The Secret to Great Public Speaking

public speaking, fear of public speaking, public speaking tipsI’ll skip the part where I ask if public speaking scares the bejeezus out of you. If you’re like most of the rest of the people on the planet, the answer is yes.

Let me save you a whole bunch of time and share with you the secret to great public speaking: Make it easy and fun for the audience to learn what they came to learn. 

There. That’s it. The big secret’s out.

For all the hoopla around public speaking, it’s pretty straight-forward. We just tend to let our crazy brains make it scarier and more complicated than it needs to be. I mean, honestly, have you ever seen someone actually boo’d off the stage? Or pummeled by a tomato-throwing mob? Right. So take a deep breath and release all that worst case scenario business. Great public speaking is a must for anyone on a mission to make the world a better place.

These 3 Commandments summarize what countless articles, books, podcasts and webinars will tell you about great public speaking. #3 is particularly important for those on a mission, so pay special attention to it. #1 and #2 are universally true.

  1. Know thy stuff: Speak about what you know about. If you don’t know about it, don’t speak about it. Think of the best talks you’ve ever heard. Why were they so good? Probably, at least in part, because that person knew every in and out of their subject matter. They knew it so well they could tailor to what you, as the listener, wanted to learn. (They probably also practiced. If Bill Gates does it, so must you.)
  2. Know thy audience: If you’re following these commandments, you know your stuff. Now learn what your stuff has to do with the people to whom you will be speaking. What do they hope to learn from you? Do they want to be inspired or do they want to be able to go back to their office and immediately kick butt? These may sound like radically different talks, but usually it’s a matter of tweaking at the margins and staying focused on what your audience wants to learn…rather than being pulled off track by what you might want to say. (If this last sentence was confusing, read this.)
  3. Let thy passion shine through: This is where so many speakers go astray–especially those who are motivated by mission! Your passion is a huge advantage. It gets people’s “mirror neurons” firing and that means people in the audience are feeling what you’re feeling. If you’re oozing passion, they’ll be cheering you on. If you’re oozing boredom and/or trepidation, they’ll feel, well, bummed out. You get so worried about people throwing tomatoes at you (not gonna happen, right?) that you read from a script. Word for word. If the only thing you make eye contact with during your talk is a piece of paper, you’ve missed the boat. Make eye contact with your audience. If you follow Commandments #1 and #2, you will know your stuff and know your audience. You can then give the gift of letting others see your passion for your topic at full force. (Hint: If it gives you confidence to have your entire script in front of you, go for it. But go through and make your key points in 36+ point font size and highlight them. If you get lost, you say, “I get so excited about this stuff that sometimes I get carried away. Let me see, where was I? Oh yes, here we are…” No one will fault you for getting carried away, so long as you bring it back to what they’re there to learn.)

Enough already. Go be awesome.


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1,000 chances to make the world a better place

Words, winkies, Wizard of Oz
Be like Dorothy: command your words (or your Winkies) to make the world a better place!

Most of us could be more effective if we paid more attention to the words we use and how we use them.

I’m not talking about big speeches here. I’m talking about day-to-day word choice. I’m talking about what you say when you open a meeting and close an email. I’m talking about which words you use in the executive summary to a new report or the intro to your annual report. I’m talking about talking to donors, customers and anyone else you come into contact with in a given day.

The average adult uses around 15,000 words per day. That means that, on any given day, you have 15,000 chances to make the world—your world, our world—a better place.

You’re a word expert–own it

Whenever someone says, “I’m not good with words,” I cringe. What they’re really saying is, “I never learned what a gerund was in English class and am therefore not ‘good with words’.”


Being good with words isn’t about syntax and grammar. It’s about finding words that give voice to your vision.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell established the 10,000 Hour Rule—basically, that you can become expert in anything after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

This infographic shows how long it would take, in years, to become an expert if you did deliberate practice for a certain number of hours per day. The average is 9.6 years, assuming you practice 20 hours per week.

Here’s how this relates to you being a word expert: Let’s be generous and say you started talking, really talking (meaning stringing together cohesive sentences) when you went into Kindergarten. Even if you zoned out for big chunks of time in school, you were still probably eking out 2 hours of “deliberate practice” per day, five days a week.

That means that, on average, it took you 20 years to become a word expert. Roughly by your mid-20s when, coincidentally, your frontal lobes—the part of your brain in charge of concepts and abstract thinking—becomes fully developed.

In sum: by around the age of 25 you had practiced enough and had the brain development to be a full-fledged word expert.

If you are over the age of 25, the “I’m not good with words” excuse simply doesn’t hold up. So best to stop using it, accept your status as a word expert and start using that expertise to your advantage.

Words are like Winkies

In the Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West calls on her Winkies to destroy Dorothy and her crew. Winkies are not brave; they are dutiful. They have to do whatever their master says.

When the Winkies’ master was the evil Wicked Witch of the West, they did bad stuff (usually related to killing things). After Dorothy successfully kills the Witch (by accidentally dumping water on her, oops), they do good things because Dorothy is nothing if not nice.

Words are like Winkies—they will do what you ask them to do. They are dutiful. They will serve you well if you use them well. The can help you be a more effective leader and make the world a better place.

1,000 chances to make the world a better place

A key piece to being an expert at something is the intentionality you bring to it, whatever ‘it’ is you are out to master. If your ‘it’ is more effectively using words to give voice to your vision, this means deciding how many of the 15,000ish words you use in a day you are going to use intentionally.

Can you be intentional with 1,000 of your words today? (As a point of reference, this post is about 700.)

This could be in a meeting with staff, or lunch with a donor, or in an email you write to a colleague at a partner organization. Heck, it might be a chat with your accountant or teenager.

Remember: Those words are like 1,000 Winkies waiting for you to give them orders. They are your 1,000 chances to make the world a better place today. 


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?