At the beginning of nearly every semester, nervous students approach LSU communication instructor Melissa Thompson and confide that they are petrified about public speaking.
“It’s unfortunate that we have become so scared of public speaking, but I’ve had at least a handful of students every semester that will come to me at the beginning and say, ‘I’m terrified to do this. I want to vomit, I’m sweating, I’m going to pass out,’ ” she says. “I’ve had several students have physical reactions to public speaking.”
Thompson, who is also director of talent development for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and has taught public speaking to students and professionals for a decade, says she tries to create a supportive environment in the classroom, and she encourages those nervous students to frame their prepared talks as merely a conversation with their peers.
“You know these people — they are your friends, they are your classmates. Just have a conversation,” she says of her advice to students.
Thompson says the only way students — or anyone facing a public speaking assignment — will improve is through practice. She also encourages speakers to be honest about their skill level when starting out and to set clear goals about where they want to be at the end of the term. Those who embrace the process, she says, can show remarkable improvement.
“To watch them progress in just 15 weeks during a semester is pretty incredible when they want it and work hard,” she says.
Thompson currently teaches an advanced special topics business communication course at LSU and has previously taught public speaking, interpersonal communication and basic communication theory classes at Our Lady of the Lake College and the University of Memphis. She is also a co-organizer and speaker coach for the annual TEDxLSU event, working with community leaders to craft short, powerful speeches that share important ideas.
Whether coaching undergraduates through their first public speaking experience or guiding accomplished experts through a high-pressure presentation like TEDxLSU, Thompson suggests a few rules to help speakers more effectively connect with their audiences.
Consider Who’s Listening
When crafting any talk for a group of people, Thompson says you should take some time to understand who the audience is, what they know and what type of language will connect with them.
“It always comes back to your audience,” she says. “Most of the time communication errors happen when the speaker has a message that is not tailored properly to their audience.”
Once you understand whom you will be addressing, take a moment to consider the most important thing you want the audience to learn through your talk, then focus your writing efforts around that idea. “I say this to all of my speakers: It’s not about you, it’s about your idea and the audience accepting that idea,” Thompson says.
Use a Logical Structure
Once you have a clear understanding of your audience, it’s time to turn to the structure of your talk. Thompson suggests the tried-and-true formula of an introduction, a body with three main points and a conclusion.
She says the introduction should explain exactly what you’re going to touch on in the rest of the speech so the audience can follow along. In the body, be sure to cover the three main points in the order you set them up in the introduction. The conclusion should succinctly summarize the talk without introducing any new information.
Thompson says people are naturally drawn to narratives and storytelling that have a beginning, middle and end, so structuring a talk in this way can help speakers make a real connection with an audience. “If you go in that order your audience is going to be very comfortable following you and go with you wherever you’re taking them,” she says.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Writing a well-structured and effective talk is only one part of the public speaking process. “You have to practice, out loud — over and over and over,” Thompson says.
Thompson says that once she finishes writing a talk, she reads through the text several times, then says the entire speech out loud multiple times. After that, she might say it out loud to another person or, for high-stakes speeches, record herself giving the talk and review the audio or video.
For LSU students, Thompson recommends visiting one of the communication studios run by Communication Across the Curriculum, where students can record themselves giving a talk and focus on areas that need improvement. Students can also make an appointment with a communication mentor who can offer feedback on the presentation.
“To be able to watch yourself and hear yourself is the best way to pick up the things you don’t want to repeat,” she says.