Stage Fright

3 Approaches to Public Speaking

Choosing a well-suited approach can make your talks compelling.

Posted Mar 06, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

LograStudio, Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: LograStudio, Pixabay, Public Domain

A talk, even if it’s just a one-minute report at a staff meeting, can catapult a career—or hurt it. So the stakes are high. No surprise that public speaking tops the list of fears.

The good news is that public speaking is learnable and there are three ways to prepare a talk, so you can choose one that fits you and the occasion.


If you’re quite fearful, not great off-the-cuff, but a good writer, consider a scripted talk, at least for starters—it ensures that you say exactly what you want to. On the downside, a scripted talk loses credibility—it's transparently canned unless you’re a terrific writer and perform a script like an actor. The scripted talk also leaches chemistry from your presentation. If all that was needed was the content, you could have sent an email. Take, for example, the pitches on the TV show Shark Tank. They're memorized, sound it, and usually don't inspire confidence that the pitcher is investable.

Should you read or memorize your script? Reading it, of course, requires less preparation and prevents your forgetting what to say next. Memorizing makes it easier to maintain eye contact with the audience.

Whether reading or memorizing,  consider saying your "lines" like an actor, perhaps conversational or inspirational. In the latter, you vary pace and volume, for example, slowing and increasing volume when making important points and when telling a story. Of course, audiences love stories.


Outlining is the most common way to develop a talk, understandably: It ensures logical structure and keeps you on track, yet you retain the human tone that differentiates a talk from an article. Here’s one approach to outlining:

  1. Picture your audience. If appropriate, ask the person who has invited you to describe the audience, including what they're hoping to get from your talk: inspiration, information on X, marching orders, whatever.
  2. What's the main point(s) you want your audience to remember? Especially consider points that are important that most of your audience doesn’t already know.

Usually, less is more. For example, you mi make only one core point that you amplify with examples, anecdotes, statistics, and visuals. More often, three points is the sweet spot, with enough variation to avoid redundancy and giving people choices of what to remember, but not so many points that people remember little from your talk or about you as that compelling speaker. Of course, some talks can be laundry lists and still blow away the audience. Just make the decision consciously.

3. Write your key points, just one word or phrase for each.

4. For each point, come up with an example, anecdote, statistic, and/or a visual.

5. Have a brief introduction. Often, you'll thank the person who asked you to speak, anyone whose input informed your talk, as well as the audience for taking the time to watch you. You might also briefly describe something that occurred just before the talk: for example, something clever that someone said before your talk or something shared by all, for example, the winter storm.

6. Think of a conclusion. Generally, it should briefly reiterate your main point(s), and conclude with something inspiring, perhaps a call to action with the last sentence citing the important benefits of that, for example, "If we pull together to raise the $100,000, think of all the people whose lives will be better. Plus, I’ll be able to afford to throw us a nice party!” Write a few words to remind you of your conclusion's essence.

7. Put your outline on an index card or two.

8. Practice your talk using your index card. Practice into a mirror, a recorder, and/or for a trusted friend or colleague whom you’d ask for honest feedback. Don’t necessarily accept suggestions—the listener is the consiglieri; you're the Don.

Pure Ad-Libbing

Yes, pure ad-libbing is trapezing without a net, but if you can pull it off, an ad-lib talk can be compelling: The audience knows you’re not scripted, you're being authentic, which is impressive.

My life's most well-received talk occurred when, at a reception at Truman State University, there was extra time to fill, and the president, Charles McClain, nervously asked me if I could talk extemporaneously for 15 minutes. I took a minute to collect my thoughts and then just began. I’ll just say that the response was very gratifying.

Safely try out an ad-lib talk by picking a topic, any easy one for starters, perhaps a hobby or personal story. Set a timer for two minutes and just start talking. Assess whether you might want to try an ad-libbed talk.

At your talk

Come early so you can chat with your audience, perhaps asking what they'd like to get from your talk and maybe glean an anecdote to use in your introduction.

After giving your introduction, quickly list the main point(s) you’ll make. A time-honored public-speaking rule of thumb: Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.

Try to be relaxed. It's normal to be nervous. To keep it in bounds, take a deep breath the second before you begin, realize you can survive a bad talk and that using the above method, your talk with probably go well—focus on that. Then direct your talk to friendly faces.

The takeaway

Develop your talks using your favorite of the three methods, keep at it, and soon you'll probably look forward to giving talks and will reap the rewards.

I read this aloud on YouTube. The Fellows in a leadership training program at two universities will be reading this article, which | wrote for that program. I thought it might be of value to readers of Psychology Today Here is another article I wrote for that program: Five Tips for Aspiring Leaders.