The 6 Habits of Highly Effective Public Speakers, on The Saturday Evening Blog Post

The Saturday Evening Blog Post, Edition #21

Let's set the scene: You've been selected to speak at a public function and you would rather have a frontal lobotomy or get a root canal instead. You tried to say no, but maybe came out, and the maybe has morphed into a firm yes. You're stuck--unless you're lucky enough to contact the Spanish flu or get the Shingles. But don't panic--there's hope.

While it is true that some people were just born good speakers, many others have learned how to do it, and so can you. Without further ado, The 6 Habits of Highly Effective Public Speakers:

1) Brevity is the soul of wit--and all other forms of communication. Keep it brief. We can all remember otherwise good speakers who lost us by droning on too long. I once went to a funeral during which one of the eulogists went on for over 50 minutes--true story--and only finally sat down when the organist struck up for the third time. The caveat of this maxim is that you had darn well have something good say in those few minutes. But for heaven's sake keep it short.

2) An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure. Some people can speak well with minimal preparation, but most people can't. It is easy to pick out a poorly prepared speaker; look for a person who repeats himself often, jumps from one topic to the next without a thoughtful transition, speaks too quickly and without the proper enunciation, and who generally has the air of someone who wants to get the hell out of there. Good preparation breeds confidence, and confidence is the real secret of effective public speaking.

3) Remember people are listening to what you say, not reading what you wrote. You need to keep this in mind when you are speaking, but especially when you preparing the speech. Some speeches which read well don't orate well. Going back to #2 above, write a few sentences and practice orating them. See if they work on an auditory level. If you are going to write your whole speech out (I don't advise this, but it works for some people) write speeches with shorter sentences and leave natural pauses in place. When I edit speeches, the biggest thing I look to do is add pauses in the right spots, and to simplify sentence structure. As much I love to use the em-dash, parentheses, semi-colons, and colons in written prose, they rarely work for oration.

4) Speak, don't read. You can't engage an audience without looking at them. For this reason, many highly effective public speakers don't write their speeches at all. Unless there is a teleprompter (not the easiest thing to master) I prefer to keep a single sheet of paper in front of me on the lectern, on which I have written in block letters all the points I am trying to make. Underneath each heading I write my sub-points and any any phrases (in quotes) that work well toward making those sub-points. That's it. When I am done, I add any turns of phrase that worked particularly well toward getting my point across.

Keep in  mind that there is a connection between yourself--the speaker--and your audience, and this connection is one of the primary benefits of oration. The really good speakers are those who excel at making this connection. When I am writing, I can only imagine the reaction my audience is going to have; when I speak, I can feel how the audience is responding, and react accordingly. If they are responding well, I often elaborate on something; If they aren't responding, I move on to the next heading on my speech sheet. Remember, speaking is interactive in a way that writing isn't: a good speaker is sensitive to this interaction and evolves as the speech unfolds.

5) Begin well, and End Well. Toward this goal, I go ahead and write the first few sentences of my speech. Everyone gets a little nervous in these venues--some more than others--so it makes sense to commit the first 30 seconds to memory, so you can speak them to the audience and maintain eye contact and begin establishing the connection that is so important. Speaking publicly is a lot like playing a sport: start off well and things roll from there; start poorly and things go to hell in a hand-basket. If you are an inexperienced or not naturally inclined orator, a good start is an absolute must; write a good one, and practice delivering it.

6) Inflection, Inflection, Inflection. When I am trying to stress something (like just how important inflection is) I often lower my voice and speak slowly and softly. At other times I raise my voice. At no time do I speak in a quick monotone. Pausing is really a form of inflection. When I repeat something--and it better be worth repeating--I generally pause, and then repeat what I want to say in a slow whisper. The listener will get the message. This is a far better way of stressing a point than saying "This is really important" or "And I really mean this," which is amateurish, and implies that everything else you have said you didn't mean anything and isn't important.  And good oration is like good writing in that it is better to show than to tell--show them you are saying something is important by changing your inflection, as opposed to telling them it is important.

With those six points, the next time you are asked to give a presentation at work, or speak at a Rotary luncheon or commencement ceremony, you will be ready. Best of luck.

Cheers, peter


Peter Hogenkamp is a practicing physician, public speaker and author living in Rutland, Vermont. Peter's writing credits include The Intern, released April 2020 from TouchPoint Press; Absolution, coming October 2020 from Bookouture, an imprint of Hachette UK; and THE LAZARUS MANUSCRIPT, a stand-alone medical thriller; Peter can be found on his Author Website as well as his personal blog, PeterHogenkampWrites, where he writes about most anything. Peter is the founder and editor of The Book Stops Herethe literary blog for readers and writers written by authors, editors, agents, publishers and poets. Peter is the creator, producer and host of Your Health Matters, a health information program, which airs on cable television, streams on YouTube and sounds off on podcast. Peter tweets--against the wishes of his wife and four children--at @phogenkampvt and @theprosecons. Peter can be reached at or on his Facebook Page.


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