Table of Contents

Who needs a beginner’s guide to public speaking?

The ability to effectively and succinctly communicate an idea is a moat for any marketer or small business owner. What’s more, becoming an effective public speaker enhances the profile and appeal of your brand, creates awareness for your products and services, generates traffic to your websites, and fosters customer love for the entirety of your content. Developing the ability to get on stage and unfold an important idea is a skill that’s worth developing, no matter where you are in your career.

The importance of effective public speaking cannot be overstated, particularly when you consider that developing your public speaking skills can lead to more opportunities to share your ideas, grow a community around your business or organization, gather support for a worthy cause or help you lose any public speaking fear you might have

I place such a high value on public speaking professionally for three reasons: business development,  career development and personal development.

I’ve heard from numerous speakers who’ve told me they signed a new client after an executive with a prospective company heard them speak and decided they should do business together. Also, at any event you attend, someone is looking to hire talented people and talented people are looking for their next move. So it only makes sense that people work to put their best foot forward—like the person in the tweet below—before stepping on stage.

Most important, however, it’s (past) time people who have something to say—but who aren’t always heard—had an audience to share their ideas.

Everyone can develop effective public speaking skills and deliver an amazing marketing or tech talk on stage.

I know what you’re thinking: “This doesn’t apply to me; I’m an introvert.” So am I. Mostly.

Many people, even the most garrulous among us, often suffer situational shyness, feeling insecure, uncomfortable or awkward at times in the presence of others, especially large groups or strangers.

ronell smith speaking at Confab 2015 in Minnesota

Speaking onstage at Confab 2015 in Minneapolis, Minnesota

But know this: your voice needs to be heard.

There are numerous worthwhile marketing-, tech- and content-related events held each year. These events are made better by having diverse, new perspectives. Like yours.

And for those of you thinking you cannot possibly muster the courage or master the skills necessary to speak effectively in front of hundreds of people, you’re wrong.

I’ve worked with complete newbies who went on to deliver talks that yielded standing ovations.

Why I write a guide to public speaking

I created the tips that follow after many years of observing what works (and doesn’t); having spent time as an event organizer, speaker coach, emcee and speaker; helping others see more clearly the value of developing as a public speaker; and with hopes that it helps more women, people of color and other underrepresented groups get on stage.

The ideas are applicable for everyone from novices to accomplished speakers trying to better their craft. (As a speaker coach, emcee and speaker, I’ve noticed that even the best presenters have things that can be tweaked.)

[Eds. note: An important point I’d like to make before we get started is this post is not meant as a public speaking tips and tricks exposition. It’s meant to provide speakers and would-be speakers the what, why and how of effective public speaking techniques.]

Have something worthwhile to say that you’re excited to share in front of an audience.

Don’t accept an invitation to deliver a talk simply because the event is worthwhile and you’d like to attend.

Make sure you have something significant to say and that the audience would walk away having benefited greatly. Unsure of whether or not what you have to say merits a talk?

Consider the work you’re doing, specifically the elements you’re proudest of and could talk most passionately about.

If you created a talk about that work, would it inspire the audience?

If not, decline and tell the organizer you’ll reach out in the near future when you’re doing work you’re excited to talk about.

Bring your best storytelling self to the stage.

In marketing circles, I often hear “Too many speakers think they’re giving a TED talk, which doesn’t work for [marketing audiences].”

Yes and no.

Inspiring talks with no takeaways will almost always fall flat in the digital marketing space. (I share why below.)

If you want the audience to connect early and strongly with the talk, you need a strong story, one that builds tension initially before you quell the audience’s angst with the talk.

So, yes, you can mix in elements typically employed in TED Talks (e.g., strong storytelling and throughline). But the talk overall has to be tactical to appease content, SEO, and technical audiences.

Have a quality deck, but don’t go overboard.

A lot of folks think a professional (read: expensive or time-consuming to create) deck is an essential element of a great talk.

It’s not.

Focus on having a clean, polished, professional-looking deck that clearly conveys (and complements without overpowering) the points you’ll be making aloud.

Remember, what you say and how you deliver it are far more important than what the audience sees on the screen.

Instead of trying to wow the crowd with a deck of the century, optimize the presentation for Slideshare, by making each page speak for itself.

That means, using data, text or graphics in such a way that someone would be able to understand the message you’re conveying without the benefit of seeing you on stage.

Since this is not always possible, especially since the audience watching you speak might not need all of the graphic details a Slideshare reader would be lost without, you might consider creating two versions of your talk, says Erica McGillivray, Director of Product Strategy and Community for CMX Media.

“My opinion is you need one deck for the stage and one for SlideShare,” she says.

Someone who does a masterful job of this is Ian Lurie of Portent Interactive. (See deck below)

You can easily tell each point he’s making from simply looking at the presentation in Slideshare, which is important given that the vast majority of people won’t see you live on stage.

They’ll likely see a link shared on social media during or after the talk, and then start perusing your deck on mobile.

Help the audience out by working to be more thorough than…cute.

Lose the “About Me” intro.

Don’t insult the audience for trusting that you’re worthy of being on stage.

Unless you’re famous—in which case, the audience already knows enough about you—no one cares what you’ve done to this point. They want you to help them be better at their work.

Once you’re introduced by the emcee, roll with it, moving on to your presentation. (Most speakers fall flat on their faces right here, losing the audience with needless look-what-I’ve-done information.)

Include a strong hook.

At the outset, use a personal story, anecdote or strong example that conveys to the audience that you feel their pain, which captures attention and earns buy-in.

The stronger and more vivid the story, the better.

One technique that works very well, especially for marketing audiences, is to use a story or some well-understood data to make a strong point that’s sure to captivate a large portion of the audience, which is exactly what Moz’s Dr. Pete (see image below) did at MozCon 2014, when he used the number of blogs posted daily to make his point that your content has to stick out to get noticed.

Dr. Pete Meyers of Moz blogs published yearly

This is an awesome technique for getting the audience to trust you and keep an open mind as you move along.

Create an easy-to-follow throughline to make your talk relevant and easy to follow.

Everyone loves a strong story, whether for the gory ending or the need to quash any feelings of angst they might be feeling on the topic. You can help the audience follow along by using what I call attention hooks at various points throughout the talk.

For example, a link building talk might flow in this fashion (The concept is borrowed from presentation expert Nancy Duarte):

What is: Everyone hates cold outreach emails, even the person sending them to you.

What could be: What if you never needed to send a cold email again?

What is: Aren’t we all tired of response rates that look like Richter Scale figures?

What could be: Our team has done research I’ll be sharing with you here that makes it clear that earning not only responses, but links as well, is much easier than we’ve previously believed it was.

What is: Two weeks ago our link builders were ready to give up

Bliss: But today, I’ll share [a tool, service or process] that turned it all around. Here’s how we did it, and you can too.

nacy duarte public speaking storyline schematic effective

image courtest of Nancy Duarte


Showing audience members the world they inhabit, through words and images, makes it clear you know them, have done your homework and what you have to offer is worth their time.

Share novel information, or nudge the audience to see something  in a new way.

Even if the topic you’re covering has been covered numerous times in the past, the talk you’ll be giving is unique in that it could only be delivered by you.

Take it step further by being keen to showcase the topic in a new light.

What I like to say is either you share something new, explaining why it’s important before telling the audience how to make it work for them, or you share something common but with a new twist, one that is unexpected but very relevant.

Imagine the note-taking in the room when folks saw Go Fish Digital’s Chris Long share how to grow authority without links.


That type of counter-intuitive thinking gets peoples’ attention. And holds it.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

In all but the rarest of instances (i.e, unless you’re a theater major, actor, entertainer or experienced at memorizing lines), I recommend against memorizing the talk.

It’s too easy to forget one word or sentence or phrase, and then forget everything that follows.

Instead, rehearse the talk numerous times, getting a feel for the flow, the words you’re using and how effective you feel you are at making your points.

What looks like skill when you see amazing talks is really hard work.

The best speakers commit to putting in the time to create a talk the audience will appreciate, learn from and be able to use in their work.

Once you’re done practicing, find someone to rehearse in front of, inviting them to critique you.

If you don’t have anyone to practice in front of, record yourself and share it with several friends, making certain to ask for blunt but constructive feedback.

Think locally when amassing the information for your slide deck.

Few things excite audience members like feeling that you personally know them. Like really, really know them.

Make this work for you by doing a little homework: In advance of the show, study the speakers’ bios to see who they work for and what work they’re doing; follow the event organizer’s social media profiles to see who’s attending; and get familiar with a brand or two from the local area where the event is being held.

Then, when creating your presentation create a slide or two using a person or a brand in the audience to help make your point.

A couple of years ago, at Trendigital Summit, in South Dakota, I found out that one of the speakers was from a local restaurant chain, Pizza Ranch.

I used data gleaned from the brand’s social and content sharing efforts to highlight the effectiveness of a new tool Moz was creating.

Moz Content displaying Pizza Ranch South Dakota

Many speakers ask for the demographics of the attendees from the organizers, but that’s hit or miss.

It’s best to find folks who you know will be in the room, via social media, at which point you can reach out to them individually, ask them to respond to a brief poll or ask if you can send them a short email with a few questions you’re planning to answer while on stage.

(Twitter is great for finding prospective attendees; they often tweet their plans to attend the event.)

Personalize your information for the audience in the room.

Adding some local flavor to your presentation is sure to have an impact.

But if you really want to stand out, make it personal by connecting deeply with one person in the room.

You can do this by sharing the work a specific person in the room has done or is currently working on to make a point.

Or you can do what I did in 2017 at the SoundBoard Events conference in Athens, Ga., where I shared a personal story of an experience I had while in college with a local business.

The business itself is no longer around, but I knew that at least a few people who’d shopped at the store and who knew the owner I talked about would be.

The story went over well, based on feedback I received during and after the event.

ronell smith public speaking George Dean's menswear

Take the time to build a personal connection with the audience.

Don’t use bullet points—ever.

Even if you’ve never heard “Don’t use bullet points in your talk,” it’s a good bet that many audience members have heard it, which means that if you include them they could lose respect for you as a speaker.

No one wants to see this:

no bullet points for effective public speaking presentations

As opposed to this:

Though we hear all the time to never use bullet points, seldom do we hear why: It’s always better to include one idea per slide.

(It’s actually kind of unfair to single out bullet points, when numbers, boxes and check marks are all equally offensive.)

Having several ideas on a slide means the audience has to decide which one to pay attention to. If they’re reading slides, they are not listening to you.

Repeat after me: One idea per slide, and no bullet points (or check marks or numbers, etc.).

Allow your slides to breathe by killing text bloat.

While we’re talking about text, remember this: less is more.

You don’t want the audience reading the slides and ignoring you. Most important, though, text-heavy slides look childish and unprofessional.

(If you think you need to include text-laden slides, it’s a sure sign that you need to rehearse more, allowing you to paraphrase verbally the points you’re trying to make.)

Don’t talk to your slides.

We’ve all seen it: A speaker puts up a slide with a few lines of text on it and then proceeds to read it.


The text on the slide is there to help you make your point.

It should be brief, necessary and provide a seamless segue into what you’ll say while the image is visible.

Share 1 big thing—give the audience one big takeaway they can sink their teeth into.

Speakers who say their goal is to have you walk away with several takeaways are alerting you that they’ve either (a) not done their homework or (b) are preparing to waste your time.

Folks in the audience aren’t looking for five things they can do that might help them be successful; they’re sitting there drinking cold coffee and battling bad wi-fi connections to hear you share that one big, earth-shattering nugget that makes success for them a real possibility

Therefore, when you’re outlining and creating your talk, think of the single biggest takeaway folks in attendance will walk away with; beat that drum steadily during your talk.

This idea hit me like a ton of bricks while attending my first MozCon in 2013.

Avinash Kaushik from Google held the crowd at rapt attention, as he is wont to do, giving us all things to think about and work on that could make our lives, er, jobs, easier.

During the Q&A after his talk, he was asked what he’d recommend for audience members to do right away.

“The world is freaking complicated, [people think] so let me start with everything I don’t know … 900 years from now, I will fix what’s broken today. …Get good at what you do.”

Avinash Kaushik Quote MozCon 2013 on public speaking takeaways

No matter who you were or what work you were doing, those words served to galvanize your thoughts and your actions in the days and months ahead.

Make the information you share as a public speaker tactical or actionable—or regret not doing so.

There’s no other way to say this: If you care about your speaker scores and wish to speak continually at marketing conferences, your information had better be tactical, how-to in nature.

Sure, strategy sounds great, and we all like to throw around high-level info, but the audience wants actionable takeaways, which is a sore spot for many speakers.

The two tweets below are symbolic of two disparate camps, one idyllic, the other realistic:

You cannot afford to be on the wrong side of this argument. It’s OK to begin the talk with strategy, but the last third to one half of the talk should be geared to showing the audience explicitly how they can precisely do what it is you have done successfully.

Trust me on this: I’ve been involved in the event organization side for more than a half dozen organizations or brands; the No. 1 reason skilled speakers get low scores is because they talked strategy, not how-to.

The exception in this regard are keynote talks, which typically share high-level thoughts about an industry or category, or address challenges specific to the business.

Start small—Don’t try to become a keynote speaker overnight.

One of the best pieces of advice for any junior- to mid-experience speaker is to not bite off more than you can chew, believing that bigger is better when it comes to the size of the event.

The reverse is actually true, early on at least.

If you’re getting started, apply to speak at events in your town or your city.

You could teach a marketing of social media class to business owners at your local library; give a short talk at the local marketing organization’s monthly meeting; or offer yourself up to speak at regional marketing agencies, where you can break down a specific area of marketing to educate team members.

Ronell Smith public speaking at marketing event DFWSEM

One of my first talks was at a local marketing organization’s monthly meeting (image above), where I shared my process for generating content ideas.

I spoke in front of 85 to 100 people.

I’ve now spoken in front of more than 1,400 people; that first event hooked me and made me want to work harder to earn the right to get in front of smaller audiences.

I’m not sure I would have felt that way if I’d started out in front of a large group, where feedback is much harder to gauge and where my lack of experience likely would have been a liability.

Invite critique of your public speaking practices from friends, family members or co-workers.

No one makes it to the stage alone.

There are always people who, along the way, provide support, feedback, and critique.

Don’t neglect this important step.

When your working on your deck, share the info with a friend or co-worker to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. Even folks who are not knowledgeable of the topic on which you’ll speak can help you with tone, language, and any rough spots.

Once the deck is completed, get eyes on it again to ensure it came together as planned.

Then, when you’re practicing, either film yourself or have a friend or two watch as you go through the material.

There is no substitute for feedback, especially when you want to put your best foot forward during the actual event.

What’s more, even after the event, ask a few people who were in the audience for their feedback. What might sound painful will save you future pain.

When I spoke at Confab Central in 2015, friend and Facebook content strategist Jonathon Colman was in the audience and noticed that most of my examples began with “he” and not “she.”

It was an uncomfortable lesson I only had to learn once.

Develop a system for collecting the information you’ll use in your presentation.

I write out my talks in a Google Doc; however, the various notes, images, tweets, emails, slide decks and screen grabs are kept in several places and then brought together when I start writing.

You’ll need to develop your own system, but feel free to steal elements of mine, if you see fit:

Social media content: I “heart” content on Twitter, which sends it (via IFTTT) to Pocket, where I keep track of presentation materials with tags, including one labeled “presentation.”

Emails: For notes to myself or to flag emails for use in presentations, I use hashtags in the subject line, where I include what the email is for, the title of the talk and the event—e.g., #presentation, #howtoearnfeaturedsnippets,  #BrightonSEO2017.

Blogs, videos, Slideshare decks: I save these in Pocket under the “presentation” tag and labeled with the name of the talk for easy recognition.

Screengrabs: They are created using Evernote’s Skitch and labeled for each talk—e.g., BrightonSEO2017_BlogData.jpg.

With this process, I can quickly and easily pull everything together once I start writing and building the deck.

Don’t overthink what you have to offer an audience as a public speaker.

If you think you have something to say, you have something to say, and folks will appreciate hearing it. If you’re struggling with the idea or concept, bounce it off a few people for feedback.

If it resonates, quit overthinking and get to work.

There have been numerous occasions where I talked myself out of giving a talk, only to see a similar talk given soon thereafter. Don’t be like me.

Kill slide vomit—a presentation with 150 or more slides looks sloppy.

I know I’ll catch some heat for this one; I’ll take it.

When you consider that most marketing and tech talks are in the 25-minute to 45-minute range, having 100 or more slides is a travesty. You might as well read from an iPad in front of the audience.

Sure, 100-plus slides can work, but it seldom does. (I’ve seen several hundred talks in the last 10 years; there has never been a single instance where a speaker with 100 or more slides didn’t either have to race through them or have to skip some of them altogether.)

There’s no hard and fast rule for how many slides you should have. A good rule, though, is to multiply the amount of time by 1.5X – 2X. A 30-minute talk would have 45 to 60 slides; a 45-minute talk will have roughly 70 to 90 slides.

This is a rule I ascribe to and is based on experience and observation.

McGillivray has an equally solid suggestion: “If they already have the slides and are worried about having too many, they can take their talk time, break it down into seconds, and divide the seconds by the number of slides.”

That is, a 30 minute talk, which is 1,800 seconds, so if—during practice—you’re averaging 25 to 30 seconds each slide, you should plan for 60 to 70 slides.

At the very least, by starting with these figures as a guide rule, you can be on guard for unnecessary information that made its way into your slides. What’s more, you’ll be able to better notice areas where (a) you might need more or less time to distill an idea or (b) it might be better to talk out a point as opposed to showing it on a slide.

Find and engage with public speakers you admire.

While I’m totally against copying speakers’ styles, mannerisms and the like, I highly recommend you talk to speakers you enjoy seeing onstage.

Some of the best, most accomplished presenters are also some of the most generous with their time. Whether on social media, in person or via email, engage with them and pick their brains for how you can become a better speaker.

Caveat: Only do this after personally watching them speak and developing a short list of very specific questions. Even generous people need to feel like you’re putting in the effort to get better.

Emulate your favorite public speakers; don’t imitate them.

It’s great to study other speakers to glean how they do what they do. Many of the best speakers use humor, data, great storytelling and expert stage presence to create a display that’s always noteworthy.

Strive to create your own style, not copy theirs.

You’re not them; nor should you attempt to be.

Many times, especially as marketers, we look at the best, highest-rated speakers and then go all in on mimicry.

Bad idea.

There’s a reason top comedians don’t study other comedians when looking for clues on how to up their game (most study entertainers in other genres, including singers, ministers, etc.): They’re looking to discern that aha moment, when the audience and the entertainer connect on a level that it’s impossible to miss. They attempt to employ similar tactics to create the same effect. If they studied comedians of their era, they’d likely become me-too imitators.

My advice to speakers who want to get consistently better is to steal ideas from everywhere — movies, TV, concerts, religious events, etc.

Find a community of like-minded people looking to grow their public speaking skills and support each another.

If you’ve been eyeing an event or two, search Twitter for hashtags associated with the event. Find, follow and engage with people who are or who have attended or spoken at the events. At the conclusion of each event, be sure to save the link for the decks, which the organizer usually does within a week of the event concluding.

The conversations will help you learn from the folks who’ve been on the stage; the decks will make you aware of what the organizer is looking for in a pitch.

A few of my fave event hashtags include, but are not limited to #SMXEast, #SearchLove, #MozCon and #Confab.

Final thoughts on developing your public speaking skills and delivering the best version of yourself to a marketing, content or tech stage

This post became a labor of love, in that it had to be written, if only because I needed it out of my head. I speak 15 to 20 times a year. I often hear, “I wish I was a better speaker,” as if it’s an impossibility. It’s not.

All it takes is an opportunity, hard work and a commitment to keep at it until you’re happy with what you’ve created.

This post is my way of saying “Yes, you can.” I hope you enjoy reading this guide to public speaking. It was fun to share what I’ve learned over the last 10 years training speakers.

What are your thoughts on what it takes to create and deliver a kick-butt talk?

Please share them in the comments below.


How to Use Public Speaking to Strategically Grow Your Business, podcast with speaking expert Tamsen Webster

How to Cheat at Creating Great Presentations for Tech & Marketing Audiences, by Rand Fishkin

30 tips for awesome presentations, by Ian Lurie

3 Rules of Public Speaking That You Should Ignore (and 1 to Live By), by storytelling expert Kindra Hall

8 Rules for Exceptional Presentation Slides, by Rand Fishkin

Making Great Presentations, by Ian Lurie

Take Your Presentations to the Next Level, by speaker coach and event organizer wunderkind Erica McGillivray

How to Create Presentations like Rand, by Will Critchlow Critchlow

TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, by Chris Anderson

7 Ways to Make Your Next Presentation Your Best Yet, by Ronell Smith