Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Yale Teaching Center

Public Speaking for Teachers II:
The Mechanics of Public Speaking

This module covers the material in the first of a two-part series on public speaking for teachers. You will find discussion about the psychology and mechanics of speaking which should be useful for future lectures, job talks, discussion leading, etc.

Many of the skills of expert public speakers require practice and perfecting the "core competencies" of speaking: organization, eye contact, voice, posture, among others. Developing these competencies requires doing practice exercises so that when one has to do a formal speech, these skills are fully integrated into normal practice.

In this module, you will find some basic tips for each competency and where applicable, examples of how to practice each. However, you can go to this link to find more practice exercises in addition to the ones listed in the module.

You can also use this speech rubric for practicing a full speech with a partner.

I.    Speech Organization

Organization and structure are among the most important components of any form of public speaking. Structure helps keep the audience engaged, and helps a speaker remain focused and on message.

A general, and well stated rule for maintaining effective structure in public speaking is to: “Say what you are going to say, say it, then say what you just said.”

Although this seems repetitive, this is a useful model because it makes transparent, what your message is, the method of how you will communicate that message and then reminds the reader that what they have just heard has a purpose. This especially helps in a teaching context: it gives the teacher three different ways to ensure that a student captures what is being taught in case they were lost along the way.

One basic way a speech can be organized is the following model:

  • I. Quick attention capturing opening (controversy or puzzle)
  • II. State the key point or thesis
  • III. State objective and roadmap
  • IV. Give analysis (Make sure to use transition statements!)
  • V. Sum up what you have said / wrap up.
Practice tips: practice structuring everything--structure the speeches/talks others make (you'll often find out how seldom people have effective speaking organization); use clustering, outlines, etc. in order to get your thoughts together.

II.   Tool 1: Speaking Clearly

One reason that speakers may lack effective delivery is that they are not moving their mouths sufficiently so that each sound can be heard clearly. Try to overenunciate when speaking--this will ensure that when you are speaking normally that you will move your mouth more.

Methods of practice: Use Dr. Seuss rhymes to practice enunciation and clarity.

III.  Tool 2: Improving Fluency

In casual speech most people use "clutch words" or "filler words" in order to account for those times in which they are trying to think of what they will say next. As a result they use words which are very common, but very distracting in formal speech.

These words include (but are not limited to): like, um, at that point, remember, etc.

Ways to diagnose: Use audio recording, video recording or have a partner listen to you speak and put up a signal (i.e. a sign, or yelling STOP!) whenever you use a filler word. Over time you will stop using those filler words once you become aware of them.

Also consider using literal pauses in instead of using a filler word. This gives you time to think and let your brain catch up with your rate of speech.

IV.  Tool 3: Effective Use of Voice

Public speakers usually make one of two damaging flaws to their speech:

A.    They speak too softly/quietly.

Especially in a large room, it is important that others can hear what you are saying. Speech that is not heard can never persuade or keep the attention of the audience. People often speak too softly because they do not want to feel as if they are "imposing" on others.

Ways to fix: Work on projecting your voice--ere on the side of being too loud rather than too quiet. Being too loud can be forgiven, being too soft is rarely forgivable.

Drills that can help with this include using a partner to listen to you speak in a room when giving a practice talk, and let them signal whether or not you are speaking up sufficiently.

B.     They speak with a monotone.

Most speakers use a flat-line monotone when they get in a speaking rhythm. This happens the most during a job talk or a speech in which they are reading from a script.

Monotone loses the audience's attention and makes it impossible to emphasize key points.

Ways to fix: Use audio recording or a partner to let you know when you are going into a monotone. Also consider marking up a text (i.e. underlining or using bold) and focus on using your voice to punch or make those words stand out--and get the attention of the audience. You should notice a significant change in speed and/or voice inflection if you are doing it properly.

Also consider using text from a play, a nursery rhyme, or something else, and reading so that you are emphasizing words, or expressing a particular emotion.

V.    Tool 4: Eye Contact

Eye contact establishes to the audience that you are speaking to them, and that they are the center of your attention. Stereotypically, we associate eye contact with honesty and emotional transparency. Eye contact also helps you read non-verbal expressions/feedback from your audience so that you can make mid-course corrections when needed.

Tips for improving eye contact:

  • Look directly in the eyes of the person you are speaking to (if one-on-one). Staring isn't necessary, but try to avoid looking around the room or away from the person. Try to decide in advance how you will focus where your eyes go while talking (i.e. on the paper, then back on the person, then back on the paper).
  • When speaking to a group (i.e. a lecture hall, in-class seminar) maximize eye contact by mentally dividing the audience into sectors, and then look directly at one person in each group. Look around different parts of the room as you give your presentation. This will give off the impression that you are keeping contact with all of the people in the room and the sense that you are an especially expert speaker.

VI.   Gesturing and body positioning

Effective gestures can help keep the audience's attention and visually display either structure or a process. Use gestures to denote a list, numbering, trends (i.e. up/down, lower/higher, increase/decrease, etc.) Be certain to gesture even while reading text.

Body positioning is important as well. How you present yourself physically can make a good or poor first impression. Standing and sitting erect, and avoiding common but poor body positions is essential.

For example, avoid the fig-leaf position, folding arms, hiding your arms behind your back or leaning over a lectern. Doing these things keeps you for using your body as a means of expression.


Module developed by Anthony Berryhill and Paul Lagunes, 2008