Public Speaking Tips: 10 Keys to an Engaging Speech

October 20th, 2014
Virgil Scudder Public Speaking Tips BurrellesLuce Media Monitoring Public Relations PR Software clipping service

Scudder during the session. Photo by Andrea Gils

by Andrea Gils*

We all get butterflies before performance. The key is to get the butterflies to fly in formation.” – Virgil Scudder, president, Virigil Scudder and Associates, LLC.

Virgil Scudder, public relations veteran and president of Virgil Scudder and Associates shared his 10 keys to succeed in public speaking during his session in the 2014 Public Relations Society of America International Conference, which took place Oct. 12-14 in Washington, D.C.

Glossophobia, or what most of us know as public speaking or stage fright, has been said to trump death as the biggest global fear. According to a 2001 Gallup poll, which asked more than 1,000 Americans what their biggest fear was, public speaking ranked second (40 percent) after fear of snakes (51 percent). Regardless of the ranking, why do people fear public speaking so much? Is it because of the fear of failing or looking ridiculous? Perhaps.

Some of us don’t have any issues talking with a small crowd but once the audience reaches the three or four figures, our legs start shaking. Whichever your audience size is, practice is by far the best way to overcome the fear to speak in public.

Scudder quoted Mark Twain who said there are two types of speakers in the world: the nervous one and the liar. “If you are not a little nervous when you get up to speak, I’m concerned because it usually means it’s going to be very flat,” Scudder said.

He said that content and delivery are equally important. “People will tell you ‘it’s not what you say but how you say it’ and that’s nonsense,” Scudder said. “It’s both. If you have nothing to say, saying it well doesn’t really help much.”

During his session, Scudder shared the big no-nos you want to avoid when delivering a speech and techniques to effectively trap your audience into your story and keep them engaged from beginning to end.

Common mistakes

Scudder and the professionals in the session said that some of the common mistakes speakers make include using jargon; speaking with the wrong tone, pitch and volume; making unconscious gestures; using visuals as crutches instead of as supplements; failing to inform and entertain your audience or worse, not switching to a plan B when you see your audience is no longer engaged.

With our busy lives and increased use of social media and multitasking, our attention span is reduced. Therefore, failing to keep your speech short can hurt your delivery and engagement with the audience.

“Every time you go over 20 minutes, you better have some help with something you are going to demonstrate or show – video, PowerPoint, et cetera,” Scudder said.

As Mark Twain said, “It is an awful death to be talked to death,” so remember this when you draft your speech.

Drafting the speech

Scudder said that when drafting the speech, one should start with an audience analysis and a strategy: what do you want your audience to say, feel or do? “If there’s nothing you can get out of it, don’t do it,” he said. If you can’t connect and share your passion with your audience, you’ll be talking to a wall.


Scudder’s tips on delivery:

Have a punchy line to open and close the speech

With a strong introduction you’ll hook your audience’s attention and with a strong close, they will have a powerful impression of your speech.


Use word pictures

Make your points memorable by thinking, speaking and presenting visually. Choose words that audience can picture in their minds as you speak.


Be energetic

By having ups and downs in pace, pitch and volume you will transfer that energy to the audience and keep listeners interested and awake.


Smile and keep eye contact

Smile when you start unless there is a good reason not to. For eye contact, “look at a tall person, a short one, a man, a woman, someone wearing a bright dress and someone wearing a dark suit and then move it around,” Scudder said.


Use pauses and questions to grab the audience’s attention and slow yourself down

A pause for emphasis or drama will help you keep your audience on the edge of their seats and help you control the speed at which you speak. “When the speaker asks a question, the audience becomes more attentive,” Scudder said.


Let your body speak

Don’t control your hands if that is part of your natural animation.


Use humor

“Humor should be humble and self-deprecating. If you make fun of yourself, no one gets offended,” Scudder said.


Tell a story

A story makes your speech more personable and if you change your tone and make the right pauses, the audience will pay attention to what you are about to say.


Avoid using crutches and clichés

Do not use terms including “you know,” “like,” “um.” Scudder said that when you use these often it becomes a problem and you lose credibility fast.


Organize information

The layout of your talking points, of which you should have no more than three, will play a key role in your ability to follow your speech and have a smooth delivery. This includes font size and using only short sentences and words.


How to nail the Q & A

If you know you will have a question and answer session, you should prepare, practice and repeat. Questions allow you to elaborate or clarify a point of interest and good answers are the key to a solid closure. Do not avoid questions and make sure you are well prepared.

Scudder emphasized,“You and your client should never get a significant negative question you are not prepared for.”

So before your next speech remember: grab a camera, record yourself, watch the video, make adjustments and repeat.

“Nothing is more persuasive than a live speaker addressing a live audience, and who then nails the Q and A,” Scudder said.

Which techniques do you employ to be an effective communicator and keep your audience awake, engaged and on their seats until the end?


Andrea Gils   is currently PRSA St. Louis Chapter’s Newsletter Editor and social media co-contributor and former PRSSA National Diversity and Ethics Subcommittee member and PRSSA Southeast Chapter Firm Director. She is a public relations and journalism senior at Southeast Missouri State University and you can find her on Twitter @andreagils.



Leave a Reply