Five Steps to Mastering Public Speaking

Whether in a meeting, on a date, or leading a conference

When I first started working with a speech coach, I was 24 years old. And at the end of many coaching sessions, I cried. Not small, dainty tears. I wept. The way we speak is extremely personal, because it’s the primary tool we use to articulate our ideas, thoughts and emotions. When my coach tweaked minor issues, I felt like each one was a personal attack on my character.

Lucky for me, my speech coach, Lynne, continued to coach and mentor me even after my hysterics, and I learned how to take feedback faster and be more adaptable in my speaking.

The blessing and curse of speech coaching is that you become hyperaware not only of your own style of speaking, but also of everyone else’s. I can no longer go to cooking classes because I become infuriated with the tone, cadence and organization of the presentation. Why didn’t we start with knife skills? The onion cutting instructions are so vague. (Don’t I sound fun to hang out with?)

I also notice the intricacies of truly artistic speakers and communicators. For some, it’s natural. I’m sure you have a friend or family member who can tell a story over dinner and put everyone on the edge of their seats. But the rest of us have to work at it. Many of the greatest professional communicators study the art of communication. In addition to working with a speech coach like Lynne, there are many ways to practice the art of telling a great story, landing a joke, being concise but still specific, showing authority without being a jackass, and rallying people behind your message.

These are some of the most important lessons that I’ve learned through formal speech coaching and years of presenting:

Find your filler word and get rid of it.

This goes out to my Dad. If my siblings or I said “like,” even once, he would make us start our story over. This began when I was 10 years old. “Um,” “like,” and “ya know” are the most common filler words.

Beware of absolute language and qualifying language.

When men feel insecure, they tend to use absolute language, words like “always,” “the best,” “the biggest,” and “definitely.” These words diminish credibility because a sophisticated listener will be skeptical of the potential exaggeration in the statement.

When women feel insecure, they tend to use qualifying language, words like “maybe,” “sometimes,” “perhaps,” and “probably.” These words diminish the power of your statement.

There is a time and place for both absolute language and qualifying language, of course, and by no means are the differences between men and women hard and fast. When I’m insecure about a topic, I tend to use absolute language, something I’ve been working to fix for years.

Notice how often you use this language and under which circumstances. Ask yourself if your statement or message actually needs an absolute or qualifying word. Typically, they are unnecessary and distract from the point you’re trying to make.

 Choose your words.

I know. We learned this in kindergarten when we would say “butthead” and the teacher would tell us to choose our words. There is something exhilarating about being intentional and owning the words that come out of your mouth. Before an interview, it can be beneficial not just to think through the overarching messages you’re trying to get across, but also to specifically choose the individual words that best carry those messages.

Find your best voice and your insecure voice.

The first assignment Lynne gave me was to identify two distinct voices — me at my best and me at my most insecure. The latter was easy: It came through when I was in a heated political debate with my older brother (I believe this was during his libertarian phase). He is smarter than me and better versed in politics, so I found myself suddenly insecure about the points I was trying to make. But I still wanted to win (obviously). So I adapted a condescending, professorial tone. And I began using absolute language, which made my brother cringe.

It was also pretty simple for me to identify my best voice. I’m not sure if you’ve picked up on this yet, but I’m hilarious. People tell me constantly. My mom, my bubbie, etc. You get it. But really, when I’m relaxed and confident, I’m able to find more space for wit. Once I was aware of these separate voices, I was able to be more intentional about my voice. I was not at the whim of emotions or outside triggers.

Stay true to your style of speaking.

 Be aware of how your style of speech changes based on the people around you. The brilliant Lynne is always masterful on sales calls. She has a very specific, authentic style of speaking. She’s thoughtful, she speaks in an even and calm tone, and she doesn’t allow that authentic voice to get rattled. On one sales call, our client was extremely hyper (think six espressos hyper). Before speech coaching, when I was around someone like that, I would change my inflections and speaking speed to match their own. Not Lynne. She remains calm and collected and holds onto her true style of speaking throughout the conversation.

All of these lessons come back to one core principle: simply being intentional. Listening to yourself from your audience’s point of view is the first step. Recognizing that you have the power to control what they hear is the next.

Every conversation you have, every question you ask or answer, every presentation you give is an opportunity not just to communicate ideas but to connect with people — make them think, make them laugh, make them understand. Let’s not waste a syllable.