I just began booking speaking gigs, and naturally, I’m a bit nervous for them.

I want to come across cool, collected, and confident – all while sharing inspiring insights and witty wisdom that keeps the audience engaged. But, while practicing, I’m struck with that sense of unease… “What do I do with my hands?!” amongst many other questions on perfecting my natural and elegant delivery.

It’s true – trying to appear natural defeats the purpose entirely, and there is too large and diverse a myriad of advice out there on best practices for public speaking.

So, I sat down with Casey Clark and Julie Fogh of Vital Voice Training to get the scoop, and they gave it to me straight. “Haley, I’m going to give you the six worst pieces of public speaking advice,” Casey told me bluntly. I was in for it. Turns out, I had a legitimate reason to be confused – so much of the advice we’re given for public speaking lacks nuance and is contradictory. But with these five counter tips, I feel more prepared than ever to ace my onstage presence.

Public Speaking Bad Advice #1: To Be Taken Seriously, Sound More Serious.

What does ‘sound more serious’ even mean? Sure, don’t get up there giggling and joke your way through, but many people get the idea that sounding serious involves consciously lowering your pitch and ridding your voice of any accents – basically, sounding like someone else. If you’re too consciously thinking about how you’re sounding, it’s hard to deliver what you’re there to say.

Talking seriously also provokes anxiety about vocal fillers – the “ums,” “likes,” and “you know”s. But, keep in mind that these vocal fillers, when used in moderation, carry the natural rhythm of speaking, in much of the same way you’d talk to a friend. If you find yourself inserting them too much (all too easy when you’re nervous), choose to replace them with silence. Silence is a different and powerful way of creating natural rhythm. Go easy on yourself – this takes practice.

Public Speaking Bad Advice #2: Just Be Yourself.

As inspirational as this advice sounds, it doesn’t account for how multifaceted we are as human beings. We have to embrace the different ways we come to situations. A lighthearted talk on the power of friendship in entrepreneurship is going to command a different tone than a challenging talk on mental health. As both Casey and her cofounder Julie have acting backgrounds, they call on their theater advice;acting is about finding a role in yourself rather than outside of yourself. Call on different facets of your personality when approaching different types of speeches.

Public Speaking Bad Advice #3: Be Conscious About Your Gestures.

Cringe! Some coaches will advise speakers on different gestures they should employ throughout their talk. Research by Daniel Goleman finds that the most basic level of connecting with others doesn’t happen by deliberately deciding how to connect. Hand gestures should come across naturally, or they run the risk of coming across as inauthentic. If you appear inauthentic to your audience, chances are slim that you’ll connect them in the way you’d like to. Casey and Julie urge, “back off from intellect to be fully in your body.” If you allow your shoulders to relax, your arms and hands to feel heavy, and remember that your arms are connected to the center of your body, you’ll move your arms naturally;when you lock down and tense up, you may be the victim of “T-Rex arms.”

Public Speaking Bad Advice #4: Make 3-5 Seconds of Eye Contact Per Audience Member.

In much of the same vein as the last point, you cannot manipulate your actions to fit a formula and expect to really form a connection with the audience. Instead, Casey and Julie share that you can make eye contact with one person in the audience for as long as an entire sentence or paragraph, and the audience members around them will feel the connection. Let your eyes connect as naturally as they would if you were telling a story to your friends.

Public Speaking Bad Advice #5: Imagine the Audience In Their Underwear.

Ah, a classic. I’m not sure when this bad boy started getting passed around but it’s old news. It’s said with good intentions – to try to make the speech less serious or to make the speaker feel better about their own nerves and vulnerability by imagining the audience as more vulnerable than them. One way to truly make yourself less nervous is to take a deep breath from your diaphragm – the shallow, ‘panic attack’ breaths in the chest won’t do the trick. Learn where your body has room to expand when you take a truly large breath – through your back and ribs – and remember that this active and conscious breathing can arrest fear. Breathing tells your body that you can breathe and therefore, it’s safe. No one is suffocating here. No need to panic.

Public Speaking Bad Advice #6: Talking Fast Makes You Sound Smart.

I once believed that the faster I talked, the more intelligent I appeared to who I was speaking to. “Watch how fast I can string a sentence together!”, I’d try to imply. I’m not alone in this;Casey and Julie admit that they’re yet to meet a client who talks too slowly. Pace! The audience needs the time and space to understand and digest what you’re saying. Rhythm is one way we create meaning, but often when we’re nervous, we string together phrase after phrase and never differentiate. Landing the ends of your sentence and taking a breath before the next one helps the audience hear and understand your point.

I have to admit that I feel much better knowing that the secret to coming across powerfully is to prepare fully, then let go of the perfectionism and be in the moment. We must trust that we can connect with our audience through authentic gestures, eye contact, and pacing. Speaking is worlds easier when the rest of the performance isn’t manufactured – as long as we remember to breathe!

Thank you to Casey and Julie of Vital Voice for sharing their truly revolutionary advice on how to nail public speaking.

To learn more expertise from industry experts, join us in the Next Gen Community for expertise articles and LIVE! webinars!


  • Haley Hoffman Smith

    Speaker & Author of Her Big Idea

    Haley Hoffman Smith is the author of Her Big Idea, a book on ideation and women's empowerment which debuted as a Top 3 Bestseller. She has been featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur, and the Washington Examiner, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brown in May 2018. She is the founder of the Her Big Idea Fund in partnership with Brown's Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, which awards grants to women who apply with BIG ideas, and Her Big Lash, a cosmetics company.

    At Brown, she was the President of Women’s Entrepreneurship and started the first-ever women’s entrepreneurship incubator. She speaks on topics such as women's empowerment, innovation, social impact, and personal branding regularly across companies and college campuses, most recently at Harvard, TEDx, SoGal Ventures, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and more.