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Pro-tips for Public Speaking

In the knowledge economy, the power to communicate is the greatest power of all.

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At SCAD, we pour our hearts and lives into our treasured students, to fill them up, lift them up, and help them launch their chosen careers. And they have some pretty perfect careers, like architecture alumnus Nick Hammond (now a theme park designer in Florida), interior design alumnus Caitlin Griffin (designing aviation interiors in Los Angeles), writing alumnus Osayi Endolyn (a James Beard Award-winning food writer), and actor Kayli Carter (seen on many Netflix and Amazon series). SCAD grads like these have built creative careers, in part, because we’ve taught them to adeptly utilize the world’s greatest instrument: the human voice.

In the knowledge economy, the power to communicate is the greatest power of all. We cultivate these social and speaking skills while our Bees are enrolled at SCAD, where we have taught and required public speaking for decades—in classes like COMM 105 Speaking of Ideas and COMM 740 Advanced Techniques for Professional Presentations. The work of teaching students how to speak professionally doesn’t stop there, because our students speak in every class and on every SCAD stage, even traveling to top companies like Google, Delta, Lenovo, and GE to deliver final presentations for their SCADpro research assignments.

When my own career began, I didn’t consider myself a public speaker—I was always more of a writer—but after spending 20 years as the president of SCAD, I now spend much of my time writing, rehearsing, and preparing remarks for events both virtual and physical, from keynote lectures to award presentations. I am as shocked as anyone that I have become a professional public speaker!

Over the course of my career, I’ve developed a few techniques that help engage audiences and make every speaking moment special. For some of you reading this, these tips are perhaps obvious. But for our SCAD students and others who may be new to public speaking, I assure you, these lessons are hard-won and have helped get me through just about every kind of speaking occasion.

1) Obsess

Take preparation seriously. Make practice mandatory. Invite friends to your rehearsals and preparations, and offer to help them when the time comes, too. Helping friends and colleagues rehearse will improve your performance.

2) Abbreviate

Keep it short. As writer Blaise Pascal famously wrote to a friend, “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it short.” Rigorously abide by time limits when you are to present. Time your rehearsals. Completing presentations promptly and succinctly shows respect.

3) Narrate

Remember this acronym: A.R.T.S. Audiences Remember The Story. A recent study demonstrated that when presenters share only facts, audiences retain a mere 10 percent of the information spoken, whereas retention jumps to 70 percent if you present with facts and a story combined. Enchant us!

4) Elevate

In my first week of teaching second grade, I learned more about public speaking than in any single week of my career. I learned how to still the seas with a word, how to see out of the back of my head, how to turn a boring lesson into a memorable story, and how to treat my audience with respect by elevating the language I used. In those first days of teaching elementary school, I spoke in short sentences and simple words. I thought I was doing these second-graders a favor! But I’ll never forget the student who said, “Miss Paula, you’re talking to us like we’re first graders.” So, I started speaking like myself, and when I used a word they didn’t know, I wrote it on the board, adding to their vocabulary list. They loved it. Elevation equals appreciation.

5) Stand

By all means, stand when you speak. A recent study found that 83 percent of students lose interest when their teacher speaks while seated. As my mother always said, “A teacher on her feet is worth two in the seat.” The same goes for anyone giving a presentation, not only educators. Stand up.

6) Smile

Smiling releases endorphins, and audiences perceive smiling speakers as more competent and more trustworthy. Smiles are contagious! When you smile, your audience smiles back.

7) Project

Learn to care for your voice. If you rehearse as much as you should, your voice will feel it. To keep my voice strong, I’m a big fan of honey sticks, available at some grocery stores or online. I keep a few in my bag at all times.

8) Ask

Learn to ask for feedback. After each speech, I find someone I trust and ask them, “What could I have done better?” Always be improving and open to hearing how others heard and understood your presentation.

The secret to a successful presentation—via Zoom or IGTV or in classrooms and boardrooms across the world—is that there is no secret: All that’s required is a mind for the work and the heart to make it happen. Good luck!

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