Activist Nova Reid giving TED Talk on stage in Frankfurt

Public speaking: a practical guide to giving speeches and addressing big groups of people

Posted by for Life

Nervous about the prospect of speaking in front of a group of people after having spent much of the last year at home? Nova Reid, an activist and TED speaker, is on hand with the tools and advice you might need to become good (and confident) at public speaking. 

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Public speaking is something many people dread or even fear. And after a year spent largely inside, interacting with very few people –  other than with those within the comfort of our own homes or via video call – the act of standing up in front of a large group of people to give a speech likely feels even more daunting.

But, ultimately, public speaking doesn’t have to be so scary. Among the nerves and stage fright, it can be helpful to remember that there’s often very little risk involved in the process and, actually, it can be a very rewarding experience. Nova Reid, an experienced public speaker and activist, can vouch for this, as she has spent a large part of her career giving speeches, including a TED Talk.

From giving talks at work to wedding speeches and eulogies, Nova has expert advice to share with The Curiosity Academy on how to get comfortable with public speaking, as well as how to deliver an engaging speech.

Don’t over-prepare your speech

“It’s more human when you’re speaking from the heart,” Nova says, explaining that she rarely writes a full speech before speaking publicly. 

You can prep notes, with key bits of information and statistics to help you remember pointers you need to cover in the speech but Nova suggests avoiding memorising (or reading from) a speech written beforehand as it will make it less engaging.

Practice to get comfortable, not to be perfect

One way in which Nova does recommend preparing for a speech is by practising it multiple times and filming yourself doing so. “You get to see things like [if] I’m really fidgety with my hand here and that’s distracting. And I’m playing with my clothes or whatever it is,” she explains.

This will help you improve your body language, which will ultimately help you come across better to whoever is listening. “If you’ve got people in your life who can be a little audience for you, they can give you some initial feedback,” she says. “The more you do it, the easier it becomes so definitely at the beginning, practice, practice, practice. But don’t practice to be perfect practice to get comfortable.”

Give your speech some structure

“Helping people learn a little bit about you, sharing something personal, helps hook your audience in,” Nova says, explaining that the best way to begin your speech is by sharing a personal anecdote or detail. “It’s not sharing for sharing’s sake - it doesn’t need to be anything dramatic but just something that helps the audience discover more about who you are and what it is that led you to be on that stage and talk about your subject.”

The bulk of your speech from that point should explore the subject you’re talking about, making sure you’re covering all of the key bits of information and any statistics. For the ending of the speech, you need to think about how you want your audience to feel when they leave. 

“What’s the impact? Is there a call to action?” Nova says these are key questions to ask. “It might be that you want them to be more curious, it might be that you want them to be inspired, it might be that you want them to make a commitment or do something.”

Turn your nerves into adrenaline

Nerves are the biggest thing many people worry about when it comes to public speaking but Nova stresses that they are nothing to worry about and will always be a necessary part of the experience. “There was never a time when I am not anxious or nervous about public speaking but I use that adrenaline and it informs my work,” she says. “If I’m not nervous then it probably means that I don’t care enough and I think that’s not a great place to be.”

“I just accept that I’m anxious and I’m nervous,” Nova continues, adding that she thinks it’s key to keep your energy levels high, recommend that you do something like listen to a playlist of fast-paced songs or jump up and down before public speaking. Nova also recommends using affirmations to reassure yourself like, “I am where I’m meant to be” and “the words that come out of my mouth are the words that people need to hear”.

Remind yourself to slow down

If you want to use notes or cue cards, Nova says it can be useful to write not only key things to remember for your speech on them but also reminders to slow down and stay calm. “It’s a reminder to breathe, take a breath, take a sip of water, pause because the people you’re speaking to, they’re processing what you’re saying and giving them the silence gives them the opportunity to process.”

“We often feel like we need to speak and fill in the gaps but sometimes silence is really powerful.”

You can use slides but don’t rely on them

Whether or not slides will be useful to your speech will depend on your specific situation and purpose but slides can be useful to add examples like images, quotes and videos to back up what you’re saying. “If things can help drive forward your message then use them,” Nova says. “But you can be equally as powerful without having to lean on slides at all.”

If you do decide to use audio and/or visual aids, it’s important to remember that you are telling the story and they are an additional part of that so avoid using your slides as a crutch.

Keep your gaze on the whole room

Nova stresses that you shouldn’t fixate on one audience member. Instead, you should make sure you’re moving your gaze regularly to address different parts of the room. “It’s important to make people feel like they’re part of that experience rather than you just staring into space because that also indicates that you’re really nervous and possibly uncomfortable and they will pick up on that.”

  • Nova Reid, activist and professional public speaker

    Nova Reid wearing colourful dress against yellow background
    Credit: Ro Photographs

    Nova Reid is an activist, TED speaker and author with a mission to improve racial justice. In 2019, Nova was named one of the Top 100 Black British Women by the Black Magic Network and she regularly appears on BBC News, Sky News and BBC Radio.

Images: Sebastian Gabsch TEDx Frankfurt

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