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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Feb. 16, 2023

Mastering the art of public speaking

By Zach Shapiro, MyCG Writer

It’s completely normal to get nervous before a speech. Just ask comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who once joked that, “According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Nerves aside, we can all improve our public speaking skills, whether we’re briefing peers or colleagues or addressing a public event. Read on to learn key techniques to help you put your best foot forward no matter the situation.

Use your voice
It may sound trite, but it’s true that everyone’s voice is unique. What you say is just as important as how you say it. 

That’s why it’s so important to use your voice, your secret weapon, to your fullest potential. Make sure to project your voice. Projecting doesn’t mean booming or yelling. It’s about using the power of your voice to make your words and ideas land. Take deep breaths. Let your breath carry your words across the table, over the podium, or across the room to your audience. 

Use hand gestures in moderation
Your hands are an asset at your disposal when you’re speaking to almost any audience. Keeping them in your pockets, or stiffly at your side, is like leaving a tool you need in the toolbox. 

Don’t make that mistake. Instead, use hand gestures to break up the routine of spoken words. Let your hands illustrate your points and complement your voice.

Hand gestures, for example, can help with your signposting, which is the use of overview statements to tell the audience where your speech is going. Here’s what it looks like in practice: “I’m going to talk about three changes our team needs to make. First, streamline process. Second, incorporate new technology. Third, build our capacity.” In addition to guiding your audience, signposting is also a tool to keep you on track and make sure your speech doesn’t run too long.

However, hand gestures are good only in moderation. Excessive use of large and elaborate hand gestures can be distracting or even off-putting. If you see your audience’s eyes darting around following your waving hands, you may need to dial it back.

Worried your hands are distracting? Imagine a limited range of motion like a strike zone, from eye level to mid-torso and between your shoulders. Keep your hand motions low-key and in the strike zone and you’re good to go.
Good stats and bad stats
The best speeches use numbers or statistics to complement words. They help convey points accurately. When used artfully, numbers help paint a vivid picture for listeners. But stats in speeches are a double-edged sword. Stats that are too complex or obscure can leave your audience scratching their heads. 

Always put yourself in your audience’s shoes—a great rule of thumb for public speaking. We’re all likelier to remember rounder numbers and figures, like the fact that the Coast Guard saves over 3500 lives in an average year. It’s easier to remember a third than a sixteenth. 

Take a pause and watch your pace
When you’re nervous about giving a speech, it’s perfectly natural to want to get through it as fast as possible. While that urge is natural, it's important to resist it. 

Good, moderate pacing is key to a memorable speech. Your audience needs time to process the points you’re making. It’s important to guide them on your journey rather than dragging them along at 80 miles per hour. 

Don’t rush. Be sure to enunciate your words slowly and clearly. To check yourself, rehearse your key points or phrases, or just a portion in front of a friend. Ask them for their honest opinion. If they have trouble understanding you, then you might be speaking too quickly. You can also record and time yourself to check your timing and pacing.

In addition to slowing down, be sure to harness pauses to make your remarks hit harder. In moderation, using some pauses is an effective and dramatic way to emphasize what you’re about to say and grab your audience’s attention. Pauses are also your friend as a speaker. They give you time to collect your thoughts, and most importantly, to take a breath. 

Shorter is better
As is the case with good writing, the key to good public speaking is keeping it shorter. Don’t bore your audience, just make your points and close on a high note.