The High 5: Tips for Improving Your Speaking

I listened to thousands of student speeches in my 42 years of college teaching. In addition, I have preached nearly 3,000 sermons and delivered over 1,800 paid programs as a professional speaker. So you can imagine that I have opinions on how to become a better speaker.

Whether you are a novice speaker or a veteran presenter, here are  five high points that help a speaker improve.

  1. Speak!  The more you speak the better you will become. Join Toastmasters International. Volunteer to give reports at department or professional meetings. Give continuing education talks for your profession. Volunteer to give devotionals at church. Speak up at open meetings that you have a vested interest in. I believe my best speech is my next one because I will have the added experience of the one I’m delivering.
  2. Watch other speakers. Listen and observe. What does the speaker do well?  Why?  What does the speaker do poorly?  How can he or she improve?  Take notes on his or her strengths. Watch how the audience responds to the techniques the speaker used. Go to book signings of popular authors. Recently, I listened as Erik Larson spoke to a group of about 200 concerning his new book, In the Garden of Beasts. He was an excellent speaker and was especially effective in answering questions. I learned how to respond more effectively to the questioner who likes to make his or her own statements rather than ask a specific question. His examples were relevant and all related to his new book or his previous popular ones. Since the audience members were there because they admire his work, using examples from his previous books actively engaged his audience.
  3. Review each speech you deliver. Write down things you did well or areas you want to do differently the next time you speak. Ask someone to listen to a speech you are about to deliver and give you feedback. Videotape a speech and watch it soon after you finish. The speech will be fresh on your mind. Make each presentation a learning experience for the next time you speak. A friend of mine was a speechwriter for the CEO of a large insurance company. On the flight back from a speaking engagement he and the President of the company would debrief the speech just delivered. This was one reason the CEO was an effective speaker.
  4. Read everything you can find on your topic. Become an expert on your subject. The more you know about your topic the more comfortable you will feel in speaking and the more excited you will be with your material. Interview people who have lots of experience in your subject matter. They will provide fresh and relevant examples that you will not find in articles and books.
  5. Know your audience. Never speak without having a specific audience in mind as you prepare. A key part of your preparation should be looking at the company website. Call people who will be in your audience and ask about current issues and interests of the people. Talk to the person in charge of the event to get his or her perspective on the context of the speech. The more you know about your audience, the more effective you will be as a speaker.  Read here about a time when a committee chair did not know her audience.

Becoming a better speaker has no easy formula, but these are five high points that will help you consistently to become an effective speaker. Don’t become discouraged at developing your craft.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.”

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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