8 New Rules Of Public Speaking

The rules of public speaking are changing in an age of TED Talks and YouTube. Here’s how to adapt.

8 New Rules Of Public Speaking
[Photo: Flickr user dualdflipflop]

TED Talks, YouTube videos, and even new platforms like Periscope are all changing the ways we transmit and receive messages. Powerful communication is no longer the formalized ritual it used to be, with a speaker addressing an audience for an extended period of time with prepared remarks. Instead, we’re embracing a more casual, direct, interactive form of public speaking. And the most effective communicators will be those who can embrace these methods strategically–bridging tried and true techniques with some of the new rules of the game. Here are seven things to keep in mind as you do just that.


1. Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

Yes, you read that right. Forget what you learned in grammar school: Practice doesn’t always make perfect. Practice with feedback does.

Just doing something over and over again won’t necessarily lead you to do it well. You need to learn how to be self-critical about what you’re spending all that time practicing, then make adjustments accordingly.

That’s where the very same video technologies that are rewriting the rules for public speaking can help you adapt. Start simply by recording your presentation rehearsal–using your laptop’s camera or even your phone. The production value doesn’t matter as long as you can clearly see and examine your delivery. As media training expert TJ Walker points out, “You really cannot give a speech and be critiquing it at the same time.”

As your’e watching the playback of your speech, take notes on what you like and don’t like about your performance. Matthew Kohut, coauthor of Compelling People, suggests that it’s especially important to pay attention to the middle of your talk to make sure your energy doesn’t flag. That’s typically where we dig into the details of our message, and it’s easier to lose some of the momentum we started with.


Then just hang onto what you like about your delivery and rethink the things you don’t.

2. Speak Like You Sing

Public speaking is like singing. A powerful voice gives you an edge.

When we’re speaking most of us breathe through our mouths. But inhaling and exhaling through the mouth while we’re speaking for extended periods can make the throat and tongue dry. Celebrity voice coach Roger Love says breathing the right way matters: “If you want to control the sound, you have to learn to control the air.”

Try breathing in through your nose, inhaling deeply from your diaphragm. Fill the bottom of your lungs as though there’s a balloon in your stomach. Speak only as you exhale, as the “balloon” gently deflates.


3. Scrap Useless Visuals

Don’t use imagery that doesn’t support your message. Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen explains, “The visuals need to amplify your message, not distract from your message.” If any slides you’re presenting help convey an idea visually, then by all means keep them. If not, leave them out.

As you’re preparing your talk, try going directly to PowerPoint or Keynote. Considering the visual elements from the get-go forces you to think in a nonlinear way. Storyboarding can help you see the bigger picture. Use index cards or sticky notes so you can shift ideas and images around as you sequence your speech. Focus on one idea per slide. Ask yourself, “How can I express this idea visually?”

Don’t settle for low-quality imagery. If you choose wisely, stock images can still pack a punch. Personally, I like to track down visual resources on and its sister site and on Dollar Photo Club.

We now no longer expect to have to read long lines of text when we’re watching a presentation–or even any text at all. Make sure you keep it to a bare minimum and use a point size of at least 30 so everyone can see it without straining their eyes.

4. Test Your Jokes Beforehand

Making people laugh is one of the best feelings you can ever get as a speaker–not to mention a great way to forge a connection with your audience. But you’ve got to test your jokes in advance to make sure they still land in the format you’re delivering them in. Never ask your friends, “Hey, is this funny?” because they aren’t your audience of strangers and can’t really be honest with you even if they want to.

Judy Carter, author of The Message of You, recommends throwing your funny line into a casual conversation. Make sure your friends or family members don’t know you’re winding up to tell a joke, and see if they laugh. If you get no laughs, you know it’s not funny and probably won’t work well in the context of your presentation either.


Tweak the line and try again with a different group of listeners.

I recently asked Judy, “What should I do when nobody laughs at my funny line during my presentation, even if others did when I tested it out beforehand?” She gave me this advice: Be honest. One thing newer speaking formats value highly is the genuineness that comes with doing away with formality. Cheerfully admit to your audience, “Well, my friends thought that was funny” or “Well, hey, I thought that was really funny.” You might get a bigger laugh than you expected when you smile and shrug off a failed joke.

5. Pretend You’re Chatting With Friends

Picturing your audience in their underwear is, quite frankly, a stupid strategy. It’s weird and unprofessional. Instead, imagine you’re talking to your friends in the living room.

Focus on your audience as though they’re guests you know well. Treat them like friends you’re having a casual conversation with. Some of the best communicators today have grown powerful audiences because they can make that intimate connection with the people they’re speaking to. This approach also has the upside of taking some pressure off of you to project a certain authority or bearing. You’ll feel less nervous and more confident if you ease up and keep it casual.


6. Arrive At The Venue Early

This is a familiar rule that bears repeating because it’s still useful even as other tactics change. Showing up 15 to 20 minutes early so you can get comfortable with the setting can make a huge difference. Make sure the technology you’re using will work. Check any audio or visual elements and do a mic check.

You can also take that time to practice your opening so you can hit the ground running as soon as you’re up.

7. Keep Ahead Of Change

The business world keeps changing, and so does public speaking. It’s important to keep up to date with the experts and the technological changes in how we communicate.

Veteran speaking expert Nancy Duarte predicts that presentations will become ever more interactive. People are losing their patience with lectures. Instead, they want to have conversations with speakers. In fact, Nancy calls it the “TED effect.” Because TED Talks have become so popular, it’s inevitable that many listeners will compare your presentation to some of their favorite TED presentations. You don’t need to replicate that format exactly, but take note of the dynamic, conversational nature of a great TED Talk and do your best to draw on it in your own presentation.

8. Finish Strong


We tend to remember the opening and closing of a presentation the best. End strong and get the audience to take action. Summarize your key points. Repeat your message. Then make a clear call to action that follows logically from what’s preceded it. Scott Schwertly, CEO of the presentation design company Ethos3, asks, “If you don’t have a call to action within your talk, then why in the world do you give it?”

Jonathan Li helps business leaders deliver their message effectively, confidently, and have the impact they want on their audience.

Correction: A previous version of this article recommended finding stock images on, which no longer offers them. The story has been updated to include two current alternatives, both also operated by Getty Images.

Related: Are You Good At Public Speaking?