Public Speaking Habits – Does Practice Make Perfect?

practice make perfect

Shortly after my book was published, I was being interviewed on a nightly news TV station. The interviewer and I had worked together previously, and she had asked me if I would do a longer segment on her own show.

Of course, I was delighted. I had established a comfortable rapport with her, so by the time we did the show, she felt familiar, and I spoke to her as I would to a friend. One of her first questions to me was, “Saskia, in public speaking, as in other areas, does practice make perfect?” I retorted, without even thinking, “Not if you’re doing it wrong!!!”

My knee-jerk reaction made her laugh, which told me I had surprised her. My answer comes from years and years of watching so many people doing it wrong. Now don’t misunderstand: I believe in practice – fervently, passionately, decidedly. In fact, I insist on it. A lot of it! But I don’t think it helps to practice bad habits so that they become further ingrained.

Bad Habits

So what are the bad habits I see people doing when they speak in public?

1. Reading their material

This is the first and foremost bad habit. It may be from a script, it may be from notes, it may even be from a flip chart or slides. Think about it: if you are reading, where are your eyes? Not on the audience! And if you’re not looking at your audience, they are likely not looking at you, especially if you’ve turned your back on them to read your slides. The whole point of your being at the podium is to be connecting . . . and you’re not connecting if you’re not even seeing one another.

I know … I know … you’ve heard this before: EYE CONTACT is key when you’re speaking face-to-face with someone; so why wouldn’t it be equally important if you’re speaking to a crowd?

The fact is that eye contact is a 2-way street. You will never engage an audience if they don’t see you. And you will never be able to “read” them if you are not seeing them. When a speaker is more involved with her notes than with her audience, she is not going to feel charismatic – because charisma is all about connecting. Charisma never ever exists in a vacuum: it depends entirely on reciprocity.

You may think you can be charismatic when standing in front of your mirror practicing your speech. But until there is another set of eyes looking back at you, other than your own, you will never know for sure if that connection is being made.

2. PowerPoint-itis

We are drowning in PowerPoint! It has become an infection that has spread and is now threatening to cut off blood supply. PowerPoint is a wonderful tool when it is used properly – As a VISUAL AID, to support and illustrate a message but not to become the message itself.

Nothing is more boring than to read a speaker’s notes that have simply been transferred onto a slide. Word slides are seldom helpful. Think of PowerPoint as you would illustrations in a book. They are there to illuminate from another dimension; they are not there to simply repeat what you have just said.

Any slide that is not visual is also not aiding our comprehension. Take the words “visual aid” literally, and you will not make this mistake.

So what is the antidote to misguided PowerPoint?  Storytelling! The speaker should be able to tell a story that will make the message stick. What you may not realize is that a good story serves the same purpose as slides. It fills in the visual details and we don’t need a picture to do it for us. Our imagination does the work much better because we select the images that have punch for us.

3. Dumping your material

I cannot tell you how often a speaker comes to me with wonderful ideas but absolutely not a clue as to how they should be organized. Such speakers are simply dumping their information on the audience and hoping they will sort it out. But here, you must appreciate that organization in a paper is different from organization in a speech. A paper has chapters, paragraphs, perhaps an index, headings, etc. to tell a reader where they are on the road.

A speaker has no such markings. They must organize through time . . . which means more of a story and less of a list. The eye, after all, can read back a page or two; the ear can’t hear back. So repetition, strategically placed, is required, as is a synopsis that ties everything together.

Good Habits

The effective speaker exhibits the opposite of what is listed above:

  • They connect with their audience;
  • They are engaging storytellers;
  • They organize their material for the ear and not the eye.

But a charismatic speaker is more than the sum of these parts. A charismatic speaker knows how to reveal something of who they are, what they believe, and why you should join them there. A charismatic speaker allows their personal magic to shine because they are not busy wondering about whether the electricity for the PowerPoint will go down!

So practice to your heart’s content: just make sure you’re practicing it RIGHT!

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About the Author

Saskia, known as The Keynote Coach, has been working for over 30 years with Keynote speakers in all professions, from the Arts to Corporate America. She is the Author of "More Than Words Can Say: The Making of Inspired Speakers". More at

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