What I Learned from Teaching Public Speaking: Tips to Crush Your Next Speech!

Image of graduate student teaching public speaking to students Virginia Tech

Do you get anxious when you hear public speaking is required for an assignment in class or a project at work? When I taught public speaking at Virginia Tech for two years, I witnessed many students who had these same doubts and concerns around this topic. It might reassure you to know that being fearful of public speaking is not unusual: research shows Americans rank public speaking number one above death in their list of greatest fears. 

While getting up to present an idea in front of a live audience can seem daunting and intimidating, here’s a list of tips to help you ease your nerves and feel confident walking up to the stage on speech day.

Keyword Notecards > “Freestyling It”  

One student wrote in his end-of-year reflection that his best piece of advice for a future student was to not “freestyle it.” This student came up for his first speech—a two-minute story where a life lesson is learned along the way—and rambled on about unsuccessfully completing a late-night food run to Cookout. As the student went over the time limit minute by minute, it became clear that a lack of preparation or keyword notecards was causing his speech to go around in circles and fail to land that lesson-learned ending.

While waiting in line at Cookout after midnight does usually make for an intriguing story, having organized, keyword notecards labeled with numbers at the bottom would have kept him on track and focused on the most important content. Using these keyword notecards ensures that you deliver your speech extemporaneously (without memorization) and helps you incorporate a natural speaking tone. Nothing is worse than drawing a blank in the middle of your speech and struggling to get back on track. Notecards provide you with a crutch to fall back on if you do forget where you are in your speech.

Another good trick with using notecards is to include speaking reminders that are not based on content. For example, I am someone who gets really excited when I speak, and I often find myself speaking faster and faster as the speech progresses. By writing “slow down” and “take a deep breath” in between my key points, I remind myself to talk slowly and speak clearly. Other useful delivery tips are phrases like “speak with enthusiasm,” “smile,” “look around the room” and “speak loudly.” Keep your phrases short (four to six words per line) so you don’t read too many notes and lose that essential eye contact with the audience. 

The Eye Contact Trick  

Does the thought of making eye contact with individual audience members in the room during a speech ramp up your anxiety? Many students came to me worried about looking into the eyes of their classmates and feeling embarrassed trying to impress their peers when they didn’t feel confident about their public speaking skills. A quick trick to solve this fear while still engaging your audience is to focus your attention and eye contact on a centralized point in the back of the room. This could be a poster, mark on the wall or a window. 

Taking this up a notch, you can simulate eye contact with individuals by looking at their foreheads. This way, you can scan the room quickly without being intimidated by the expressions on each audience member’s face. Don’t forget to make eye contact with each corner of the room to show all of your audience members some love. If you’re in need of a confidence boost, find one person in the crowd who has a great smile and reference them for your mental well-being!

Make Yourself Laugh… 

Taking a second to tell a lighthearted joke or funny personal anecdote during a speech can remind yourself that the speech is not the end of the world and that you are simply communicating ideas like you do in your everyday life. Humor can be a great way to engage with the audience and give yourself a pause to regain your composure. There is usually at least one audience member in the crowd that will provide you with affirmation of your joke – but don’t be discouraged if you are unable to break the entire room out in laughter.

I can attest that only a few of my jokes ever really landed during my teaching career, but I still relied on humor as a way of calming my nerves and reminding myself to enjoy being a teacher. If all else fails, even making yourself laugh gives you a chance to pause and take a deep breath. Trust me, I was the only one laughing A LOT, but the jokes gave me an opportunity to reset and keep the lecture going smoothly.


Whether it is with your roommates, friends, coworkers, or family members, practicing your speech in front of a live audience helps recreate the stage and give you confidence before your speech day. Even if your friends are blatantly watching the TV behind you, having any type of audience raises the stakes and motivates you to practice the speech more formally. Having a few “real” run-throughs under your belt boosts your confidence, since you have done the speech before and been successful.

Almost all of my students wrote in their feedback that the most important tip for success in public speaking is to practice giving your speech before your speech day. Students wrote that they would have done better in class if they had taken more time to practice their speech and prepared earlier in the week. Practicing your speech also gives you a chance to find sections of your presentation that lack clarity or that you struggle to communicate concisely.

I would always practice giving my lectures a few days before showing up to teach and would often discover sections of my lesson that were vague or lacked helpful examples to back up my claims. If you are ever doubting your confidence before a speech, keep practicing until you have delivered the speech at a level you are comfortable being critiqued. From then on, you can use these successfully rehearsed speeches to reassure yourself of your potential when you do step up on your speech day.  

It’s OK to Feel Nervous! 

Being worried about giving a speech is understandable. As a teacher, I spoke with many students who felt apprehensive about public speaking and felt alone with their fear. These students were always pleasantly surprised to learn that most of their classmates also felt nervous about public speaking and that they were not all surrounded by seasoned professionals. As speakers, we are often our own harshest critics and should remind ourselves not to panic if a few filler words (um, like, so, uh, etc.) occasionally slip out.

I always recorded my students’ speeches so they could go back and watch themselves. When viewing their recordings, students realized their mistakes were not as prominent as they had felt in the moment. Watching recorded versions of your speech also gives you a chance to note delivery mistakes overlooked during the speech. I typically record my practice presentations on Zoom to review and identify the areas of the speech that lacked clarity or dragged on.

The most common delivery mistake is speaking too fast – students are so eager to get the speech over with that they begin their speech speaking one hundred miles per hour! To solve this delivery problem, try incorporating purposeful, short pauses between phrases to help you slow down your speed. Incorporating pauses also helps eliminate those filler words that often show up when you are speaking quickly. A good rule of thumb is to pause after every key point, take a deep breath and then carry on.

Recap the Most Important Takeaways 

Research shows that audiences typically remember the beginning and the end of a speech. This is often referred to as the primacy and recency effect. Keeping this in mind, speakers must remember to highlight the key points and takeaways at the beginning and the end of their speech. This can be done effectively by previewing the main points in the introduction and summarizing the most important points in the conclusion. Constantly referencing previous stats, figures and big ideas throughout your speech also helps audience members know what content to pay attention to and what they may need to act upon. 

Image credit: Global Institute of Training and Presenting

Keep Presentation Aids Simple and Limit Text  

Presentation aids, such as PowerPoints, charts, videos and pictures can certainly enhance your presentation, but keep in mind that text-heavy slides and images can distract the audience away from your speech. When the audience is trying to read a wall of text on a slide at the same time that you are speaking about other aspects of the content, a lot of the information can be lost. Audience members can be overwhelmed trying to parse which content to prioritize. Consider limiting presentation aids to only images and stats that enhance your assertions. Think about ideas or concepts that are best explained with the aid of an image or chart. Statistics and data that are visually presented and supported with spoken words can be your ticket to success. As the saying goes: a picture is worth 1,000 words.  

While the list of public speaking tips could go on for days, I hope this summary is a helpful starting point for your next speech. If you begin to grow anxious imagining giving a future speech, don’t forget to practice beforehand and walk up to the stage with a few keyword notecards you can rely on if you happen to go astray.

About the Author

Andrew Knight is a Program Coordinator for RVA NOW, a talent retention and attraction program of ChamberRVA. He serves as the lead for a SCHEV-funded internship initiative in the region.