Some tips for making the most of speaking opportunities

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t’s been said there are two times in life when you are truly alone: just before you die and just before you deliver a five-minute speech.

Stage fright can be terrifying, but it doesn’t have to be paralyzing.

Delivering more than a thousand speeches teaches one about getting through to the audience.  Because I am often asked for advice, I have developed my ABCs of public speaking.

A is for audience. Learn all you can about those who will be in attendance so that you can tailor your remarks to hold their interest.

B is for body language. Move around, gesture and use facial expressions to demonstrate your enthusiasm for your topic.

C is creativity. Don’t be afraid to use props, PowerPoint or audience participation to add sparkle and surprise. Even the most serious topics can benefit from a creative approach.

D is deliver. Your presentation needs to have a focused message that leaves the audience with significant take-home value.

E is for eye contact, a critical feature of an effective speaker. Connecting with your audience can’t happen without it.

F is for feedback. Ask for immediate, unfiltered responses to improve your skills. And don’t forget to debrief yourself afterward on what worked well and what didn’t.

G is for grammar. Pay attention to the language you use. Make certain it is correct and concise.

H is for homework. Study the group you are addressing: problems, issues, concerns and opportunities. Mispronouncing names is unforgivable.

I is for introduction. Make sure that the person introducing you has a prepared introduction with your pertinent information.

J is for jokes. Try them out on several people to make sure they are appropriate and amusing. Humor, anecdotes and stories add so much to a speech as long as they are not offensive. Plays don’t open on Broadway, they open in Colorado Springs.

K is for knowledge. Speakers must show a real grasp of the subject to be taken seriously.

L is for lighting. People laugh more and retain more in brightly lit rooms. Dim the lights only for PowerPoint and only as long as necessary.

M is for masking tape. Seal noisy door latches to avoid distractions. Block the back rows of chairs to keep the audience up front.

N is for noise, a real attention killer. After-dinner speakers compete with clearing tables and clinking glasses. Consult with the host about minimizing noise.

O is for opening. To grab the audience’s attention immediately, you need a spectacular opener.

P is practice, practice, practice. There is no substitute for preparation.

Q is for Q&A. Take questions five minutes before you close, so you have the last word and control the ending.

R is room size. If you have any control, insist that the room seat only the planned number of audience members. A room too big destroys rapport.

S is for smile. Let the audience see that you are pleased/happy/honored to be asked to speak. A smile adds instant warmth.

T is for Toastmasters International, which I recommend for anyone to hone speaking skills. It’s tremendous training for speakers at all levels of ability.

U is for unforgettable. Make your speech memorable with a well-organized message peppered with clever stories and examples, sprinkled with humor, and with a great summary.

V is for voice. Listen to yourself and adjust tempo, tone, timing and inflection.

W is for wisdom. You want your message to teach and inform.

X is for experience. (Yes, I know it starts with “e”.) The best way to become a better speaker is to speak as often as you can.

Y is for you. Take pains to look your best.

Z is for zip it up.  A smashing closing is as important as a gripping opening.

Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times best-seller, “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.” To comment, visit