Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Poise on the Podium

The way you handle yourself in front of  your audience will have a big impact. Your body, face, eyes, voice and gestures all combine to inform your listeners about you and your subject. You want to feel assured and confident, and to look polished and professional.

Here’s how.

Body Language
Stand in a relaxed position, without swaying (this is a common nervous habit) or hanging on to the lectern. Plant your feet, as if your legs were trees. You may want to put your body in an imaginary corset if you are the type whose nerves make you want to twist and bend and wriggle about. You might be a ‘Happy wanderer’ who keeps the legs in motion all the time. Draw an imaginary ‘circle of death’ on the floor, and stay inside it. You will look mire professional that way. A solid position conveys authority, and you will feel better and stronger and more in control.

An open stance is best. Arms loosely by sides, feet hip width apart. Drop your shoulders and stick your chest out. You may feel like folding your arms, lowering your head, or putting your hands in your pockets. Don’t. You may feel better but you’ll look much worse.

Don’t clench anything visible – teeth, shoulders, fists. You can screw your toes up inside your shoes if it helps.
Turn squarely to face a person and look them in the eye when you shake their hand or answer a question.
Smile. Smiling helps in two ways, relaxing your mind and your body.

Eye contact
Eye contact with the audience is essential whether you’re in a small meeting or addressing a crowd of 1,000.

In the speaker-audience relationship, you are the leader. Ensure your eyes are travelling right through the audience and you are looking directly at different people while you speak.

When you are practising your speech, ask your audience members to raise their hand when you’ve made eye contact with them. You’ll soon see how well you do this.


Whatever your voice tone and your natural way of speaking, you have a great tool at your disposal. Your voice is like a paintbrush for words. You can use it to underline and emphasise, to show light and shade. You can vary the type of language you use, the pitch, volume, pace, and tone of your voice to engage your audience and get your message through better.

Is your voice light? Soft? Strong? Breathy? Clear? Do you speak fluently, or stop and start a lot? Do you mumble or mesh your words together? Or do you enunciate clearly? Are you a quick talker or a slow and deliberate one?

In the first few seconds you are speaking, any listener will unconsciously make a judgement about you based partly on the way you sound.

Language and tone must fit the occasion and should be adjusted according to the audience. Generally, in public speaking you need to be clear and direct, and a bit more ‘proper’ than in casual conversation. One trick is to imagine you are talking to an older person – someone you respect. That will put you in the right language mode. Slang and jargon are not a good idea. Swearing is right out.

Volume and pace. A speaker must be able to be heard to be understood. Your voice is your power. Use it. In a big space you’ll need a microphone, or to PROJECT. A voice bounces around and echoes in a big space like a hall, so speak s-l-o-w-l-y, or it will turn to mash because of the reverb. Pace involves the speed of the message. Experts say that 120 to 150 words a minute is an excellent pace – about the pace of reading out loud.

Practice filling a large space without shouting. Get a friend to stand outside the room and talk to him or her. See how much more distinctly and slowly you have to speak? You need to work your lips, teeth and tongue quite a bit harder than normally. For public speaking you will almost certainly need to speak slower than you do in private. It feels weird but sounds fine.

Pitch. If your voice is high, or soft, or hard to understand for some other reason (for example, braces can disturb your articulation, you may have an accent if English is not your first language) you need to know this. Generally, a natural strong, medium paced, medium to low pitched voice is what a listener likes to hear.

Inflection is the way the pitch of your voice rises and falls. It’s the best tool for engendering interest, Monotonous speech has little inflection – it’s flat. Listeners will tune out. Animated speech usually is more interesting to listen to as it has variation in the pitch. Young Australian women should be especially careful of the HRT or High Rise Terminus –a habit where every sentence ends with an upswing in pitch.

In a leadership role you might want to consider that deep voices usually have authority. High voices can sound silly, or anxious or hysterical. Rightly or wrongly we take a high voice less seriously than a low one. However the real key is that it’s YOUR voice. Just be yourself, confidently.


One comment on “Poise on the Podium

  1. Pingback: Presenting the case for Business « If you speak well you can do well.

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This entry was posted on 03/10/2011 by in Uncategorized.

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