Guide to Public Speaking 101

Father Couthlin speaking. Photo credit: Jones, Leslie, 1886-1967 (Flickr)
Father Couthlin speaking. Photo credit: Jones, Leslie, 1886-1967 (Flickr)

Last week, I spoke in a church meeting overseas and I was very glad to be given this opportunity. Thank God for helping me preach my first sermon. After I came back to Singapore, I realised that I needed a game plan to improve my skills. And I decided to study how to speak better. Though the message of God is always more important than the messenger, being a bad presenter can distract from the best message!

I would like to share some points from a book from my father’s library – A guide to self improvement in sermon delivery (Al Fasol). I hope it helps you to “maximise the message and minimise the messenger”.

1. Improving vocal production

Some preachers use a high-pitch screaming tone and as a result, listeners can’t hear the words and miss out on the important message. Some speakers also lose their voice from too much shouting. To prevent that, breathe from your diaphragm. That means simply to breathe with your stomach expanding, not your chest. This would give you vocal power and relax your throat so it won’t be strained. Also, try this exercise: Inhale (diaphragm) for 4 seconds then exhale in a controlled manner for 10 secs. Try increasing the count from 10 to 15 then 20 seconds. You will get better over time.


2. Improving Articulation

When a speaker has clear articulation, it allows the audience to relax and focus their attention on the message. Our goal is to shape sounds clearly without being lazy or overly precise. Learn how to articulate the various phonetic sounds of the alphabet. One thing that helps is to mouth the words of your text silently while practising and concentrate on just your mouth movements. I needed to practise my f/v and th. Try it just counting the number from one to ten slowly. Don’t speak loudly yet as it’ll distract you from your articulation.


3. Improving Vocal Variables

We can say the word “No” in different ways to mean very different things. There are four things to we must consider:

  • Pitch: Find your optimum pitch by making a sound that feels comfortable. Then find your pitch range by singing “doh, re, mi…soh”. That’s your range. Try to speak within that range. Another thing is the use of pitch accents. When saying “welcome”, the “wel” is usually a higher pitch and makes you sound more warm. Contrast this to a formal speech where ‘welcome’ tonality is not emphasized. When you want to emphasize words, change the pitch. To prevent yourself from being monotonous, relate your pitch to content. Write a transcript of your speech recording. The transcript will enable you to see and hear your speech together. Try improving your pitch to relate to the content. In addition, try exaggerating your pitch variety and record it. What may feel overly dramatic might actually be more effective.
  • Volume: Some speakers tend to shout too much and as result, key points lose their emphasis since everything is so loud! On the other hand, some are too monotonous and soft with no emphasis at all. Neither is good. Again, prepare a transcript of a recent talk and achieve variety in volume much the same way you practiced achieving variety in pitch. Exaggerate the use of higher or lower volume as needed.
  • Rate: Speakers can talk too fast, too slow or at the same rate throughout. The best way to use rate for good communication is to be flexible. The needs of content should determine the amount of variance. Faster rates may be used for the less important details while slower rates for key assertions and ideas. A very slow, deliberate rate is used for very strong emphasis.
    • Slow:          ‘Saul, Saul’
    • Moderate: Why are you persecuting me?
    • Fast:           And he said,
    • Slow:          ‘Who art thou Lord?’
    • Fast:           And He said,
    • Moderate: ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting,’
  • Pauses: Brief pauses (1 sec) are used to allow the listener time to absorb what is heard. Intermediate pauses (1-2 secs) may be used for transitioning from one thought to another. Long pauses (3-5 secs) usually indicate a change of thought, but they may also be used to gain attention. It is better to pause than mumble fillers like “uh” or “er”.


4. Body Language

Some pointers:

  • Dress for the occasion such that it does not distract the congregation from the message.
  • When walking up to the pulpit, walk confidently to show that you are eager to speak to them. Do not speak before reaching the pulpit.
  • Make eye contact immediately before you speak. Look directly at a group of people, not over their heads. Don’t move your eye contact too fast but establish eye contact with most of them. Keep eye contact for 75-90% of the speech. You shouldn’t need to refer to your notes. Never look down at your notes during or at the end of a key statement. Maintain eye contact while turning the pages of your notes. If possible, sliding the pages would be better.
  • Exaggerate your facial expressions. What you think you may be feeling doesn’t always show up on your face. Practise in front of a mirror to check that the right expression is achieved. Coordinate your muscle memory.
  • Good posture is neither too rigid or slack. Standing with one foot in front allows you to shift your weight. Leaning forward on your front foot can convey a sense of urgency. Leaning on your back indicates a sense of rejection. Becareful that you don’t let your body sway because of your nervousness. It will distract the congregation. To prevent it, place one foot in front and lean most of your body weight on it.
  • Gestures are good and best if it supports content. Some speakers feel self conscious and should try swinging their arms past the center line (vertical line at spinal cord) of their body. This would prevent them from just pinning elbows at their side. Try full arm gestures. Make sure that your gestures are not distracting as this may cause the listener to see only a flurry of motion.

I hope this set of pointers help you immensely. I want to end off with a video where the speaker breaks many of these rules to his own demise. Enjoy!





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