10 Tips on Public Speaking, From the Person Behind the Scenes

10 Tips on Public Speaking, From the Person Behind the Scenes
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Jake Dietrich

By: Maricella Herrera

I’ve heard a lot of people speak in public. And I do mean a lot. In person, online, in small group meetings, in large settings, while taping podcasts… the list goes on. Due to my work at Ellevate Network I’m lucky enough to be exposed to some great (and some not so great) speakers on a regular basis. Because of my job, I’m also hyper-sensitive when it comes to gauging the audience’s reactions. So although I’m by no means an expert, I can tell you what I’ve seen work and what I’ve seen fall flat. After all, I’m one of the people behind the scenes (a seemingly objective party, with whom most people feel it appropriate to share their feedback).

There are a few things that you might think are obvious, but trust me, when you’re on stage they might just slip your mind. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve learned that even the most basic things should be mentioned and that you shouldn’t assume anything is obvious. So if you’d like to get some insights from the person behind the curtain, here are my top 5 yay’s and top 5 nay’s everyone should remember if they want their speech to be memorable:


1. Know your end goal. Most people know the message they want to get across when they are addressing the room, but to truly know how to deliver that message you need to know your end game: once you’re done, what do you want the audience to remember? Knowing this will help you craft a clear message. If you don’t know what the three most important takeaways are, then your time (and most importantly, your audience’s time) will not be well spent.

2. Be authentic and don’t be afraid to get personal. Some of the best speakers I’ve seen are the ones who can honestly, and without much embellishment, tell their story. They’re not afraid to share insights from their lives or details from their “aha” moments. Sallie Krawcheck and Alison Levine are extremely different people with very different stories, but they both shine on stage because they cut through the bull. Sallie has talked in front of thousands of people about being fired, and she does it as if she was having a glass of wine with a girlfriend. I’ve heard Alison share graphic details about getting sick on one of her treks, and tear up when speaking about people who are important and inspire her. Yes, we want to hear the facts, but we also want to relate to the person who is on stage.

3. Humor goes a long way, but you can’t force it. I’ve seen brilliant speakers try to be funny and fall flat; it’s just not their personality. They may be brilliant at their topics, but humor is just not their thing. And then you have people like Ian Bremmer, founder of Eurasia Group, who is extremely knowledgeable, very charismatic, and over all one of the brightest geopolitical minds today, and he’s extremely funny. He explains the relationships between countries and throws a joke right in the middle of it all (I’ve heard him say how Godzilla is a big problem... in the middle of a very serious sentence). But that’s him. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Your audience will notice.

4. Be confident but humble. In our event with Venus Williams she was so friendly you could imagine having known her for years. I’ve seen people who, yes, are successful but are not widely known, act as if they’re better than their audience. Trust me, it didn’t go well. You can be confident without being a jerk. You can get your point across without implying that you are the only one who has all the answers.

5. Speak about something you truly care about. It’s one thing to know what you want to communicate, and it’s another to truly believe that you have an important message to share. Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of Acumen, and Natalia Oberti Noguera, founder of Pipeline Angels, are perfect examples. They not only know their stories, but they know why their message is important. Jacqueline is one of the most eloquent speakers I’ve ever heard, but it’s her excitement (and the details she remembers) when she talks about the projects Acumen is investing in what makes audiences really want to hear more. Natalia speaks passionately about the importance of increasing diversity in angel investing because she’s seen first hand the difference it makes to have diverse voices around the table. They stand out as speakers because they’re genuinely invested in what they’re speaking about.


1. Stop thinking that it’s all about you. Yes, you’re on stage. Yes, you’re there to share your expertise. Yes, you want people to know about your most recent project, to become your client, to follow your thought leadership… but I’ve seen way too many speaking gigs go sour when a person has made it all about herself or about promoting her business. I’ve seen audiences lose their focus and leave the room (or the conference call) when they hear a speaker focusing only on what she can get in return instead of imparting some knowledge and wisdom; there needs to be a balance. You can shed real insights and still promote your business in an elegant way. The best speakers are the ones who communicate their message, prove their expertise, and allow business to flow naturally from it. They don’t force it.

2. Don’t forget who the audience is. I was once at an event where the speaker decided to call all millennials lazy. She said it very clearly, without hesitation… and without realizing (or caring) that probably half the audience were millennials. The moment she said it you could see everyone tense up. I get it, people are entitled to their opinion, but you should know who you're speaking to. And you can't generalize.

3. Don’t shut down. We hosted a panel a while back with three speakers. They were all sharp, very informed, incredibly successful women. Really, there was not one person on that panel who I wouldn’t have wanted to invite for coffee and pick their brains. But when I listened back on the recording of that panel I realized that I could only hear two of the speakers. The third panelist was extremely quiet and shy. I would have loved to hear her more because I know how great she is, but it didn’t happen. Make sure that if you’re taking the stage you’re ready to share and speak up.

4. If you’re sharing the stage, don’t monopolize it. Similar to respecting your audience you need to respect the other people who are speaking alongside you. I’ve seen many panels be less effective than they should be because one of the speakers won’t let the others get a word in. It’s usually not deliberate, but there are times when you might lose track and monopolize what could be a great exchange of insights. Always keep in mind the format of your event; if it’s supposed to be a back and forth conversation don’t treat it like a keynote speech.

5. Don’t run. Pause. Breathe. Speak slower than you usually would, trust me, sometimes you don’t notice how fast you’re going because you want to get your message across and not miss a beat. I’ve seen this happen a lot, particularly in webinars, when you can’t really tell the reactions of your audience. Be confident that you know what you know, and give people time to absorb that knowledge.

I know it’s a lot easier to dish out suggestions when you’re not the one standing in front of a crowd. The same goes for anything else in life -- it’s much harder to actually get up and do something. I believe that there are many people who have some great things to say, but haven’t found the right way to say it. Take it from me: you can be engaging, all you need to do is remember those key things and find the courage to put yourself out there. Practice as much as you can, because it does make a difference, and always remember to have fun; the audience can tell if you aren’t.

Maricella Herrera Avila is the Director of Global Membership at Ellevate. She joined the former 85 Broads team back in 2012, shortly after earning her MBA at Columbia Business School. In her role, Maricella oversees the delivery of current member benefits while paving the road for future opportunities within the organization.

Ellevate Network is a global women’s network: the essential resource for professional women who create, inspire and lead. Together, we #InvestInWomen.

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