Public Speaking 101: How To Wow An Audience

Bruce Kasanoff, Forbes

Over the past year, I’ve started my paid speeches in a counter-intuitive fashion. “I’m not that good a speaker, ” I say. “ I’m also not smarter than you or more accomplished than you. To be completely honest, I make my living as a writer, but I’m not that good of a writer, either.”

My goal is not to lower the audience’s expectations. It’s to stress that everything I’ve accomplished, they can, too. Every principle that works for me can also work for them.

Plus, I have one more critically important goal: to be myself.

Long ago, I recognized that the world is filled with people who are taller, more dynamic, and more charismatic than I am. If I depend on charisma to power a keynote speech, I will fail miserably. But if I act like myself – confident but vulnerable, opinionated but able to listen – the odds are high I will connect with my audience.

Here’s my short list of what it takes to be an effective public speaker. These lessons apply whether this is your first speech and you are terrified, or if you are in your 20th year on the speaking circuit:

1. Treasure the first 60 seconds: Don’t waste your first minute by thanking your hosts or fiddling with your remote. This is when audience members will decide whether to pay close attention or secretly take out their phone.

Imagine you are in front of a firing squad and the commander says, “Give me one reason I shouldn’t shoot you right now.” Your opening should be mesmerizing enough to convince him to lower his squad’s guns and sit down and listen.

2. If you’re terrified, work that into your opening: It’s a fool’s mission to watch Tony Robbins open a speech, and then try to do what he did. You’re not as confident or as capable as Tony is. In fact, the odds are you actually feel as though you’re going in front of a firing squad. This is wonderful news! Now you have genuine emotion to share with your audience.

Come up with an engaging way to share how scared you are, and ask your audience to help you through. But here’s the important part: don’t just admit to being scared. Also tell your audience what is so important about your message that it was worth facing your fears.

3. Know your audience: This is critically important, in every sense of the phrase. Know who is in the audience, and why they are there. Understand what they know – and don’t know – about your topic. Anticipate the breadth of knowledge and interests in the room. Most importantly, be aware of what will happen before and after you speak. If you are the last speaker before the group breaks for cocktails, you better have a different approach than if your speech starts the day.

4. Manage your space as a director would: I always visit the meeting space ahead of time and stand in the speaker’s position, with the lights on as they will be during my speech. Then, I walk around the room and experience the setting from the audience’s perspective. Finally, I go back to the front of the room and make any adjustments.

The first few times I did this, I felt like a fake… pretending to be a big-shot speaker when I really was a scared novice. But the little details make a big difference. In many cases, I fiddle with the format of my slides because they don’t work well in that physical space. I also may choose to ditch the podium – or glue myself to it – depending on the setup of the room.

5. Slow down: The closest I come to understanding Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is when I speak. Time moves very fast for a speaker, and very slowly for an audience… unless the speaker is terrific. The toughest speaking skill to master is to slow down or even pause for effect. For example, if you ask the audience a question, take a good long time to pause and allow them to form an answer in their heads.

6. Vary your tone, volume, timing, and demeanor: You can’t speak onstage like most people speak on a day-to-day basis. It’s boring. To be interesting in front of 20 or 200 people, you have to be a bit unpredictable. For years, I wrapped an elastic band tightly around two of my fingers, to remind myself to vary my pace.

7. Stress your 10% message: Dr. Carmen Simon taught me that no matter how good the speaker, audiences only remember 10% of what a speaker said. Great speakers control which 10% the audience remembers. I take no chances, and specifically tell the audience what my 10% message is, and I reinforce it with custom graphics, repetition, and as much creativity as I can muster. You should do the same.

8. Go for it: Until about 30 minutes before my speech, I question everything about my presentation and keep trying to improve it. But in the moments before I go on, I switch mindsets. At this point, it’s time to be 100% confident. Whatever message you have prepared, give your best behind that message. The time for doubt is over. The time to excel is here.


This article was written by Bruce Kasanoff from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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