By James D’Ambrosio

(This is the second in a series on public speaking strategies)

Building on last column, I’ll discuss more advanced strategies to help nonprofit executives and communicators deliver more polished presentations.

These techniques date back to college when I was mentored by a speech professor — who was also a professional speech writer — who taught me a great deal about the art of public speaking. Additionally, I was a member of  the forensic (public speaking) team, coached by a speech-language pathologist. We traveled the Northeast competing against other colleges, including some Ivy Leagues. Participating in persuasive and impromptu speaking, it was a great learning experience that fostered my development as a communications professional.

Drawing on that learning, if you’re an accomplished speaker, consider adding the following techniques to your public-speaking toolbox:


HANDLING MISTAKES: No matter how experienced you are, things will  go wrong — forgetting lines, coughing or sneezing, making an incorrect/inaccurate statement, etc. When something negative happens, it’s important to not draw attention to it, which often makes it worse. For example, do not say, “Sorry, I slipped up” or “I can never get that right.” You don’t have to — and shouldn’t — rationalize your error to the audience. Just continue as if nothing happened.

Personal experience bears this out. Once in collegiate competition, half-way through a 12-minute persuasive speech where note cards were not allowed — a difficult task — I completely forgot my lines! Drawing on the advice of my speech coach, I silently looked into the audience and around the room for nearly 30 seconds — an eternity during a speech — focusing on remaining calm and finding my place. Eventually I recovered and finished the presentation.

While I obviously didn’t win the round, I was pleasantly surprised with a  higher-than-expected score. Apparently the evaluator was impressed with my ability to remain composed under pressure and deliver the rest of the speech flawlessly. Like many things in life, it’s not what happens to you; it’s how you deal with it.

DEALING WITH DRY (COTTON) MOUTH’: If you get VERY nervous before a presentation, a dry mouth can easily result. Physiologically, you do not produce enough saliva, making it nearly impossible to speak effectively, if at all. Thankfully, there’s a simple solution: Bring a roll of Life-Savers to your presentation. Beginning about 15 minutes before you speak, keep one in your mouth continually. Then, about 20 seconds before you are introduced, crunch and swallow it. Viola! You have effectively countered the problem! (Note: if this is an ongoing problem for you, ask for a bottle of water on the lectern to use during your speech.)   

AUDIENCE INVOLVEMENT: If you’re confident with your subject matter, move beyond your message and actively engage the audience. Sprinkle in questions to get feedback; solicit views on a topic; ask about similar experiences. While you’re at it, move from behind the podium and walk around. This makes for a far more conversational  presentation — exactly what you want — and promotes good eye contact, a pivotal component of a good speech.

Remember, while people have come to hear you speak, many have different perspectives that both you and the audience can benefit from. In addition, when people are provided an opportunity to have their ideas heard and validated, they feel valued. This can only help build trust, credibility, and a positive view of your organization.


QUESTION TO READERS: Any thoughts about these ideas? Additional comments you’d like to share?


By James D’Ambrosio

(This is the first in a series on effective public speaking strategies)

As a communications professional I’ve long known that speaking in public is the No. 1 public fear, even greater than the fear of death. Having given a fair amount of presentations during my career, I’d like to offer some strategies to help nonprofit executives and staff deliver more effective presentations.

First, some perspective. Just about everyone experiences some level of nervousness and anxiety before giving a speech, it’s the body’s way of  preparing. It can’t be completely avoided, but it can be controlled and managed to reduce negative impact(s). The following strategies are designed to lessen tension, keep you at ease, and garner audience’ attention:


PRACTICE ALOUD: Many people falter because they are unprepared to hear the sound of their voice amplified in a quiet room. Even though a speaker may have memorized their lines, the shock factor can be overwhelming. Counter this by practicing aloud in front of a mirror several times before your presentation. This may seem awkward at first, but you’ll  begin to become more accustomed to how you sound. This will not only increase your confidence, but you’ll also identify potential trouble spots to smooth out.

USE NOTE CARDS: The biggest mistake people make is reading their speech verbatim. Not only will it sound dull and canned, but you’ll put your audience to sleep before they’re settled in their seats. Instead, write a short sentence for each topic of discussion on 3″ x 5″ index cards — just enough to jog your memory. This will force you to be more conversational and extemporaneous —crucial elements of a good speech. Strive to have a conversation with your audience and they’re more likely to tune in.

♦ GARNER ATTENTION IMMEDIATELY: Capturing your audience’s  attention at the outset is paramount. No matter how brilliant your speech, if no one is listening, what’s the point? Accomplish this with an attention-getter — opening with an anecdote or experience related to your subject. Select something unique, different or memorable in some way. Avoid beginning with the all-too-common “My name is John Smith and I’m executive director of …..” Save that for AFTER your opening lines.

HOLD ONTO HANDOUTS: If you have informational materials to distribute, hold them until AFTER your speech. Why? If you give them out in advance, people will read them instead of listening to you — defeating the purpose of a live presentation. You want your audience’s full attention, not a fragment. Provide complementary handouts to be read later.

These strategies take on added significance at a time when attention spans are shrinking — in part, due to the explosion of online/mobile messaging and heavy workloads. We’re increasingly becoming an on-demand society in regards to information. When speaking in public, take steps to ensure you’re in demand. It’s worth the effort.


QUESTION TO READERS: What have been your experiences with public speaking, both positive and negative?

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