with them as a human being, not just as a message giver. People want to listen to someone they like, trust, respect, admire, feel good about and recognise.

To achieve the feat of credible elections in Nigeria, one of the things political office holders or intending political candidates can do is to polish their communication skills and they will be able to convince the electorate, especially that English Language has become a non-material instrument of gauging one’s height on the socio-intellectual ladder.

This accounts for why many journalists and lawyers have won elections as governors, senators, etc. in this country without actually having money to give the electorate.

According to the late Dale Carnegie, a great public speaking trainer and expert, as far as acquiring basic effective public speaking skills are concerned, you need to learn from the experience of others; keep your goal before you; predetermine your mind to success; and seize every opportunity to practise. Additionally, you need to radiate self-confidence.


Psychology of public speaking

Gaining self-confidence and courage as well as the ability to think calmly and clearly while making a presentation is not one-tenth as difficult as most people imagine. There is no reason why you should not be able to think as well in a perpendicular position before your audience as you do when sitting down.

In other words, you need to train your brain to think better even when facing an audience. You should not allow their presence to frighten you, rather let it be your source of motivation or inspiration.

The fact is that many great public speakers often claim that their brains become more functional whenever they stand before an audience. You can also become an expert too if you are determined to get over your fear through constant practice and training. Therefore, do not see yourself as an irredeemable victim of agoraphobia (that is, fear of crowds and open spaces).

Do not imagine that your case is unusually difficult. Even those who afterward became the most eloquent representatives of their generation were, at the outset of their careers, afflicted by this blinding fear and self-consciousness.

In the words of Lloyd George, a renowned public speaker, “The first time I attempted to make a public talk, I tell you I was in a state of misery. It is no figure of speech, but literally true, that my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth; and, at first, I could hardly get out a word.”

In a related development, Jean Jaures that was the most eloquent political speaker produced by France in his generation sat for a year, tongue-tied in the Chamber of Deputies before he could summon up the courage to make his initial speech.

In the same notional vein, John Bright, the great Briton who defended in England the cause of union and liberation during the civil war made his maiden speech before a group of country folk gathered in a school building, and he was so frightened on the way to the place that he told his friend to start applause to bolster him up whenever he radiated any sign of nervousness.



Potency of Eloquence

At times, some things happen and you begin to wonder. One of the most unimaginable things in life is suicide bombing. I learnt that suicide bombers are not charmed to carry out their act. Rather, they willingly agree after being persuaded by the eloquence of those sending them on the tragic errand. If some people can convince others to go and die, why then can’t you successfully convince your audience to align with your view or seamlessly persuade the electorate to vote for you as a politician?



More than ever, people now have to present information to others as part of constant up-dating. People are being increasingly called upon to present their information publicly to co-workers and other departments. To get ahead, you have to present!

But how often are we taught how to present? One major area of skills to presentation is self-management, the ability to remain composed in front of an audience.

Learning this skill makes a huge difference not only to the quality of your public presentation but also to your enjoyment. Truly fantastic presenters are quite a rare commodity because most people have never taken the time to learn. Being an excellent presenter will enhance your career and social life.


Causes of Public Speaking Fears

What exactly frightens people when it comes to public speaking? Research shows that some of the causes of public speaking fears are: Forgetting what you are talking about – your mind going blank; having someone in the audience who knows more than you do; possibility of being asked difficult questions by the audience, etc.



Let us accept that we need fear in public speaking just as we need to embrace failure to succeed. Novice and expert presenters alike have had the experience of feeling a little (or may be a lot) nervous before giving a talk. In the course of helping people to improve their presentation skills through effective practical training, I have discovered that getting started is the major hurdle to cross. Once people get started and things go relatively well, they begin to relax and become more natural. They become less self-conscious and more effective.

Since the opening of any presentation is critical to the message and the presenter’s credibility and since this is often when presenters are most nervous and cautious, it is necessary to make your opening attention-grabbing. The following are some of the strategies to employ.




Tips for a Great Presentation Opening

The following are some ways through which a successful opening can be achieved in public speaking.

A strong opening. Ensure your opening is clear, focused, attention-grabbing and full of audience benefits. There is no disputing the fact that you want the people listening to become truly interested in what you have to say. Once you have a great opening planned, your excitement and confidence will rise and you become less apprehensive.


Practise the opening. You need to practise the great opening you have developed. Practise the first few minutes of your talk thinking about everything: the words, voice modulation, gestures, movements, etc. Know the flow of your words and find the best places to pause for emphasis. Your goal is to have the first few minutes so well prepared in your mind that your nerves about getting started are greatly reduced.


Think success. Spend some time thinking about how successful the opening will be. How engaged and interested your audience will be. How confident and relaxed you will be. Visualising those things is a big step towards making them happen.


Rehearsal. The rehearsal is the final mental run-through that incorporates both the practice and the visualisation. The rehearsal might be done anywhere you find yourself.


Do not memorise. Kevin Eikenberry, an expert in converting organisational, team and individual potential into desired results and the Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group, says all this talk about practice and rehearsal may lead you to think, “I just need to memorise my opening.”

Nothing could be more wrong. When we memorise, we focus on the words. If we mess up the words we have lost it. Forget the memorisation. Remember the audience. Focus on the message, your approach and your desired outcome.


Level of Anxiety Good for Public Speaking

When presenting you need a little anxiety as this will improve recall, raise energy levels and make for a more focused, dynamic speech. A totally laid-back speaker can easily bore the audience.

Too much anxiety or too much relaxation is also not good. We need enough tension to give us energy, and enough calmness for clear thinking and recall. We need the right balance.


Practical Session for Success

You can find a quiet place where you can ensure that you will not be disturbed for some  minutes. Close your eyes and direct the focus of attention to your hands, imagining what they feel like when they relax.

As the relaxation spreads, allow your mind to drift to a time where you felt really comfortable. Maybe a time you had a good time and were laughing and having fun with friends. Begin to get a feel for the reality of this time. Notice what it is like to bring back something of the feeling of that time and let those feelings begin to build up almost as if you were back there.

Once you have that feeling, imagine watching television and looking at yourself on the screen, taking your time, looking cool and relaxed giving that presentation comfortably.

Then drift into that screen and experience what it actually feels like to be speaking in that way with similar feelings to those you had in the first memory. Spend some comfortable time doing this almost as if in a dream. When you have enjoyed this for a few minutes open your eyes feeling refreshed and alert.

Do this over a few times to make sure you have it clear in your mind. Repeat this exercise regularly and notice the differences.

Some people find this type of exercise easier than others. If this is difficult for you, consider engaging a self-confidence trainer to give you hypnotic inductions for rehearsing events such as public speaking.

According to Lenny Laskowski, a professional speaker and president of LJL Seminars, “Do your knees feel like Gumby’s when you have to get up and speak in front of a group? Do you feel like the next words out of your mouth are going to be the dumbest words ever uttered by a human being?”

If you respond in the affirmative to either of the questions above, in short, you have a full-blown case of stage fright.

Over 41 per cent of people have some fear or anxiety dealing with speaking in front of groups. People who have this fear can experience all kinds of symptoms, e.g. sweaty palms, accelerated heart beat, memory loss and even difficulty in breathing.


As already said, some of the world’s most famous presenters have freely admitted to nervousness and stage fright. According to Mark Twain, there are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.

Everyone, even experienced speakers, has some anxiety when speaking in front of a group of people. This is perfectly normal. The best way to deal with this anxiety is to first acknowledge that this fear is perfectly normal and you are not alone. To reduce your fear, you need to make sure you properly and thoroughly prepare yourself before you speak.

Proper preparation and rehearsal can help to reduce this fear by about 75 per cent; proper breathing techniques can further reduce this fear by another 15 per cent; and your mental state accounts for the remaining 10 per cent.



Additional tips on how to overcome extreme fear

Below are additional tips you will find useful as regards overcoming or reducing your extreme public-speaking anxiety:


Know your material. The first and most important of all is knowledge and preparation. Nothing will make you relax more than the conviction that you are properly prepared. If you are not familiar with your material or are uncomfortable with it, your nervousness will increase. Therefore, endeavour to practise your presentation and revise it until you can present it with ease.

Acclimatise with the venue. It is good to become familiar with the place where you will be making your presentation. Arrive early and walk around the room, including the speaking area. Stand on the podium or at the lectern, and speak into the microphone. Walk around where the audience will be seated. Walk from where you will be seated to the place where you will be speaking.

Interact with the audience. If possible, greet some of the audience members as they arrive and chat with them. This is important because it is easier to speak with a group of friends than a group of strangers.

Relax. You can ease tension by doing exercises. Sit comfortably with your back straight. Breathe in slowly, hold your breath for four to five seconds, then slowly exhale. To relax your facial muscles, open your mouth and eyes wide, then close them tightly. Try to smile.



It has been established that the fear of public speaking is almost like that of death. But if you are looking for one of the cheapest and most effective methods of promoting your service or product, concentrate on the positive results of doing a presentation.

In the words of Patricia Fripp, a San Francisco-based professional speaker on change, teamwork, customer service, business promotion and communication skills, “Think of the contacts and prospective clients you’ll be generating with just 20 minutes in front of an audience. In case accentuating the positive isn’t enough to keep the butterflies in your stomach in line, before you step up to the podium, take time to work through these exercises to help you channel all that nervousness into energy. You should warm up and relax your body and face, and if you are wearing high heels, take them off. Now, stand on one leg and shake the other. When you put your foot back on the ground, it’s going to feel lighter than the other one. Now, switch legs and shake. You want your energy to go through the floor and out of your head. This sounds quite cosmic; it isn’t. It’s a practical technique used by actors.”



Never tender apology for your nervousness: Most of the time, your nervousness does not show at all. If you do not say anything about it, nobody will notice. If you mention your nervousness or apologise for any problem you think you have with your speech, you will only be drawing unnecessary attention to it. So just keep quiet about your nervousness or speech problem.

Let your concentration be on your message, and not the medium: Your nervousness will disappear if you focus your attention away from your anxiety and concentrate on your message and your audience, not yourself.

Gain experience: Experience builds confidence, which is the key to effective speaking. Most beginning speakers find their anxiety decrease after each speech they give. If the fear of public speaking causes you to prepare more, then the fear of speaking serves as its own best antidote. Remember, he who fails to prepare is preparing for failure. Therefore, prepare.


Negative effects

If you lose your power of speech, it means you will not be able to communicate quickly or easily with others about your needs, your feelings or your desires. You will not be able to correct false impressions or share ideas. You would not be able to express anger or love or joy. If you cannot talk, you will be forced into the shell of private world and it would be a lonely place indeed. Many people live frustrated lives because they have not learnt how to use speech properly.

Steve Brown, author of “How to Talk So people will Listen” corroborates this assertion by saying one of the major problems in communication whether personal or public, is the intimidation factor, when poor communication takes place because one or both of the parties are intimidated. Brown says the intimidation factor causes most potential speeches to fail to make it to the first row, and many personal conversations to be stifled before they get started.



He therefore offers tips on what you can do when you feel intimidated by other people because of how you feel about yourself. Brown says if you have intimidation caused by apprehension, then try to recognise the truth about yourself; consistently face and do that which robs the fear of its power; learn to talk to yourself about who you are and what you feel, etc.

Before you learn how to speak in public, it is important to be ready to speak in public. Stage fright is a phenomenon that you must learn to control if you want to be good at public speaking. Paradoxically, stage fright seems not to be the most accurate term for the nervousness that occurs when considering a speaking engagement. This is because much of the fear occurs before you step on stage, and once you are up there, it may even disappear.



 Nobody has ever died from stage fright or speaking in public. Yet many people would rather die than speak in public. If that applies to you, try out some of the strategies being proffered to get yourself under control. Realise that you may never overcome stage fright, but you can learn how to control it, and use it to your advantage in your public-speaking efforts. To master public speaking, you also need to get individual or group public-speaking coaching or join a Toastmasters’ club for extra practice. Do not take tranquilisers, drugs that will help you reduce your anxiety or nervousness before presentation begins. You may think you will do better, but will probably do worse and not know it.

During the presentation

When the speaking programme begins, if your legs are trembling, lean on the lectern/table or shift legs or move; try not to hold the microphone by hand in the first minute; do not hold notes because the audience can see them shake. Use three-by-five cards instead. Take quick drinks of tepid water; use eye contact as it will make you feel less isolated. Look at the friendliest faces in the audience. Remember that nervousness does not show one-tenth as much as it manifests in feelings. Therefore, before each speaking engagement, make a short inventory of the items you think will make you feel better. Do not be afraid to experiment with different combinations of fright or anxiety control. Rewrite these tips on a separate sheet and keep the sheet with you at all times so you can refer to it quickly when the need arises.

Speaking enthusiastically

According to Napoleon Hill and Clemence Stone in their masterpiece “Success through a Positive Mental Attitude”, you need to try and speak enthusiastically in any speech situation. To speak enthusiastically, you need to do the following:

Talk loudly: This is particularly necessary if you are emotionally upset, if you are shaking inside when you stand before an audience, or if you have ‘butterflies in your stomach’.

Talk rapidly: Your mind functions more quickly when you do. You can read two books with greater understanding in the time you spend reading one if you concentrate and read with rapidity. But talking rapidly is not good for those who have natural speech challenges.

Emphasise: Emphasise important words, words that are important to you or your listening audience – a word like you, for example.

Keep a smile in your voice: In talking loudly and rapidly, you eliminate gruffness. You can put a smile in your voice by putting a smile on your face, a smile in your eyes.

Modulate: This is important if you are speaking for a long period. Remember, you can modulate both pitch and volume. You can speak loudly and intermittently change to a conversational tone and a lower pitch if you wish.


Culture of academic public speaking

Another area worthy of discussion as regards public speaking is academic public speaking. This type of public speaking needs some modification. According to Paul Edwards as regards this type of public speaking, “The speaker approaches the head of the room and sits down at the table. S/he begins to read from a paper, speaking in a soft monotone. Sentences are long, complex, and filled with jargon.”

  The speaker emphasises complicated details and with five minutes left in the session, he or she suddenly looks at his/her watch and announces that he or she will have to omit the most important points because time is running out. He or she drones on and even fifteen minutes after the scheduled end of the talk, the host reminds the speaker to finish for the third time. The speaker trails off inconclusively and asks for questions.

   The question that readily comes to mind is: Why do otherwise brilliant people give such boring talks? To this question, Edwards has this to say: “One reason is stage fright. It’s easier to hide behind the armour of a written paper, which you’ve had plenty of time to work through, than simply to talk. This is a perfectly understandable reaction, and in some circumstances, it’s still the best thing to do.”

Important reason

    But a much more important reason is that this kind of boring, incomprehensible talk has somehow become a part of academic culture. Graduate students may actually learn it from their professors. Or professors may not consider teaching the skills of public speaking as a legitimate part of graduate education. Communication experts also attribute the presentation style in academic public speaking to the dominance of written language in academic culture. Although writing and public speaking are two very different arts, it has become acceptable to treat public speaking as the mere reading of written text. The sciences and engineering have, on the whole, done better on this score than the humanities. Science and engineering students learn early in graduate school to give short, snappy presentations, heavily spiced with helpful visual aids, in direct, ordinary language that focuses on memorable conclusions. Yet even in these fields, many people still have a lot to learn about the skills of public speaking.


Discourse Analysis is one of the language courses I like so much because it is creative and intellectually taxing (not “tasking”, please. Check your dictionary). In my school days, I learnt a lot about rhetoric in Discourse Analysis. It is ironical that rhetoric, the skill of persuasive argumentation is one of the most ancient academic disciplines, dating back to Plato’s Dialogues. Why then are academics delivering in a very boring way today?  The current culture of academic public speaking is something we can collectively and deliberately change, while stage fright is something everybody has to handle in his or her own way.


Fundamentals of effective presentation  

It should be noted that for any presentation to be effective, it must:

(1) communicate your arguments and ideas;

(2) persuade your audience that your arguments and ideas true; and

(3) be interesting and entertaining.

In a bid to display in-depth skill of persuasive argumentation, academics sometimes forget about making their presentation interesting and entertaining. Some people think it follows naturally from the first two. But it does not. Some even deliberately avoid making their presentation entertaining on the grounds that if it is so, it simply means that it is not very deep. It is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve effective communication and persuasion without entertaining your audience. Keeping your audience interested and involved by entertaining them is essential because you need their full attention to be able disseminate your information.

This is why individuals and corporate organisations now engage the services of stand-up comedians to complement (guest) speakers’ communication entertainment or completely entertain the audience in case (guest) speakers cannot entertain with their presentation. To minimise cost, those who can function as emcee/comedian are often engaged. In short, due to global economic downturn with its attendant business collapse and loss of jobs, most audience members do not find jokes funny because they are too sad to laugh. Such people need to be psychologically motivated to be happy. Therefore, organisations now need more than just an emcee and/or a comedian or the two-in-one emcee/comedian, but emcee/comedian/motivational speaker (three-in-one) to offer audience all-encompassing entertainment. The emcee/comedian/motivational speaker is somebody who can professionally direct proceedings, tell jokes and psychologically motivate the audience, thus carrying everybody along.
Listening is hard work, especially at conferences, where people attend seminars lasting many hours. People therefore need the speaker’s help to maintain their focus. This is the true meaning of entertainment. In academic presentation, entertainment does not mean making your audience laugh or distracting them from their troubles. Instead, it is about helping them to stay focused on and interested in what you have to say.
It is noteworthy that no rule applies always and everywhere. But the following principles, work almost all the time. The more you understand the reasons behind these principles, the clearer their importance will become.

Solutions to academic presentation
(1) Talk rather than read. It will be easier to understand you, and you will be better able to make genuine contact with your audience. Furthermore, ultimately talking will help you think more clearly by forcing you to communicate your points in ordinary language.

(2) Stand up. This is better for two reasons. First, people can see you better. Second, standing puts you in a physically dominant position. Though this sounds politically incorrect, in this context it is correct because you should remember that you are the focus. By standing up, you accept this invitation.

(3) Move around/manage stage. It is easier to keep focused on someone who is moving than on a motionless talking head. Hand gestures are also good. It is possible to over-use these devices, of course. Simply crossing from one side of the room to the other every three or four minutes is probably enough.
(4) Vary the pitch of your voice. Paul Edwards, a communication expert says monotones are sleep-inducing, adding that since it is possible to speak in a lively, animated manner without changing pitch, many people do not realise that they have this problem. He suggests that you should get a trusted friend or colleague to listen to your delivery and give you honest feedback. Even better, tape or videotape yourself and check out how you sound, Edwards advises.
(5) Speak loudly, clearly, and confidently. An important element of vocal technique is to focus on the bottom (the deepest pitch) of your vocal range, which is its loudest and most authoritative tone. Speak from the gut, not the throat. Breathe deeply — it is necessary for volume.
(6) Face the audience and make eye contact with the audience. If this is anxiety-inducing, at least pretend to do this by casting your gaze towards the back and sides of the room. Be careful not to ignore one side of the audience.


GOKE ILESANMI, Editor-in-Chief/CEO of https://www.gokeilesanmi.com.ng and Managing Consultant/CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is a Certified Public Speaker/Emcee, (Business) Communication Specialist, Motivational Speaker, Career Management Coach, Renowned Book Reviewer, Corporate Leadership Expert and Editorial Consultant.


Tel: Tel: +234(0)8056030424; +234(0)8187499425

Email:  gokeiles2010@gmail.com; info@gokeilesanmi.com.ng

Website: www.gokeilesanmi.com.ng

Email: gokeiles2010@gmail.com; info@gokeilesanmi.com.ng




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