Tips for Public Speaking


Sean McDowell shares his love for public speaking by providing the valuable tips he has received through the years from speakers and pastors.

Those of you who follow my blog know that I typically post on issues related to teen culture, apologetics, and worldview issues. But there is another passion I have been involved in for over a decade—public speaking. For the past few weeks I’ve been writing daily tweets called, “Advice for public speakers.” The response has been so overwhelming that I decided to put them all together in one blog.

These tips come from my personal public speaking experience as well as my formal training (Communications major at Biola as well as many conferences, workshops, and book). I’ve also recently been asking different speakers and pastors what they think are the most important tips for public speaking. Below are my findings. These are not necessarily in any particular order. And, to be honest, I learned most of these through making mistakes. But nevertheless, here are my tips for public speakers:

1.  TELL STORIES. People love stories. Jesus communicated by asking questions and telling stories. The first time I ever spoke at a weekend retreat my dad offered me three words of advice: stories, stories, stories. People also remember stories well.

2.  SPEAK WITH PASSION. I love listening to speakers who really care about their subject, regardless of what it is. It’s important not to overdue passion and sound like a salesman, but if you speak with genuine passion people will listen.

3.  PREPARE WELL. My dad spends about an hour of research for every minute of a talk. This may not always be possible, but you will be much more confident and effective if you have prepared well. And the audience can tell.

4.  IF POSSIBLE, HAVE ONE KEY POINT PER TALK. People typically forget 90% of what they hear in a talk within a few hours. But they remember stories and the key theme of a talk (if it was communicated well). Have one key point you want the audience to remember and repeat it and support it with stories, illustrations, examples, stats and more.

5.  DRESS SHARPLY. God looks at the heart, but man looks at the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7). People will judge you by your hair, clothes, shoes, and outward appearance. Don’t wear anything sloppy or offensive or it will limit your effectiveness.

6.  START STRONG. Even though I have been speaking for a decade, I still get nervous every time. One of the ways I am able to overcome my nervousness is to start with a story or joke that immediately connects me to the audience. This helps me build confidence for the rest of the talk and set the pace for the talk.

7.  TALK TO GOD BEFORE YOU TALK TO PEOPLE. Only God can change someone’s heart, not persuasive words or arguments (although God may use our efforts). I try to always pray for wisdom, understanding, and love for my audience before every talk. It’s about God, not us.

8.  BE YOURSELF. I made a lot of mistakes early in my speaking career by trying to have the same speaking style as my dad. While I’ve learned some amazing tips from him, I’ve become much more effective (and genuine) as I’ve learned my own personal style. Learn from others, but ultimately be true to yourself.

9.  LOVE THE AUDIENCE. One of the best ways to win over an audience is to truly love them.
My dad does this by showing up early at every talk to meet the audience and shake as many hands as he can. He also loves to give away free stuff to people in the audience so they know he cares.

This last point seems to be one of the most important. Public speaking is consistently ranked as one of the top fear of Americans. Why? The reason is because we don’t want to look foolish in front of others. What if I say something stupid? What if they don’t care? What if people walk out? What if they don’t laugh at my jokes? What if, what if, what if?

The reality about fear is that it is always selfish. That’s right; we get fearful when we focus on ourselves. This is why John says, “Perfect love casts our fear.” (1 John 4:18) When we love people we are focused on them, not us. That’s why good public speakers are always thinking primarily about the needs of the audience rather than their own.

I’m still a work in progress and have much to learn. In fact, I’m sure I’ll make many more mistakes in the years to come. And I will definitely learn from them and move on. In the meantime, what tips would you offer for public speakers? I’d love any feedback or additional thoughts about how to be an effective speaker.

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