HOW TO SPEAK IN PUBLIC without bursting into tears

This is an article I wrote about how I speak in public.  I learned the technique when I was a medical student, and was tongue-tied and embarrassed.  I have been talking in front of small and large audiences for years now without any trouble.  I have also taught other people how to do this – it works.



 Years ago I had to learn how to speak in public. This was difficult since I was shy and very self conscious.  I developed a technique which worked – I now enjoy public speaking and have successfully taught the technique to others.  Here it is:

Learning public speaking is like learning to drive.  When you learn to drive you are very conscious of the other cars, the road signs, and most of all self-conscious about controlling a big machine.

While you drive you are also coordinating all the movements needed to make the machine work – the clutch, accelerator, indicators and so on.

You can’t drive unless you learn these two things – you must overcome your fear of being on the road, and your must know how to operate the car.

Speaking is similar because you have to control anxiety from exposure to people, and you have to learn the mechanics of a successful speech.  You must work at each separately.


Let’s look at the fear of standing up in front of people first:

Most people are very self conscious when they stand in front of a group.  They feel everyone is judging them and that they will make a fool of themselves.  The simple fact of standing up there is enough to put most people off – and having to speak as well is too much.

So get used to the feeling of self-consciousness.  There are two parts to this – imagining it, and doing it.

First, take every opportunity to be in front of a group without being ‘on show’.  Do things like go to the toilet in a meeting, hand out refreshments, help with the projector or paperwork, arrive a little after everyone or leave before everyone.  Each time you do this, pause look at the group and deliberately relax (deep breathing, relax your muscles, tell yourself to be calm – the usual relaxation techniques).  I’m not telling you to stand there obviously looking at everyone, but just a slight pause is enough.  Soon you will become comfortable with the feelings you get in front of an ‘audience’.

Second visualise strongly what it would be like to give a talk.  This gets better with practise and with more exposure to groups as above.  Try and visualise all the people looking at you as you are speaking.  Be specific about their faces and their expressions.  Gradually relax as you visualise the audience.  This prepares you for the actual event when you do stand up and speak.  Imagination may seem unlikely to help, but it does.


Now about the talk itself:

The trick here is to know exactly what you are going to say and how you are going to say it.  This means good preparation and plenty of practice.

A few tips first:

  • Never read your speech – it looks awful, sounds awful, and bores the audience.
  • Speak much more slowly than you think.
  • Use pauses for emphasis
  • Vary the tone and loudness of your voice to suit your meaning.
  • Be responsive to the audience – don’t be put off by interruptions.
  • Look and act relaxed even if you aren’t.

Initially you may have to write out your speech.  Then rewrite it using headings and subheadings.  Simplify again until you have a simple outline which you fully understand and can ‘talk around’.  Put the outline onto your speech ‘aid’ (a piece of paper or flip cards or a ‘spider diagram’).

I’ll describe the spider diagram here, because it works so well that I use it for all my speeches.


The spider diagram

A spider diagram is a way of organising a speech on one sheet of paper.  It is useful because you can see at a glance where you are in your talk.  You can even use it to skip bits of your speech if you are running over time, and to recover from interruptions.

Here is an example of a spider diagram of a talk I gave some time ago.  The talk was about 20 minutes long, in front of roughly 100 people.  I looked at this diagram only a couple of times during my talk – I had the whole outline in my head.  There were two interruptions – one of which was clapping, the other was someone standing up and making a heated comment. This did not upset the flow of the talk because I fitted the comment into the structure of the talk.  The talk was very well received.

To make a spider diagram take a piece of A4 paper in landscape view.  Draw diagonal lines between opposite corners.  This represents your speech – the two left lines are the ‘introduction’ and ‘conclusion’ respectively.  The two right hand lines are the body of your speech.  If you have a lot to say you can draw a vertical line down the middle giving you two extra ‘legs’ to the spider – I hardly ever need this.

Now construct your speech on these diagonals.  Each diagonal line is a broad topic of your speech, and holds a series of headings.  Draw short horizontal lines sticking out from the diagonal line. Label these with your main headings – one or two words suffice.  Draw these lines in the order you will speak them.   From each of these mian heading lines attach short diagonal lines which represent the subheadings in the order you will speak them – label these with one or two words.  These words must remind you what the subheading is – don’t be tempted to write a sentence – just a word or two.

When you have finished this you will have a bit of paper like the one above with branching lines all over it representing your main topics, headings and subheadings.  You can see where any part of your speech fits into the whole.  The key to making effective spider diagrams is to have simple labels which mean something when you glance at them – there is no need to write the sentences, you use the prompts instead.

Practise a lot

Now comes the most important part – you have to practise this speech over and over again until you know exactly what you are going to say.  You must do this on your own, standing on your feet and talking out loud using only the spider diagram.  The first few times will be slow and very clumsy, and you will re-order your spider diagram frequently.  Draw a new diagram for each attempt.  I used to practice my speech 6 times at a minimum before I got it right.  It takes a few days.

When you have practised enough you will be able to deliver your speech reasonably fluently using only the cues on the spider diagram.  Now get a friend or family member to listen to you.  You will make mistakes and have to change things again and again.  Eventually – maybe after another 6 attempts – you can do it well.

Don’t rush or cut corners on this – your success as a speaker depends on it.

The first and last parts are vital

Now another vital bit – what you say at the beginning and end.  When you are about to speak you will be nervous (I still am).  Instead of letting this anxiety upset you, use it – your body is doing everything to get you alert and ready for action.  You can use anxiety to make you aware of your audience, to remember your speech better, and to feel alive.

However, there is so much to think about when you stand there – the audience, your slides, the whiteboard, the stage etc.  The last thing you want to do is make a speech.  So prepare your first few sentences and remember them word for word – write them on the back of your spider diagram.  You are allowed to read this if you want.

You must be absolutely confident that when you stand up and start to speak your words will come out OK – you will be on ‘automatic pilot’ while you adjust to the audience.

Because the first few sentences worked and because you already have practised standing in front of a group – in reality and in your imagination – you will feel confident.  And because you have a spider diagram in front of you to guide you through the speech, you know you won’t get lost.  You have practised it so many times that you know what you sound like.  As you speak you will find that each topic flows naturally onto the next and, as you start to relax, you will interact with the audience – pause, look around, think about your stance and hand gestures.  Any interruptions will be easy to deal with, because your spider diagram is your map – you can see where you are.

Remember the way to keep the audience interested is to “say what you are going to say, say it, and say what you just said”.  Use linking phrases like “now we are going to move on to another topic…” to keep the audience with you – they don’t have a spider diagram so you have to lead them through it.

At the end you will tend to become nervous again.  So prepare the ending sentences just as you did the starting ones.  Write them on the back of your spider diagram, and read them if you need.  You must be confident you will end the speech in the right way – again, you want to be on ‘automatic pilot’ for this bit too.

You will improve

I have taught this technique over the years, always with success.  The trick is to control your anxiety and use it to benefit rather than hinder you, and to be absolutely confident you know what you are going to say.

Practise endlessly, and gradually you will get better. You won’t always have to go over it 6 times, but after 30 years of this I still practice before I speak.

One day you will realise you are enjoying yourself.

Dr Chris Henderson