Public Speaking 101: From Shy Guy to Guy Smiley

You can become a better public speaker.

It’s amazing how many people could do their jobs better if they improved their public speaking skills. I recently gave a seminar called “Shy Guy to Guy Smiley” to introduce DJs and teachers to good MCing skills, but these public speaking skills are valuable for everyone – especially entrepreneurs. The key is to understand two things:

  1. Step one is admitting the problem. If you’re not currently getting booked for a lot of speaking engagements, or if you get pulled off stages by angry mobs, you probably need to learn how to do it better. Even great speakers can improve.
  2. Recognize that these are skills like any other, and they can be developed.

Now you’re ready to improve with some concrete advice.


The first thing to do is to watch great public speakers and imitate them. From cheesy commercials to James Earl Jones, try them out. In particular you should pay attention to:

  • Talk show hosts on radio and TV – they know how to keep a topic engaging, draw out questions and fill in when necessary, and especially make boring topics come alive.
  • Radio announcers – Since they rely 100% on their voice abilities, they have to be good at it.
  • MCs – at the Oscars, on MTV, or even at your local wedding.
  • Comedians

Pay particular attention to tone and clichés.

Now record yourself. I used a mini voice recorder when I started. Don’t focus on long phrases or improvise. Choose short phrases and repeat them until you can finally bear to hear them played back. It’s not so much about what you say as how you say it.

The Tone is the Message

One of the best pieces of advice that was given to me when I started DJing, was that it didn’t matter so much what you said as how you said it. This will depend on the audience a lot, but we know that great comedy is all about the delivery; great public speaking is all about the tone.

This is especially true if you’re primarily a written-word person. You’re used to emphasizing word choice for an audience that can re-read each sentence. Word choice is still important in public speaking, but they won’t even notice your creative phrasing unless your tone guides them there.

Learn to smile while you speak. Not a fake, lips-only smile, but a smile with your whole body. It’s about learning to build up enthusiasm virtually on demand. Try smiling into a mirror until you actually believe the smile you see. When that happens, you’ll be able to achieve enthusiasm on demand, which is a worthwhile skill in itself.

In addition to smiling, speaking slowly can be very helpful in the beginning. When beginning public speakers mistakenly think it’s all about the words, they often rattle them off too quickly. Great public speakers know it’s all about the tone, so they focus on the richness of their intonation.

Of course, not all public speaking is about happiness. News anchors who report tragedies with too much giddy enthusiasm don’t keep their jobs. So setting the tone is also about appropriateness.

Know Your Audience

When I started DJing, the bar manager told me that when I got on the mic, I sounded too much like the host of a late-night jazz program. I had to learn to fit the over-the-top enthusiasm of a bar attracting mostly twenty-something students and professionals. It’s important to know in advance the tone that will work best for your audience and for your message, and to craft your tone accordingly.

Know Yourself

Once you’ve worked to imitate the styles of other great speakers, slowly experiment with developing your own style. Some people are more relaxed, others more intense. Some are witty, others even a little crass. Some work better with a lot of preparation, others are better off the cuff. The important thing is to start off by imitating styles that work, and then to develop a style that works better for you.

Trying to be funny

A quick few words on comedy: humour is extremely useful, but don’t try to be funny. There’s nothing more awkward than someone trying to force humour into a speech. The best humour occurs when you just allow yourself to be honest. Life is funny, and when you allow yourself to admit the truth about the things you talk about, humour will come naturally. And when you’re relaxed and good-natured about it, people will even laugh at some of your ill-fated attempts at jokes – especially if you’re laughing at yourself.


So we already talked about how simply recording yourself will teach you a lot of what you need to know. That’s the first step in preparation. Next, use a script. Not a ten-pager. If you’re going to talk for a long time, the key is making an outline and identifying the key phrases. If you’re currently better at writing than public speaking, use this to your advantage.

Key phrases are a big one. If you’re a sales person or entrepreneur, having these soundbites prepared is essential – those quick phrases that nicely summarize what you have to say, and are hard to forget. “Widget 2.0 is more reliable, faster, and infinitely more blue-coloured than the competition.” As a teacher, your soundbites are short, easily-remembered phrases that summarize important concepts for your students. “Napoleon was short, French and bossy.” And as a DJ or MC, they can become useful cliches to tie things together and liven things up: “Live, from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

The important thing is again the tone. Practice your soundbites so that you say them with the same attitude, rhythm and tone.

If you only have five minutes

Or even five seconds! The main tricks to spontaneous speaking are:

  1. Know your topic. If you really know what you’re talking about, you can talk for hours about it.
  2. Soundbites. If you have a lot of phrases you’re used to saying, it’s easy to say something interesting.
  3. Organize. If you don’t have time to prepare an outline, start by establishing a goal. “If they leave here understanding only that AJAX is based on JavaScript, I’ll be happy.” That should take a second, because it’s the first idea that comes to mind. If you have 5 seconds, thing of two steps needed to achieve your goal. “1) JavaScript makes those annoying pop-ups, BUT 2) Gmail and Flickr use AJAX.”

If you have a chance, just before you speak, drink some water and hum low. It will prepare your voice and focusing on a low tone will bring more confidence to your voice.


You don’t want to rely on them, but there are certain conventions used by public speakers across the world because they work. A common one is, “is there anyone here from New York? Boston?” “Are there any Lakers fans here tonight?” It’s an easy way to engage the audience. Steal these ideas from other speakers, and then make up your own.

Appreciate and excite

It’s all about creating energy and engaging your audience. It’s important to have something to share, but ultimately, more than anything else, if you show appreciation for your audience and create excitement, audiences will enjoy hearing you speak.

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