Everything you need to know about public speaking, you learned in childhood

Taking the stage.
Taking the stage.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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Back when you were a kid, some of your parents’ nagging reminders may have seemed ridiculously repetitive or irrelevant. Today, though, they are a working professional’s best advice.

Before delivering a speech or presentation, try evoking a little nostalgia for that time when being told to stand up straight and not fidget were daily rituals. Here are six of the most common childhood reminders, reconsidered as a handy public speaking guide for anxious adults.

Get to the point

Keep it simple. Make sure what you are saying is clear, easy to follow, and that it makes sense—not only to you, but to a new, uninitiated audience.

Be aware that your audience, no matter how big or small, has a limited attention span. According to one study of volunteers watching TED Talks, audiences size you up and decide whether they’re going to give you their attention in the first seven seconds, so plan to open strong.

Remember your manners

Be nice. Don’t forget to say please, thank you, and excuse me, when appropriate. Leave your off-color comments or humor at home.

If you have been invited to speak or make a presentation to a group, do some homework so you can acknowledge your audience and align what you want to say about your topic with their interests. Especially when confronted with an unfriendly audience or an unpleasant subject, always take the high road; it sounds so much better and leaves such a better impression than the alternative.

Stand up straight

No slouching. Good posture, whether you are sitting or standing, not only looks better, but also enhances your ability to breathe, which is critical to your ability to speak well.

Standing up straight also bolsters your presence and gives the impression that you’re confident and in charge and want to be there, which ultimately gets you the attention you need and deserve.

Slow down

What’s the rush? Take your time. It’s okay to breathe, to pause, to take a moment and collect your thoughts. A pause might feel like three weeks to you, the speaker, but it only sounds like three seconds to your audience.

Breathing and pausing are particularly important when you are faced with spontaneous questions, as you might be during the Q&A portion of a presentation; it gives you time to collect and organize your thoughts for the response.

Also, if you happen to be at a podium with a microphone, speaking clearly and at a measured pace helps avoid audio feedback and ensures that your audience can hear every word of your speech.

Stop fidgeting

Keep your hands away from your face. Don’t play with your hair. Quit twirling your ring. Find someplace for your hands, whether it’s holding a pen, a pointer, or your papers.

Bob Dole always spoke holding a pen in the hand of his disabled arm to avoid having that side look weak or unusable. For many of us, holding a pen during a presentation provides a similar supporting benefit, in that it gives our hand or hands something useful to hold onto.

As a rule, hand gesturing is fine as long as it’s not distracting. Think “open, up, and out” if you plan to use your hands to animate your talk.

Don’t overstay your welcome

Leave when the party is over.

Your audience can hang on for about 18 minutes worth of content before you need to switch it up a little, or they’ll check out for a while. If you are speaking in a more open-ended forum—such as conducting a meeting or sitting on a panel—remember that less is more.

Audiences never complain about a speaker finishing ahead of time.