How to speak up and be heard

Public speaking is an important skill for leaders and business professionals. Whether you’re giving a motivational talk to team members, addressing an audience at a business event or pitching an idea to a client – you need to know how to get your point across and make a good impression.

But if the thought of public speaking fills you with dread, don’t be deterred – some of the most famous storytellers in history were nervous speakers.

“There are only two types of speakers in the world – the nervous and the liar.” - Mark Twain

In addition to being an accomplished author and wit, Twain was one of the best-known public speakers of his day. Lecture tours were a key source of his income and he relied on them to promote his books.

But his famous quote just goes to show that even some of the most renowned speakers don’t find public speaking comes naturally. Like anything, public speaking is a skill that can be learned, and through practice, can be mastered.

Dr Sarel Gronum,  a teacher of Innovation and Entrepreneurship studies at The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School says mastering public speaking is key to successful business pitches, enhancing leadership and extending influence.

In addition to over 20 years of international lecturing experience, Sarel is also passionate about empowering entrepreneurs to develop and implement innovative strategies. As an engaging, powerful presenter himself, Sarel shares tips and advice for entrepreneurs and business professionals on how to deliver a presentation that gets results. 


1. Decide on the theme

Be clear about why you are speaking, the subject you will be talking about and the key message you want to convey. Do you want to raise awareness of a problem, gain support for a cause, or motivate people to take action? A good speech should have a consistent theme throughout and a clear key message. 

2. Understand the purpose 

A common mistake many students make when pitching new business ideas, Sarel says, is to start by selling their solution from the onset without explaining the ‘job that their value proposition is doing for specific customers’.

“Effective pitches clearly illustrate a command of the ‘problem space’ before diving into the ‘solution space’, he says.

"It’s important to first uncover needs that are currently not served, underserved or overserved. The problem has to be presented in a personalised narrative, showing the size and severity of the problem you’re addressing.

"Only once the problem is clarified do you provide your solution by focusing on the value it creates for users rather than its features.”   

3. Research the audience

Good public speakers manage to establish a rapport with the audience. To do this, you need to understand who they are. When preparing your presentation, research your audience’s interests and acknowledge them by adding in the relevant material.

It’s also a good idea to adapt your tone and language. Try to reflect your audience and ensure any jokes and anecdotes are relevant and appropriate. For example, you would use a different tone and language whether you’re presenting to professionals or the general public.

4. Add in the content

Once you have the framework, start adding in the words. Use different types of content to add interest – a story, a personal anecdote, a joke or humorous story. You can also add in a few statistics and a quote from a famous person.

Emphasise the key points through repetition and by providing examples. One technique is ‘fact-example-fact’ where you state the fact, give an example of how it works in practice, then repeat the fact using different words.

It’s also important to think of ways to make your speech more interactive to engage the audience. You can do this, for example, by posing a question or asking them to raise their hands.

According to Sarel, “Nothing sells an idea better than confidently presenting validated evidence of actual results or adoption metrics of your solution by real clients. This goes for any presentation; you have to fuel your arguments with facts and actual data, preferably from your own hypotheses tests.

“However, be careful not to turn your hook into a harpoon; never exaggerate, keep facts simple and remember less is more”.

5. Practise and review

Once your speech is complete, practise it over and over again. Read it in front of the mirror, have a friend watch you and give you feedback or perform in front of a video camera while pretending you are speaking to an audience, then play back the video.

You may have to adapt your delivery and rewrite any weak parts of the speech to ensure it delivers maximum impact.

6. Perfect your delivery

Memorise your speech so you need only rely on one or two prompt cards to remind you of the key points or do without them altogether. This makes it easier to speak directly to the audience, which in turn helps them to feel more engaged.

Some speakers recommend dividing the audience into thirds and speaking directly to one person in each. As you move your gaze from one third of the audience to the next, choose a different person each time.

Another tip to help you improve your delivery is to learn to control your breathing, so you are not speaking too fast. Follow Barack Obama’s example and pause after the key phrases to add emphasis and allow them to sink into the audiences’ minds.


7. Fake confidence until you feel it

Preparation and practice will go a long way to helping you feel more confident. However, if you do experience nervous energy on the day of your speech, try to channel in a positive way – this heightened state of readiness can actually improve your performance.

In the lead-up to your speech, use visualisation and picture yourself walking confidently on stage and giving a successful speech. Repeat positive messages to yourself, such as ‘I can do this’.

It can help to pretend you are feeling confident even if you aren’t – by acting calm you will start to feel calmer. Over time as you give more speeches and gain more experience, you will build confidence and become more at ease.

“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”
- Mark Twain

Public speaking is not easy and requires a major investment in time and effort to get it right. 

But good public speaking skills can extend your sphere of influence and transform your career. Being able to put your message across in a persuasive way makes all the difference as to whether it is heard.

Are you ready to be heard?

Gain the confidence and skills to perfect your next speech with a short course on Advanced Presentation Skills at UQ Business School.