10 tips to win a Public Speaking Competition

Tuesday 31 January 2017

Tips from ESU Public Speaking winners, Junaid Hameed the 2016 Best Speaker and Sophia Taylor, national winner in 2015.

1. Make sure your team understand their roles
Each member of a public speaking team has a very different yet equally important role in your presentation.

Chair: make sure you’re ready to adapt to your guest speaker; avoid doing as we did when we wrongly referred to one of our guest speakers as ‘John’, the name we’d been rehearsing with!

Questioner:  you’ll need to master the balance of paying close attention to your guest speaker’s speech, whilst simultaneously thinking of questions to both expand on and clarify their argument.

Speaker: be secure in your ability not only to deliver a speech, but also in your ability to write it as a well-structured, logically thought-out, and easy to follow piece of communication. Remember – the audience won’t have a manuscript to follow, so it’s your job to keep them following!

2. Don’t make the audience work too hard
The best speeches are those that can express an idea which can be easily understood by your audience. The most effective way to make a speech easy to follow is through a clear structure. The phrase, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them” is one I will always regard highly. The speaker outlines the main points in an introduction, expands upon each one in turn and briefly summarises the points in their closing statement. While it does not always need to be as formulaic as this, “way-marking” your speech so that the audience knows exactly what it is you’re talking about at any given time is a reliable way of ensuring they remain captivated.

3. Don’t be afraid to use prompts
Across every role, you will face the question: to notecard, or not to notecard? There exists the universal fear that if you use notecards, you seem less prepared, less capable. And then, inevitably, once your team has made the collective commitment to all use notecards, because you’re all in this together; the team immediately before you steps on stage without a single piece of paper in sight, and you realise that everything you’ve ever done in life is inadequate to this note-free exhibition you see before you. In reality, there is no shame or disadvantage to using notes. Judges won’t mark you down for using notes, and as long as you’re not utterly dependent on them, there’s no reason to worry.

4. Pacing is powerful
Not only must you speak clearly but I’ve always believed that changing your pace according to the tone at various points of the speech can make a huge difference, by distinguishing the important parts and giving the piece as a whole a new dynamic. This may include a pause just before an emphatic quote, speaking faster to imply urgency or slowing down to emphasise individual syllables, such as figures of data in a statistic. Think of it like ketchup; when used sparingly, and at the correct times, it can improve the entire thing.

5. Connect with a genuine interest.
Okay, maybe you’ve never really considered the issue of state-church relations before, and you might not know much on the matter. But crafting a speech and delving into the research it requires is an excellent opportunity for you to discover new interests, and to become an expert in something you didn’t know existed until two weeks prior. The choice of titles available to you does allow for some leeway to choose a subject that you find interesting. The judges and those listening will appreciate and pick up on your engagement with the topic – and talking about something you’re passionate about will make the whole experience much more interesting for you yourself!

6. Know what you think, and why.
Making a judgement on an issue and communicating your opinion is key to a clear and persuasive speech – yet you must be ready to support your opinion with reasons, evidence, and a clear answer as to why you think the way you do. What kind of case studies, statistics, or thought-pieces have you referred to in your research that have helped you form your opinion? There’s no need to leave a long list of citations in your speech, of course, but a sneaky reference to an international treaty or percentage will always help.

7. Do your homework!
While many speakers can excellently deliver a well-prepared speech, it is the questioning portion of a presentation that tends to test the true style and knowledge of the speaker. The best speakers are able to maintain their energy, eloquence and charisma through the question round and do not falter in the knowledge of their topic. Reading widely and doing as much research as you can, understanding various counterarguments and their respective strengths and weaknesses, can go a very long way. Anything you say during questioning to maintain the momentum created by your speech will prove that you did not only perform a winning speech but are a winning speaker yourself.

8. Relax and smile.
Ultimately the audience want to see you perform well and will be comfortable listening to you as long as they feel you are comfortable on stage. This is why, on stage both before and after your speech, trying to act as relaxed as possible, whether you feel so or not, and smiling will both make the audience more receptive to you and make you seem and feel more confident. And from a competitive point of view, the ESU adjudicators always love to see the participants enjoying themselves at their events, so it wouldn’t ever be a bad idea to show that you’re having an awesome time!

9. Keep a friendly and informative tone.
Although you are in a competition, remember that being overly confrontational in your approach will result in lower marks. As a questioner, it is perhaps most tricky for you to find the balance between leading a speaker to expand their argument and clarify some points, to down-right disputing their claims altogether. Make sure you’re promoting a more conversational relationship with your speaker. Ask questions on their speech and if they’ve said something that doesn’t quite clearly deliver a message, prompt them with “so what you’re saying is…?” The judges will appreciate a team who can deliver a confident and informed performance whilst maintaining a friendly environment.

10. Nerves are natural
It’s hard to avoid nerves, no matter how much experience in public speaking you have. Even Churchill himself battled nerves before each speech – choosing to combat them through meticulous preparation and rehearsal. Remember – the audience want you to do well. It’s comprised of your parents, teachers, and other students like you who are feeling the exact same way, no matter how confident they seem. The judges, too, are only wishing you well, and aren’t out rooting for you to fail, or ready deduct points when you stumble over a word. The best thing about public speaking is the experience of overcoming these nerves, learning to put them to good use, and teaching yourself how to stay confident in spite of your own fears.