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No-fear public speaking

With winter meetings ahead, more of us will get asked to take the microphone. These simple strategies will make you glad they did

Even though all of us in this day and age should expect to be called upon to speak in public at some point, for many of us the very thought of it causes us to feel queasy and to break out in a cold sweat.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a U.S. federal agency for research on mental disorders, almost three-quarters of us have a fear of public speaking.

Unfortunately, if our public speaking skills are less than stellar, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We make a poor impression on our audience, and we loss the opportunity to get an effective message across.

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But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Really, it doesn’t! Like most skills, public speaking is one you can hone. You don’t have to love it, but you can get good at it. Whether it’s addressing a board meeting, sharing the results of your on-farm trials at a grower meeting, or “advocating” for agriculture at a public forum, following these strategies from professional trainer, Patsy Marshall, will ensure you get the job done.

Marshall is the president of her own training and development company, Train on Track, and she teaches both at Conestoga College, and at the universities of Guelph, Waterloo and Brock.

To start, says Marshall, even before you begin to prepare what you will say, take some time to really research your audience. Ask questions of the organizer — who is expected to attend and how many will there be? How knowledgeable are they? How has the meeting been advertised? What is the audience expecting?

The more you can tailor your content to the needs and interests of your audience, the more effective it will be, says Marshall. The “Who’s listening?” sidebar on the facing page has a great way for remembering to ask the right questions before you go.

“Remember it’s not about you,” adds Marshall. “It’s about the audience.” If you do your research on your audience ahead of time and customize the content to them, it will be evident to your audience and they will appreciate it, she says.

Once you have analyzed the prospective audience, the next step is to organize your ideas logically. Research any facts or stats you will need, says Marshall. If you are doing a visual presentation, look for graphs and figures to support your content.

When it comes to crafting your presentation, Marshall recommends keeping it simple. This will improve clarity. Choose everyday words and avoid using jargon, she says.

Then decide how you are going to introduce your topic. Be clear in your own mind about how you are going to start. It’s OK to start with a quote. Starting with a question can be effective too.

But, says Marshall, “Avoid jokes. It’s too easy to offend someone.”

Short sentences are best, but do use bridging words to connect one idea to another to help your audience follow along.

This “keep it simple” approach also applies to Power Point. Marshall recommends following the 6 x 6 rule for slides. This means no more than six lines and six words per line per slide. For the most legible slides, use blue or black ink on a white background, or white ink on a blue or black background, and either Verdana or Arial fonts.

Also start your presentation right. Adjust your microphone to the appropriate height before you begin. Use the right volume, vary your tone and pace, and articulate your words so your audience can understand you.

Establish eye contact and look to the left side of the room, then the middle and then right side of the room for one to three seconds. Use natural movement but not too much, says Marshall. “Don’t be the Energizer Bunny.”

Avoid annoying mannerisms such as drinking too much water, adjusting the microphone, cleaning your glasses and saying “um.” For people prone to saying “um,” Marshall advises they put their tongue on the roof of their mouth instead. “And don’t apologize if you leave something out,” adds Marshall. “Your audience doesn’t know.”

Before concluding, Marshall recommends letting the audience know you are wrapping up by saying “in summary.” This will draw the focus of the audience if their minds have been wandering, she explains. Marshall recommends taking about two minutes to recap your presentation. Emphasize the key messages but also be realistic about how much you can expect your audience to remember, which is probably less than you think.

Marshall recommends following the Rule of Three, i.e. your audience will only retain three messages.

You can also increase your credibility by referring to comments made by other presenters.

Are you worried you can’t memorize your speech? Marshall says there is no need to memorize your presentation, but you should practice it ahead of time being sure to change any awkward phrasing as you go and ensure that your presentation is the right length. Put key concepts on cue cards to help you if you lose track, she suggests.

Handouts can be given out at the beginning or at the end, or they can be emailed to participants. Find out if the organizer has a preference. Marshall prefers to hand them out at the beginning so the audience can make notes on the pages.

Marshall believes it’s usually best to leave questions for the end so you can stay on track. It’s also best if the presenter repeats questions so everyone knows what has been asked. If you don’t know the answer to a question, promise to find the answer or ask if anyone else in the room knows the answer. “Don’t BS the answer,” she says.

What should you wear? For a daytime meeting, business casual is most suitable unless it’s a formal event, says Marshall. The University of Toronto defines business casual as “a classic, clean cut, and put-together look where a full suit is not required,” which means slacks, khakis, or skirts; blouses, polo shirts, or shirts with collar but no necktie; some sweaters and closed-toe shoes.

Most of all, Marshall says to try to enjoy yourself and be enthusiastic. “This will come through.”

Who’s listening?

Understanding your audience is critical to delivering a successful presentation. Use this handy mnemonic by trainer Patsy Marshall to help you match your presentation to your audience.

A udience — who and how many will be present?
U nderstanding — what is their level of knowledge of topics?
D emographics — what is the age, education, and gender?
I nterest — why are they attending?
E nvironment — ask questions about the setup — will it be classroom style or theatre style? Be sure to check out the room ahead of time.
N eeds — what needs does your audience have?
C ustomized — tailor your presentation to fit your audience, e.g. farm audience versus general public.
E xpectation — what do they expect? how has it been advertised? how can they apply what they’ve learned?


  • Join your local Toast Masters International club, visit
  • Many colleges, universities and school boards offer courses and workshops on public speaking.
  • There is a wealth of information on the Internet. Google “elements of public speaking.”

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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