Becoming a Better Public Speaker

Public Speaking: The Basics


Four essential elements of a good speech.

  • Attention:
    “A medical student, a resident, and an attending walk into a bar.” Do you have your audience’s attention? The members of your audience are usually chatting with each other, walking around, or eating. No one comes in for a speech, sits down and silently waits for you to begin.How do you get your audience’s attention? You might start out with a joke, a dramatic story, or a catchy phrase. Making a strong start is essential for a good speech. If you start a speech well, and end it well, most people will remember your argument as one that was convincing.
  • Interest:
    “The funding for your residency programs is in jeopardy.” “Is our health-care system the kind of system that you want to be practicing in?” Great! You have the audience’s attention. Now, you have to transform their attention to your opening to interest in the topic that you are presenting. To do this, you have to present the facts, without putting your audience to sleep. Of course, this is easier said than done. This is where your creativity must come into play. Why did you become interested in this topic? If you effectively communicate this, you may be able to convince your audience.
  • Decision:
    “So now I ask you…will you allow the insurance industry to dictate the way you practice medicine, will you work complacently in a system that denies coverage to 44.3-million people, will you ignore the needs of your patients.” You have just given your audience the facts. Your speech has built up to this final point. Now, it is time for them to decide if they will agree or disagree with you. If you presented the supportive facts well, then you have probably made an impact on at least a few members of your audience.
  • Action:
    “So when you all leave, call your representative and let him/her know how you feel. Sign our petition and take a page with you to collect signatures from your friends and family. Come to our rally and help raise awareness on this important issue. Take an educational packet with you and present this issue to your classmates.” This crucial part or any speech is often left out by many speakers. Your audience has been fired up and is ready to move. They want direction, they want action, they want to help. You now have to channel that energy into a constructive activity. It is a good idea to have materials on hand for this.

Public Speaking: Customizing Your Speech

Speeches are not a one-size-fits-all type of entity. A speech that went well with one audience may not be appropriate for another audience. With experience, you will be able to adjust your speech to make it palatable for any audience.

The following items are things to consider when writing a speech.

  • Know Your Audience’s Attitude
    Never assume that your audience loves you. Although it is easier to give a speech among allies, do not slack off and assume that your audience will be moved and inspired by anything that you say.
  • Know Your Audience’s Familiarity With Your Topic
    “The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 will significantly affect revenues at all academic centers. To protect GME, we need an all-payer system that will create a trust fund to secure a stable source of GME funding by assessing all insurance entities a GME fee.”If you are talking to a group of medical students, you will hear a lot of shifting around, doors shutting, and other noises as people run for the door with a confused angry look on their faces. If you could read thoughts, they may be something like this: “What the @#$ is she/he talking about! What a waste of time.”If you are speaking before the AAMC board, you will notice a similar reaction, but their thoughts would probably be a bit different. “Duh…. Everyone knows that. I just gave that same speech to a bunch of medical students. They all knew what I was talking about since they all left in the middle of my speech.”

    Always try and match the level of your speech with your audience’s familiarity with your topic. However, keep in mind that it is always best to err on the side of being too basic.

  • Know the Numbers
    How much time will you be given to make your speech?
    How many people will be attending your speech?
    How many other people will be speaking at the same event.
  • Know the Arena
    Always find out in what type of room you will be speaking. Will you be sitting at a table in a small conference room, or in a large auditorium?Always find out what kind of audio-visual materials you will have available. It is generally a bad idea to just show up with a presentation on disk made on the latest version of Power Point, without finding out if the facility has the appropriate equipment and software available.

Public Speaking: Techniques and Hints

Every good speaker has a large repertoire of techniques that they will use throughout their speech to create a more powerful and memorable presentation. The following is a brief listing of a few of these techniques:

  • Catch Phrase
    “Just do it,” “On time, every time,” “May the force be with you.” A popular catch phrase will allow you to ingrain a particular idea or concept into the audience’s mind. For example, if you were giving a speech on the patient’s bill of rights, you may borrow the phrase, “for patients, not profits.” Why does everyone get excited when Cuba Gooding Jr. says, “Show me the money!” Is he being profound? Do people really expect to see large sums of currency?
  • Dramatic Pause
    “This child would still be alive today — if this gun had been locked.”
  • The dramatic pause is used to emphasize what you have just said and what you are about to say. Pauses will keep the audience spellbound and hanging on to each word. However, you must not overuse this technique as it will soon become distracting and annoying to the listener. “And remember — I am not only the hair club president — I am a client too.”
  • Personalize
    “If an insurance company makes a medical decision that harms you, maims you or even kills you, shouldn’t you be able to hold them accountable for their mistakes?”Always tie an issue back to the individual. Talk about how global policies will affect your audience or their communities. Cite examples of what can happen if they do not take action. Ask your audience if they are satisfied with the status quo.
  • Tell ‘Em,
    There is an age-old adage about what to do in a speech: “Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell it to ’em, and then tell ’em what you told them.” This is related to the catch phrase technique. Once you pick your points, pound it into ’em.
  • Start with the Conclusion
    One way to stay focused and on topic is to begin with the conclusion. It helps you to answer the question, “What does this have to do with the speech?”
  • KISS
    Keep it simple, stupid, or keep it short and sweet.
  • Get In, Get Out
    How many times have you said to yourself, “Gee, I wish that speech had been longer.” If you can convey all the important information in a short time, then do that. People tend to remember speeches that are short, whereas longer speeches tend to fade quickly. Try and time your speech so that you will be able to give it in an easy-to-hear and reasonable pace. Try and give yourself 10 to 15 minutes at the end for questions.
  • Tip of the Iceberg
    Your speech should only contain enough information to make your audience make a decision. The details can be supplied later in handouts or when you answer questions.
  • Dress Appropriately
    Your audience and the circumstances of your speech will dictate appropriate dress. Remember, when you make your speech you are trying to convince people that they should listen to what you have to say and take action. Dressing inappropriately may preclude any hope of ever doing this. If you talk to a group of conservative physicians in a T-shirt with a hundred one piercings, purple hair, and Birkenstocks, you probably will not get the message across as well as if you dress in a boring, gray suit. Remember, you are not there to make a fashion statement!

Public Speaking: Oops

Every speech has the potential to inspire your audience and change their perception of an issue. Every speech also has the potential to end in disaster. Occasionally, circumstances will doom the most prepared speaker, but these occasions are rare. The following are a few tips to reduce your oopses and help you maximize the effectiveness of your speech.

  • Don’t Wing It
    It takes an enormous amount of talent and experience to give a good speech impromptu. You rarely will be in a situation where you will have to give such an impromptu speech. Do not put yourself in such a situation. Preparation is perhaps the most important factor for giving a good presentation.
  • Should I Memorize or Read?
    No.Don’t memorize your speech and then regurgitate it. You will be inflexible and unable to adjust to your audience’s reaction and will miss out on opportunities to offer a bit of spontaneity to spice up your speech. Likewise, do not write out your entire speech and just read it. You would be better off photocopying your speech and handing it out. Don’t read, speak.
  • Stop Waving
    “Oh, that was the speech where that guy kept swinging his hands.”Excessive body language may distract your audience from your speech. Almost everyone gets nervous during a speech, and a natural reaction is to adopt a habit such as a repetitive hand gesture or posture. As hard as it may seem at first, be conscious of your body when giving a speech.
  • Like, Um, Uh Er
    Like, um, you like never sound, uh, er, professional when you use these. If you, like, um, are one of those people that, like, tend to use um, these, um, sounds, try to substitute a brief pause the next time the urge comes on to say one of these words. Eliminate these.
  • Don’t Let Them Get Ahead
    Avoid giving out materials that contain your entire speech. Your audience will often read the handout and ignore your speech. You might as well give your audience the handout and forgo the speech! If you give your audience a guide, keep it short and basic.
  • Acronyms, Abbreviations, Hodgepodge oh my!
    “Recently HHS commissioned COGME to look into GME and HCFA.”Confused? So am I. Always identify acronyms at least once in your presentation. Try to avoid using too many different acronyms unless your audience is familiar with them.
  • Practice Makes Perfect
    The best way to become a good public speaker is to watch and learn from both experts and novices. Watch a speaker and note things that turn you off from what they are saying, as well as what captures your attention and convinces you. Watch professional speakers on television and pay attention to the techniques they use to convince you.

    Special thanks to Paul Jung, AMSA Legislative Affairs Director 1996-1997. This guide was adapted from AMSA’s “Hitchiker’s Guide to Health Policy.”