Five ways to master public speaking

Natassja Hoogstad Hay

Public speaking. Many of us hate it, but sometimes you have to learn to love it.

It could be advancing your career, building your personal brand or just an opportunity too exciting to refuse. Just like any other skill, you can learn to be a great public speaker.

Executive and speaker coach Katrina Howard would know. She’s spent years helping Canberrans prepare for speaking events, including preparing speakers for the TEDxCanberra stage.

Most tips for a ‘good’ presentation, says Katrina, include the usual advice: do your research, be prepared and remember to make eye contact. These are a good place to start, but if you want take your presentation to the next level, a little extra is required. Katrina shares the ingredients you need for a great presentation: commit, captivate, connect, charisma and courage.


Understanding and connecting to “why” you’ve committed to the presentation or pitch is a huge motivator. Ask yourself:

  • Why is this presentation important?
  • Who is going to benefit from it and in what way?
  • What’s the “greater good” or goal here?

Once you’re clear on this, it’s easier to commit yourself “all in” to the task. Make sure you write it down for future reference.

Down the track, if nerves and anxiety about your presentation emerge (and they will!), coming back to your list of “whys” can help you overcome these and get back on track.

Commitment also means agreeing to the work involved – putting in the time to research, consult with others, rehearse and get yourself as prepared as possible. Commit to give your best.


Use storytelling to captivate your audience, and take them on a journey. Stories get our attention, challenge our perspective and can change the way we think, act and feel.

Integrate stories from personal experience or a case study, or use metaphors and images that relate to your topic. Even data and statistics can tell stories of greater meaning and purpose.

Good content shouldn’t be predictable or follow an expected formula, but it still needs to be logical and make sense, so your audience doesn’t feel confused and “switch off”. Like a good conversation, it should be diverse, and include moments of new information, creativity, surprise, and at times, emotion that moves people.


Don’t assume the audience knows who you are and why you’re there. Make sure you start by introducing yourself. Explain who you are, why you’re there, and why you’re qualified to speak on the subject.

Other ways to connect with your audience during public speaking include:

Body language: Model openness, positivity and confidence, even if you have to “fake it until you become it” a concept from social psychologist, Amy Cuddy. I highly recommend her TED talk on “power poses” and how it helps with confidence.

Eye contact: Consciously connect with individuals in each section of the room, rather than scanning quickly then looking down at your notes or the slides behind you.

Voice: Record yourself during rehearsal and listen to your pitch, speed and diction. This will help identify if your speech is too fast or too high, inaudible or monotone. Try consciously varying your pitch and speed until you sound more natural.

Movement: Standing still makes it hard for audiences to stay connected over time. Mix it up by moving to different parts of the stage, and incorporate natural looking hand gestures for emphasis.

Interaction: Ask your audience questions and draw on their knowledge and input. People remember things more when they feel valued and involved.


Nobody likes a robot. And nobody likes a fake. We’ve all experienced a speaker who drones on with no charisma. It’s easy to switch off. Likewise, if they’re all charm but no substance, we immediately lose trust.

In your own unique and genuine way, bring yourself into the room – show some of your personality, passion and energy. If you’re too nervous or serious for people to connect and stay engaged, that’s a problem!

Be charming, in an authentic, respectful and informed way. Show the audience your smile, warmth and sense of humour (where appropriate). Charisma doesn’t have to be loud and over the top – it can be small and subtle, such as a thoughtful opening line, a shared look, a joke, or just a raised eyebrow.


It’s not easy to expose ourselves in front of others – to be vulnerable, challenged and judged. It takes courage. It’s important not to let fear take over.

Here are a few things I’ve found helpful and know others have too:

Come back to your why. Is the greater goal, or meaning for this presentation greater than your need to be liked, at all costs? Is it greater than your fear of stuffing up?

Remember that your doubts and feelings aren’t reliable facts or evidence that you’ll fail. Feel the fear and do it anyway!

It can help to take a longer view. Imagine yourself after you’ve delivered your presentation. The audience was engaged and positive, the outcome was the best you could wish for. During rehearsals and planning, connect with those images and feelings of delivering a successful presentation. Wear this sense of poise and mastery when self-doubts or nerves arise.

And finally, before you enter the building, manage your energy with mindful breathing, being fully present in the “here and now”. Take five deep breaths into your belly, inhaling as you count up to three, exhaling longer as you count up to five. After your last breath, take a moment to connect with your courage and simply, to be yourself.

Now begin…

Ready to master public speaking?

Katrina Howard’s upcoming public speaking workshop with HerCanberra and TEDxCanberra has sold out, but add your name to the wait list for the next event!


Feature image supplied


Natassja Hoogstad Hay

Natassja Hoogstad Hay is a communications professional working in Canberra. An unashamed foodie, she loves cooking and going out to eat, and has a special love of coffee and wine. She’s obsessed with social media (handy in her field!) and is working on perfecting her Instagram game. In her spare time you might find her at a yoga class, cosied up on the couch with a book or the TV, or outside taking photos of beautiful Canberra sunsets. More about the Author

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