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How To Get Better at Public Speaking

Of course I know about public speaking, I went to public school.

The best lesson I ever received in public speaking was from my early years, in elementary school. Each student had to go to the front of the class and present a short speech on the topic of their choosing. The other students asked questions afterward to prove they were paying attention. We were about 7 years old, so no one delivered a quality speech.

One speech stuck out. I couldn’t tell you what my colleague talked about. But when the floor opened for questions, a young girl asked him “Did you know you said “um” thirty one times in your presentation?”

The room went silent in shock. I think the presenter started to whimper. This was before children had smart phones and social media followers, no one was used to deep cuts like that.

I don’t know what the teacher said (after all, the girl had been paying attention). All I know is I never said “um” in a public speech. Never again. Not after seeing my elementary school classmate get eviscerated.

Things have changed in the post-apocalyptic COVID-19 wasteland we’re living in. Public speaking doesn’t come up as much these days. Kids aren’t even in school anymore, so they’re safe from the astute observations of um-counting monsters.

Even though public speaking isn’t as much of a concern, it’s still a relevant skill. Conference calls (audio and video) are lessons in forceful speaking. We all know that one person who will speak over everyone else. Not for a few words, but like an unstoppable conversational freight train. Essential employees still have to speak with co-workers and customers. This might be one-on-one, but fundamentals are even more important when wearing facemasks.

Why do people say “um”?

Um and its brethren (uh, like, so, mmm) aren’t really words, they function as filler. Like iceberg lettuce, they don’t add much beyond taking up space. Most people prefer filler sounds to letting the unbearable silence stretch on and on.

Why is there silence to fill?

The hard truth is: there’s a gap in their presentation because they didn’t prepare as much as they should have. They might have a loose plan, but they’re mostly thinking as they go. When shooting from the hip, each sentence requires conscious thought, there’s no flow, and lots of breaks.

How does saying “um” make you look?

Not great. People who say um / uh / like / so / mmm look like they don’t know what they’re doing. They have scattered thoughts, flimsy plans, and no direction. They don’t know how to talk about what matters, and you shouldn’t trust them to manage your business. After all, they can’t even manage their own.

What are we supposed to do instead?

  1. Make a plan: This could be a full script or major talking points. The specifics depend on the format of your presentation. Company meeting via conference call? Think over the numbers you’ll present, keep it smooth. Formal argument in front of a judge? Plan as much as you can. Not just your words, but your facial expressions and mannerisms as well.
  2. Practice: Run through your speech aloud at least two or three times. Record yourself on your phone for extra points. Even if you delete the video right afterward, it’s similar to performing for an audience.
  3. Keep it tight: Stick to the point, don’t meander, and you won’t get lost. If you’re the one on stage, and you’re lost, everyone else is lost too.
  4. Know that everyone has messed up before (even 31 times) so you aren’t the only one. It is much better to trip over your words a little bit, but get it done, than to let fear defeat you before you try. Toastmasters International is an organization that promotes public speaking and presentation. They’re a great way to practice this skill in your own life.
“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” -Mark Twain

I don’t remember much about elementary school. But after 25 years, I remember that lesson. My classmate wasn’t even the worst of us, at least he completed his presentation. He did say “um” a lot though, and a girl called him on it. She set a terrifying precedent with her poignant question. Her example struck fear into the entire class. I don’t know about you, but I don’t say “um,” not anymore.