01December 2023

10 Public Speaking Exercises

How do you improve in Public Speaking?
How do you learn to swim?
By getting into the water.
However, not everyone will be able to jump straight in.
I have a friend who wanted to be able to speak in public but was nowhere near to believing that she could.  She joined her local speaking group and for six months she just came to the meetings and sat at the back and listened.  Looking in from the outside nothing seemed to be happening, but inside she was growing.
Week on week she would listen.  She could hear what other people were able to do and realised that many of them were not particularly good yet but were still willing to give it a try.
Eventually, she got up and said a little something.  It was not particularly good, but it was something.
Over time she got better; eventually, she grew and developed and ended up becoming a National Speaking champion.
Most motivational speakers in some form will use this story format:  telling about somebody who started off far back, and ended up succeeding more than anyone would imagine.  Message: ‘if she can, you can!’
If you wait until you are completely ready, you may never be!
So put yourself into the arena anyway.
The barrier between most of us and succeeding or achieving stems from a reluctance built out of many excuses:
too old, too young, too male, too female, poorly educated, and over-educated and these rags-to-riches stories help by stripping away excuses.
Public life is full of stutterers who have learned to manage and go on to excel.
George IV (The King's Speech) overcame his speech impediment.  He had to develop a very measured and slow delivery – he had to, to be able to speak at all! 
And many of us could actually benefit from aiming to speak as slowly as he did.
Bruce Willis, Nicole Kidman, Joe Biden, and notably James Earl Jones, the voice of Mufasa on "The Lion King" and Darth Vader from "Star Wars," had a stutter that was so bad he hardly spoke for eight years and he is now lauded for having one of the most rounded and impressive voices in movies.
Both Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher lacked natural voices to could command attention.
Margaret Thatcher went out of her way to re-engineer her voice to gain more authority when she spoke.
Margaret Thatcher’s voice change was seen as a key factor in her political success, helping her to be taken more seriously as a politician and establishing her leadership credentials.
I often find myself listening to pop singers and asking myself how they could ever imagine having a successful singing career with that voice.  I still love Steely Dan and much of the character of their music stems from Donald Fagan’s vocals.  However, if you had put him in a room with a lot of hopefuls and asked them to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ I doubt he would be the voice you would pick out as the best.
So how come he became a great performer?  How did James Earl Jones become Darth Vader?
And for that matter, how did my anxious introverted friend become a National Speech champion?
Because on one level each of them decided that was what they were going to do.
So before we even start to speak about good Public Speaking exercises to help development, the first important step is simply to put the convenient excuses away, get up and give it a go.
And then do it regularly.
Two good places where you could do this are the Speaking Club organisations:
The ASC, https://the-asc.org.uk/ and
Toastmasters , https://www.toastmasters.org/find-a-club

However, here are some exercises and activities you could do at a club, with a friend and some at home alone with a phone or even a mirror.

10 exercises for Improving Public Speaking

  1. Impromptu Speaking

This is the basic ‘go-to’ exercise of all speakers clubs because it needs little preparation and can be used as a foundation to address all speaking issues.  Someone throws a subject at you and you have to talk about it.
One of the biggest hurdles we need to overcome is to be able to speak without a script or extended notes (and for that matter lots of densely written Powerpoint slides).  Therefore the biggest benefit of this type of exercise is it forces you to speak off the cuff.  This is certainly an activity that one should take part in regularly, as over time we learn to keep a train of thought going for longer and then over time when we are delivering a prepared presentation we have the psychological reassurance of knowing that if we get lost for a moment, we do know that we can keep going.
I remember watching people at a speakers club getting up on stage, getting half a sentence out, going blank, apologising and sitting back down again.  Over time half a sentence became one sentence and then more.
Then they learn to make connections, so that if they were given the topic of ‘Teamwork’ they could speak about football, work, School fairs and use their own experiences to provide material to respond to the subject.
All you need is one person who is willing to be the ‘host’ and who has prepared a list of possible topics to allocate to the speakers in the room: call out the topic, then call out the name of the person they want to speak on that subject and off you go – half an hour of fun!
As time goes on, you could time the responses: use cards or lights to indicate how long they have spoken and the aim is to keep speaking until the red card is shown.
If you are alone with a friend, get them to throw a topic at you occasionally.  Stop what you are doing as soon as they call out their topic, stand up (to make it more formal), and speak as best as you can on that subject.
I have even done it on my own.  With the radio or TV on in the background or just by letting a thought pop into my head, stopping and making myself talk out loud about that topic.
The goal: just to keep going!

  1. Tell a story

When I was a musician I remember being on tour with a group of players that spent the whole coach journey telling each other jokes.  They were hilarious.  I sat there with the same thought process that most of us have when faced with Public Speaking:
‘I am not very good at telling jokes.’
However, I was quite good at playing the ‘cello and all these other musicians were excellent at their instruments.  They were also good at telling jokes because they practised and rehearsed telling jokes in their rooms at night. 
You can decide how much preparation to put into this exercise.
Either approach it like an impromptu and simply take a subject that leads naturally to a story:
‘a moment of embarrassment’;’ first day of school’; ‘breaking the rules’,
or allow yourself time to prepare and think it through, with the understanding that this story will be delivered without using notes.
At my local Speakers Club we used to have a section called ‘The Joker’ where each week someone would come along with a prepared joke (in the form of a story) and deliver it to the room.

  1. Tell a story in a pair

Two people stand up together; one of them is given a story title or an opening line and they have to start to tell their story; after a given time (20 seconds, 30 seconds) they have to pass over to the other person to continue the story, who then passes back after another 20,30 seconds and on it goes.
You do not have to be rigid about the length of time speaking, you could have a host that waits for the right moment and decides when to change speaker.
You can tighten or soften the rules depending on how new or confident the speakers are.

  1. Flip flop

This worked very well in schools.  One speaker comes to the front and is given a subject.  Whatever the subject they have to speak very enthusiastically about it and when the host clicks their fingers they have to flip to the other side and speak negatively about the subject and back and forth.
This is a lovely exercise as it frees the speaker up from having to worry about whether they are speaking their own truth, as they just have to take an extreme stance and swap to the other extreme.
The other benefit is that it encourages the use of superlatives and extreme language which in itself is a good exercise for developing vocal variety.

  1. Six words

Or as many or few words as you like!  In a group I would collect 6 arbitrary words from the audience and write them on a board or flip chart and then invite a speaker up to tell a story that incorporates each of those words – ideally in the order in which they appear on the board.
Again this is a good exercise to distract the speaker from the pressure of having to give an opinion or having to make critical sense as they speak.  It is just about speaking.

  1. The ‘But Why’ Circle

One speaker is given a statement starting with the words ‘I like…’  and the second speaker only needs to say ‘but why’ periodically to keep the first speaker talking and generating new thoughts.  This continues for as long as one wants or schedules and then at a given sign the first speaker wraps up by going back to the first idea and finishing with ‘…and that is why I like…’
So for instance:
‘I like salad..’ ‘but why’ ..….’Nutricious , healthy, stay fit, not ill as much, not go to hospital, less stress on NHS, save tax payer money, invest in homeless, fairer society, lovely thy neighbour…etc…and that is why I like salad.’
As well as being a good exercise for allowing a thought process to flow, it also mimics one of the best, simplest and most effective speech structures – finishing back where you started!

  1. Filler-free

Try to speak for a given length of time without saying umm or ahh.
Like the BBC radio game ‘Just a minute’, the difference being that in speaking we like ‘deviation’ and ‘repetition’, just not ‘hesitation’!
Through this exercise we learn to slow down, as that is the best way to cut out fillers is to lessen the pace and to learn to ‘love’ moments of silence as we think of our next idea.

  1. Eyeball bingo

This only really works with a full room.
The speaker is given a topic and while delivering the topic they need to make eye contact with everyone in the room.  The audience members are asked to stand up when they have been looked at.  The speaker’s job is to get everyone on their feet.
This can be extended and adapted:
- try to avoid standing people up like a wave across the room:
- aim for a person on this side, one on that side, one in the middle and so on;
- the first time an audience member is looked, at stand up, second time raise one hand in the air, third time other hand;
- audience member counts 2 to 3 seconds of eye contact before they stand up (to prevent eye contact being too fleeting.)

  1. Tongue twisters

We can probably all benefit by working our mouths a bit harder when we are speaking, so a few ‘Red leather, yellow leather’ tongue twisters are a good exercise.  It is more important to be clear and comfortable than fast.  My particular favourites are Italian pasta types, because it allows us to be that little more expressive and dramatic: Ravioli, Macaroni, Spaghetti, Tagliatelli!

  1. Either Or

This can be done as part of a topic session.
When preparing the topics, the host comes up with a list of ‘either, or’:
‘Tea of Coffee’; Eat at home or in a restaurant’; ‘beach holiday or walking holiday’
A very good exercise to help a speaker to talk about ‘on the one hand / on the other’
And then to come to a conclusion.  It also helps to develop simple balanced gestures as the speaker learns to indicate one subject on one side and the other subject on the other.

And finally...
In earlier times we only had the option of a mirror to cast an eye over what we were doing.
The problem was that it tended to make us a bit more self-conscious and gestures would become wooden and forced.  On our phones we can video ourselves or simply record sound, depending on what we want to focus our attention on.

In the end, the key is ‘just do it’
Public Speaking works against all our tendencies of wanting to be perfect, to over-prepare, to want to look good. 
Therefore, a major tip for overcoming anxiety and improving your speaking skills is:
‘Get over yourself and get on with it.’

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Michael's superb training style is underpinned by an incredible depth of knowledge and experience. Like all true experts, he delivers what he knows with ease and simplicity, exampling the skills he is teaching as he does so.

Very informative and great anecdotes which illustrated points and provided visual markers.

The most interesting training that I have ever taken part in! Experience + Wisdom + Perfect teaching approach.

The training was spot on. He really listened to us and customised his responses throughout.

Loved the creation of visual examples through the use of body and how relating the experience really helps demonstrate the message.

Very approachable and motivational. So much information, brilliantly delivered.

Loads of great analogies and stories - very friendly and helpful.

Very approachable and knowledgeable and good use of examples to simplify the material.

In just one day Michael was able to teach a class of children how to craft their own personal stories and experiences into powerful and engaging speeches that resonate with an adult audience as well as with a younger audience. It is a marvellous way to help them increase self-confidence and in the process - almost without them even realising it - become natural speakers and excellent communicators.

Michael has a style of speaking which draws the audience into his world, captivates them and leaves them with lasting memories of some of the descriptive phrases he has used and the information he has included. He also has the ability to pass the skills he uses in his own speaking on to those he trains.

Very good rapport, attention to detail, individual support, positive atmosphere and encouragement - a great place for learning.

• Very great example; how to express yourself, how to be engaging and how to match body language with what is said.