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Public speaking for people who...

Public speaking for people who don’t do public speaking

By: Phil Hardwick - August 18, 2023

You’re a business owner invited to speak about your business at your local civic club, but you aren’t a public speaker. Columnist Phil Hardwick offers a few tips to get over the panic and leave a good impression.

Imagine you’re sitting at your desk one day, basking in the glory of your company being profiled in a local business magazine. Your pride is still swelling as the phone rings. The caller identifies themself and asks if you would be willing to come to their civic club in two weeks and tell how your company achieved such an honor. Your heart races all of a sudden because you have never made a speech to a civic club or any public group for that matter. The mere thought of it causes a brief panic. What would you do?

One of the first things you should do is get a copy of The No-Panic Plan for Presenters, by Mandi Stanley. It contains a checklist for speaking confidently to a business group. Mandi holds the Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) designation, the first Mississippian in history to receive this honor through the National Speakers Association. 

You should accept the invitation. It will be good for you and your company. However, it will not be so good for you and your company if you make a fool of yourself and embarrass yourself and your company. Therefore, instead of trying to learn to be a great public speaker in two weeks, consider some alternatives that will help you get through the speech and educate and inform your audience about your company and how it came to be one of the best places to work. After all, that’s what the audience wants to hear.

Below are several things you might want to consider.

There are hundreds of resources on the subject of how to speak in public. They tell you basically to tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. Forget that advice. You can learn to be a great speaker later. Right now, you are just trying to get through your first speech.

First, even though you emailed a copy of your bio beforehand, make certain to carry a copy of your introduction in case you need to give it to the person who will introduce you. Your introduction should be brief and establish your credibility as someone who has something to say. Don’t assume that the audience knows as much about you as the person who invited you.

Open with a bang. Do not say that you are proud to be here and thank you. The first words out of your mouth should be compelling and make the audience want to hear more. For example, “There are more than 52,000 small businesses in Mississippi that have employees. Today, I’ll share with you five things that our small business does to be named one of the best places to work.”

Show a video. If you have a brief video about your company, go ahead and use it. That way you do not have to be speaking. Just make certain that the sound and sight have been tested at the place you are speaking. Technology failure can kill a good presentation.

PowerPoint and similar presentation tools have been panned as overused and ineffective. However, when used properly, i.e. with good graphics and just a few words, it can be an asset. For the first time speaker it can be a good way to take the focus off the speaker and provide the speaker with speaking notes.

Engage the audience. Instead of standing behind the podium and talking, have the audience participate in some type of exercise. For example, ask each group at each table to take just a few minutes to name a good company to work for and one thing that company did to make it such a good place to work. Then have each table select one of the companies mentioned and its trait. Go around the room and have someone report. You will then have only a few minutes left to make your speech and you will be feeling more comfortable by then. Think of other ways to engage the audience. It will take the pressure off you.

Tell your story. Use a personal anecdote. Allow your audience to identify with you. One way to begin your story is to simply say, “Once upon a time…”

Rehearse your speech. This is important, but what first-time speakers discover is that the speech that took 20 minutes in rehearsal took only six minutes when they got behind a podium.

Your audience will remember you by your opening and your close. Make your close positive and uplifting. Consider an appropriate poem or quote. 

These comments are about props and crutches to help you get through your first speech. They are not tips on how to make a great speech. There are plenty of websites on that subject. If, after your speech, you felt that you want to learn more about public speaking there is no better place than a local Toastmasters Club.

Break a leg.

About the Author(s)
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Phil Hardwick

Phil Hardwick is an award-winning business columnist and semi-retired economic developer. He also served as an adjunct faculty member at the Millsaps College Else School of Management for many years. He has taught over 1,000 students, written over 800 columns, written 11 books and assisted over 100 communities and organizations with strategic planning. In February 2016 he was inducted as a Lifetime Member of the Mississippi Economic Development Council.