Tweaking your public speaking

There are only two times in life when you're really alone — just before you die, and when you have to make a five-minute speech. Studies have found that many people would rather die.

You may know Teddy Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" speech: "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena ... His place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

Do leaders still sweat it out in the arena? You bet! At least that's the way I feel every time I make a speech, and I make 30 to 40 speeches every year!

I have a very useful tool to make speechmaking easier. It's called the "Mackay 35 to Stay Alive," and it's one of many handouts that are available free on my website, Here are some of its key points, with the most important being the first three:

• Room size.


• Room size.

• Room size! If 100 people are going to attend, the room should seat 75. If 500 people are expected, the room should hold 400. You want the excitement of a standing-room-only, bumper-to-bumper crowd. I could put the world's two best speakers in the wrong-size room, or in a room laid out the wrong way, and they would rate only a B.

• Find out who the group's last three to five speakers were and how they were accepted. Probe as to why they succeeded or failed.

• Never check out a room with any of the audience present. If the audience has started to arrive, it's already too late to make substantive changes. Sweating over a malfunctioning microphone demolishes your image. You want the first impression to be of you, on stage and in control — unless you decide to greet people as they come into the room, which I find also makes a great impression.

• Set the podium back a few feet from the audience so you can walk in front of it. You want to create intimacy with the group at critical moments.

• Bring your tool kit: your speech, a ruler and masking tape. If the lip of the lectern is not high enough to accommodate your papers, use the ruler and masking tape to build your own lip. Masking tape has another use, too: to strap down any door latches that might shut with a bang while you are talking. Your goal is to override noisemakers.

• Outside noise from the adjoining rooms and hallways is the No. 1 killer of meetings. Is another event being held in the rooms next to your talk? If you can't hear a pin drop, you're in the wrong room. A quick phone call to the catering manager will help ensure total quiet.

• If you are addressing a breakfast, lunch or dinner audience, ask your introducer to request politely that the people with their backs to the stage turn their chairs forward so they can see you better without distractions. The rest of the audience won't have to deal with them bobbing and stretching throughout your talk.


 • If you have a questionable story, try it out first. Tell it to the person who invited you to speak and at least two others before using it. Better yet: If in doubt, don't use it at all. I once asked a friend if I could run a joke by her to make sure it was appropriate. She replied, "If you have to ask, you already know the answer."

• Introducers are critical. Always try to have a real pro introduce you. Be wary of giving the honor to someone who is a poor speaker. The stage must be set.

• Never end your program with a question-and-answer session. You cannot control the agenda or the quality of the questions. The fireworks of your topic can end with a fizzle. Start the Q&A five minutes before the end of your talk. Then transition from one of your answers to a dramatic close.

• Debrief yourself within a couple hours of a speech. Take 10 minutes to write down what you could do better the next time. With so many unknowns, the amount to be learned is infinite. Try something new every time you speak and you'll never become stale.

Mackay's Moral: The best way to sound like you know what you're talking about is to know what you're talking about.

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