Boost Your Public Speaking Skills

Tips for librarians on speaking confidently and effectively in front of others

November 1, 2019

public speaking

As a college student, Tiffini Travis had to deliver a class presentation. So she stood up. She looked at the faces all around her. And she ran out of the room.

“I was just so petrified,” remembers Travis, who is advisor for information literacy and library instructional assessment at California State University, Long Beach. “I had actually prepared; I knew everything I should have said. It was just the idea of speaking in public that terrified me.”

Years later, Travis has more than conquered her stage fright, regularly delivering presentations as part of her job. “Now I could do it with my eyes closed,” she says.

So how does someone go from fleeing the room to completely losing their fear? In large part, the answer is practice, practice, practice. But while rehearsal is necessary, it’s not sufficient. Speaking confidently and effectively in front of others requires certain strategies. And Travis, along with several other librarians who regularly present in front of audiences, has many such tips to offer the tongue-tied.

The mental game

First, some good news: Most librarians have at least some public-speaking experience, whether they realize it or not. “If you can run a Harry Potter birthday party or do a storytime, you are speaking in public,” points out Mary H. Stein, assistant library director at East Baton Rouge Parish (La.) Library, who often talks to book clubs, classrooms, the media, and other audiences. Remembering that fact can help mitigate any nerves when it comes time to address a larger crowd.

It’s also vital to believe fully in the value of what you’re presenting. Char Booth, associate dean of the University Library at California State University San Marcos, sees many librarians succumb to imposter syndrome—that is, acting apologetic or overly self-deprecating while delivering their remarks.

“You have to understand that what you’re going to present on is meaningful,” says Booth, who has given talks on public speaking to the American Library Association’s New Members Round Table and many other audiences. “You have to have conviction in your words and in your content. It’s not ­arrogance, it’s just simple conviction in the value of your contributions.”

But what if your topic is a well-worn one—something that many people have spoken about before? No matter, they say: “Try to believe that what you’re saying has been said before, but not quite the way you’re going to say it. You want to make your content unique, but just by virtue of being who you are, it will be unique in some way.”

Manuel Urrizola, head of metadata and technical services at University of California, Riverside, is a longtime member of Toastmasters International, an organization of local clubs that develop public speaking and leadership skills. Urrizola delivers talks on public speaking nearly every week to area groups as well as to various state library associations. In his experience, librarians tend to adopt an apologetic style when giving presentations. Instead, “they need to adopt a credible style—the style of an expert,” he says. “People come to hear someone who knows what they’re talking about.”

Getting ready

When creating slides for a talk, it may be tempting to immediately turn to PowerPoint. There’s nothing wrong with the software application itself, say experts; the problem comes when the presenter loads slides with text, then does nothing but read that text to the audience verbatim.

“Often with presentations by librarians, it’s a Power­Point presentation, and they’re kind of a voiceover for the PowerPoint,” Urrizola says. “That makes for a weak presentation, because then the audience members are reading the speech, so they don’t really need the librarian.” He recommends instead to think of the slides as visual aids—opportunities to show visually what the rest of the presentation is conveying verbally.

While visual aids are important, agrees Stein, she prefers to avoid PowerPoint (“it’s too easy to make it a crutch instead of an aid”) and rely on three-dimensional objects instead. If she’s speaking about British literature, for example, she might bring source documents, a handkerchief that reminds her of the Regency era, and a few reference books. She arranges everything in the order in which her points will fall. Then, as she’s talking, she can glance at the next object to remind herself what to say.

What about memorization? Should speakers write out their entire talks and commit them to memory? Usually, no. Instead, “I memorize the main points I want to say,” Travis says. “If you memorize it, it sounds rehearsed, and you lose some of your authenticity.”

It’s too easy to make PowerPoint a crutch instead of an aid.—Mary H. Stein, assistant library director at East Baton Rouge Parish (La.) Library

That said, Urrizola does recommend that speakers memorize two parts of their talks: the beginning and the conclusion. “They should be very short, and those you can memorize,” he says, “because they need to be perfect” in order to grab the audience’s attention and leave them with a good impression.

As for written notes, Booth says they’re not always bad—if the speaker avoids reading from them robotically. “Sometimes when I have a really important presentation to give, say a reception or an unveiling, I will read from notes,” they say. “But I look up. I look people in the eye. I take it slow. I have engaging mannerisms. And half the time, the audience doesn’t even realize I’m reading from cards.”

Booth stresses that in the end, the method of delivering a presentation is less important than the speaker’s comfort with that method: “You want to be comfortable and confident, whether you’re reading from notes, using Prezi, Google Slides, Keynote, whatever. It’s all about being comfortable enough with that platform that you can switcheroo if something goes awry, which it will.” That’s why they recommend saving a presentation at least two different ways, maybe on a thumb drive and in the cloud, or saved as a PDF as well as a PowerPoint.

Stemming the stage fright

What has put some people off from public speaking are, of course, those pretalk jitters—the ones that make so many of us consider bolting from the room, just like Travis did back in the day. But, Urrizola says, it’s actually a mistake to try to kill off those butterflies in the stomach.

“Being nervous is a good thing,” he says. “It means we care. It means we want to do well. What we want to do is take that nervous energy and turn it into energy that makes our speech enthusiastic. And the ways of doing that are by preparing our speech and then practicing. Both of those will start to calm our body down.”

Another calming maneuver he recommends: Getting to the venue early, “so the body can see the surroundings and feel them, and then when we get up to speak, it won’t be the first time the body will be in that situation.” Right before the speech, he suggests, exercise the mouth by going through the vowels, or do something else to stretch and relax. “When we get nervous, our muscles get very tight. They want to start fighting, or they want to flee, so we need to calm the muscles down,” Urrizola says.

Something he does not recommend: Having an alcoholic drink beforehand. “That will eliminate the nervousness—but then you won’t care anymore,” he says. “We don’t want to eliminate it; we just want to harness it.”

As for Travis, she’s learned to transform her pretalk anxiety into excitement via an inspiring music playlist she has named “My Game Face.”

“I find that if I listen to that on my way to the presentation, it relaxes me and gets me focused,” she says (a few of her favorites: DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win,” Jill Scott’s “Golden,” Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” and Lizzo’s “Good as Hell”).

Now you’re talking

It doesn’t matter how brilliant a speech is if it’s inaudible. Audience members’ abilities to hear can vary drastically. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: Use the microphone, even if you think you have a loud voice. And make sure you use it correctly, Stein says.

“Every mike is different,” she points out. “With some mikes, you can be 18 inches away; with others, you have to almost kiss it. A common, totally avoidable error is not figuring out where your mouth needs to be relative to the mike.” So is waving a handheld microphone around like a baton: “It’s fun to talk with your hands, but not if that hand is holding the mike.”

Speaking of hands, Urrizola recommends doing one of two things with them. “You can either use your hands to show what you’re saying, or you can put them at your side,” he says. “You don’t want to hide your hands”—say, by holding them behind your back or concealing them behind a podium—“because then you lose some of your credibility.” He adds that while most people find it unnatural to hold their hands at their side (“you really have to practice it”), doing so looks good to the audience: “You look comfortable and calm and confident.”

As for confidence, one way to boost it while speaking is to do what Booth calls “finding your friendly.”

“You want to look out and find two or three people who are paying attention and who have resting expressions you find pleasant,” they say, and then focus on talking to them specifically. “The people who are frowning and rolling their eyes? Those people are not necessarily productive to focus on.”

The people who are frowning and rolling their eyes? Those people are not necessarily productive to focus on.—Char Booth, associate dean of the University Library at California State University San Marcos

Booth recommends focusing on a friendly-looking person on the left, another in the middle, and another on the right: “If you keep returning to those people, it looks like you are looking people in the eye all around the room. It will appear that you are engaged with the entire audience.”

That said, don’t look too rapidly from person to person. “I’ve seen several speakers whose heads are constantly going back and forth, back and forth,” Stein says. “It’s distracting. Pick someone and speak to them for a minute, and then look in another direction and speak to someone else. But don’t do the tennis-ball thing.”

It’s also wise to deliberately slow down the pace at which you speak. “A lot of rapid speech comes from plain old nervousness,” says Booth. “Breathe. Honestly. You can pause between sentences. No one will mind.”

“Librarians are like everybody else: They think they have to say something every second while they’re speaking. Audiences don’t mind if we pause; in fact, they like it,” Urrizola says. “It gives them a chance to breathe. We don’t have to fill it with some utterance that expresses nothing”—filler words such as “um,” “uh,” or “actually.”

What happens when …

The good news is that some public-speaking nightmares—such as showing up in your underwear—are very unlikely to come true. The bad news is that others—such as encountering a hostile audience member or making an unfortunate slip of the tongue—just might.

Fortunately, there are ways to defuse even the most embarrassing or uncomfortable public-speaking situation. When Travis is faced with an aggressive audience member during question-and-answer time, for example, she uses the following strategy: “I repeat what they say so I have time to digest it. If it’s something I don’t know, I acknowledge that and say, ‘That sounds great. I want to research it. Is it okay if I find you afterwards to get the information?’ ”

Stein takes a similar tack when speaking to audiences that include members of the media, particularly during times of high-profile, potentially controversial library projects. In that case, “You need to be prepared for ‘Gotcha!’ questions, and you need to have a few quick answers ready that are calm and measured and get you back on track,” she says. “You can smile and say, ‘That’s not what I’m here to talk about today, but I’ll be happy to talk with you after the program.’ And then make sure you do it.”

Let’s say the very worst-case scenario happens: You open your mouth and promptly insert your foot—that is, you say something offensive.

In that case, do not attempt to ignore or gloss over the gaffe, says Booth: “Owning your mistake at the moment the mistake is made is essential. Humbly, and with as much reflective prowess as you can muster, say: ‘What just came out of my mouth was offensive, and I apologize for that, and I’m happy to engage in dialogue with anyone after the presentation. I’m aware of my mistake, and I apologize to all it has offended.’ Not ‘if’ it has offended, because ‘if’ is the great escape.”

A less fraught possibility: Someone asks a question, and you simply don’t know the answer. “If I can’t even fake an answer, I turn it around to the audience,” Urrizola says. “I’ll say: ‘That’s a profound question. What do you guys think?’ The audience will offer answers, and that gives you a chance to collect your thoughts.”

Another common public-speaking fear is that one’s mind will suddenly go blank in the middle of a talk. If that happens, he advises, simply ask the audience: “Where should we go next?”

“Use the audience to help you when you need help,” Urrizola says. “The audience is on your side, and they love to be brought in. It shows that you’re not just a good speaker. You’re a good listener.”


Author Susan Cain

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