Professor Justin Joseph’s Guide to Public Speaking

Even students in the College of Communication dislike public speaking. Many of us dread speaking in front of our classes, presenting to our colleagues at jobs or internships, and participating in class.

Fear not, fellow students. Justin Joseph, a COM alumni and faculty member, understands our fears. As an undergraduate, he was terrified of speaking in front of a classroom or group of people. After years of practice and over a decade of public speaking training and experience, Joseph now speaks to large crowds around the world. At a workshop this past week, Joseph presented some tips that will help even the most fearful public speakers.

1. Everybody gets nervous. Even John Lennon.

Public speaking is nerve-wracking for everyone. SNL cast members, politicians and even the greatest TED-talkers get anxious and sweaty-palmed before delivering a speech. John Lennon, one of the world’s most beloved musicians, got sick before every performance. Remember that it’s completely natural to be nervous when you are on the way up to a podium.

2. What do you mean this is completely natural?

Does your heart start racing before standing up to speak? Do your palms get sweaty? Does your voice start quivering while your muscles tense up?

These all come down to the “fight or flight” response, Joseph explained. When we get up in front of a crowd our brains release ACTH, a hormone that sends stress signals to the rest of our body. For our ancestors, the tense muscles and fast heartbeats came in handy when choosing to fight or to run away from a predator. However, this isn’t any help during a speech.

“Our brain has fooled us into thinking that when we speak in public, it is the same as facing a wild animal,” Joseph said. “It’s human nature to respond this way to stress.”

A quick way to combat this? Stretch out your neck before heading up to stage, Joseph suggests. It fools your hypothalamus into thinking you’re not as stressed and you will release less ACTH.

3. Change your perspective

When you feel your heart start to race, remind yourself that you’re not about to come face-to-face with a man-eating tiger. It is a matter of changing your perspective.

“Give yourself some credit,” Joseph said. “Every day you have conversations that you have no notes for and that you somehow find a way to get through. It’s the same way with public speaking, only you’re more prepared.”

When perspective starts to change, you can turn that nervousness into energy and adrenaline to use in your speech.

4. Carry yourself the way you want to be perceived

“Confidence is what your audience perceives of you,” Joseph said. If you don’t feel confident in front of everyone in the room, pretend to be confident, and people will see you as such. Eventually, pretending becomes the real thing.

5. Know who you are speaking to

You can’t connect with an audience without knowing who they are.

“Learn their names if possible. Learn what makes them click,” Joseph said. “Some of the easiest ways to lose your audience is to disrespect their culture.”

It’s also a lot easier to talk to people you know than to talk to a room full of strangers.

6. Know your introduction and your conclusion by heart, inside and out

As for all that stuff in between, don’t memorize it. It depends on who you are, but notes, bullet points, or outlines usually work. If you try to memorize your speech word for word, and you mess up one or two of those words, you’ll suddenly break away from your speech. “It’s better to know your speech, rather than to memorize your speech,” Joseph said.

7. The best public speakers are the best storytellers

Statistics show from the moment someone finishes speaking to the moment they get back to their seat, the audience has already forgotten 75% of their speech. A week later, one would be lucky if the audience even remembers the topic.

Help your audience remember your speech by telling a good story. Build suspense and get your audience wondering what will happen next. Use vivid details, while keeping your thoughts concise and clear. Control the flow of information by not giving everything away at once. Connect the beginning of the speech to the ending. Don’t just click through a PowerPoint show, but also engage the audience in conversation.

8. Maintain eye contact

Some people avoid eye contact at all costs during a speech, but the old rule of “looking at the back of the room instead” just doesn’t work. For a short while, practice looking at foreheads instead of making eye contact. Once you get comfortable, use eye contact to engage your audience.

“Think about the boyfriend or girlfriend that you want to impress. You are sitting across from them at a dinner table, and you are looking at them in the eyes for a reason,” Joseph said. “It’s because you want to engage them, and they want to engage you – and hopefully you’ll get engaged.”

9. Passion in your speech will grab attention

Make sure your audience knows why you’re speaking to them. Express the passion you have for what you’re talking about by switching words around and adding inflection to your voice. Joseph compared these two examples:

“World hunger is a problem” vs. “Before I am finished with my speech today, 10,000 children will die from hunger.”

10. “Uh…”

This is the hardest habit to break. People naturally feel silence is awkward, so many fill it with “uh.”

“Practice in front of a group of people, and every time you say ‘uh’ or ‘um,’ tell them to make a loud, jarring sound, and start over.” Joseph said, “It’s like training a pet – if I say ‘um’, I am going to receive negative reinforcement which will train me to think and behave differently.”

 11. Use gestures and movements

One gesture can tell the audience everything. Many say, for example, that if you want to know if someone is not trustworthy, watch how often they close their fists. To remain inviting and trustworthy, keep your hands open and your chin up. Animate your speech by moving around and visually engaging your audience. Help your audience remember your speech by making one point while standing on one side of the podium, and walk to the other side when you’re making your next point.

“Don’t be glued to the podium,” Joseph said, “Too often we use it as a crutch and divider between us and our audience. If you let go, you won’t fall down and drown in a sea of carpet.”

12. Last, there is no such thing as naturally good public speakers.

“I cannot give you some magical piece of advice: drink this, say this, do this and suddenly tomorrow you will be a wonderful public speaker,” Joseph said. 

You can never master public speaking, you can only get better and better. It all comes down to practice. Grab any opportunity to speak in front of people, whether it is raising your hand more often in class or engaging your boss and colleagues in conversation. Steve Jobs would practice his speeches numerous times in front of a mirror or friends and family before delivering them. Then, when the time came, he was never worried about what he was going to say.

Bottom line: practice, practice, practice. Before you know it, you will be more confident in front of a group of people — and in life.


Catie Carducci, a Junior studying Public Relations and Spanish, is a persistent and passionate volunteer, runner, writer and traveler. Connect with her on LinkedIn and on her online portfolio.

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