Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Public Speaking for Teachers II: The Mechanics of Speaking

This module is the second 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.

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:

  1. Quick attention capturing opening (controversy or puzzle)
  2. State the key point or thesis
  3. State objective and roadmap
  4. Give analysis (Make sure to use transition statements!)
  5. 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 why speakers may lack effective delivery is because they are not moving their mouths sufficiently so that each sound can be heard clearly. Try to over-enunciate when speaking; this will ensure that you will move your mouth more and your words will come out clearly.

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

III. Tool 2: Improving Fluency

In casual speech most people use “clutch” or “filler” words in order to fill the silence while they are trying to excogitate what they will say next. As a result, they use sounds and words which are common, but distracting in formal speech. These words include, but are not limited to:

  • Like
  • Um(and its variants, uh and eh)
  • Well
  • Hmmm
  • At that point
  • Remember
  • So
  • etc.

Ways to diagnose: Use audio recording, video recording or have a partner listen to you speak and use a signal (a sign, or yelling STOP!) whenever you use a filler word. Over time, as you become aware of how/how often you use them, you will stop using filler words. You may even retain your friendship with your partner. 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

Inexperienced public speakers often betray one or both of following two speech flaws:

A. They speak too softly/they speak too quietly.

It is always important that others hear what what a public speaker is saying. This can become problematic in a large room. Speech that is difficult to hear can never persuade or keep the attention of the audience. Public speakers often speak too softly due to their core fear of speaking, or they do not want to seem to “impose” on their audience. In point of fact, the audience members are there precisely to be “imposed on,” i.e., they came to hear what you have to say.

Remedy: Work on projecting your voice, erring on the side of being too loud rather than too quiet. Drills that can help you learn to project include using a partner to listen to you speak in a room when giving a practice talk. Ask your partner to move to different parts of the room. Let them signal when, or if, you are not speaking up sufficiently.

B. They speak in a monotone.

Many speakers fall into a monotone when they get in a speaking rhythm. This happens is common when reading from a script (e.g., during a job talk or a conference presentation). Speaking in a monotone loses your audience’s attention and makes it impossible for you to get across key points.

Remedy: Use your cell phone to record yourself speaking or ask a partner to let you know when you lapse into a monotone. If you are going to use a script, mark it up with underlines, bold type, or highlighting as visual cues to modulate your voice. Focus on using your voice to add punch to your speech, make words stand out, and grab and maintain your audience’s attention. You should notice a significant change in speed and/or voice inflection if you modulate properly.

A further suggestion is to consider using text from a play, a nursery rhyme, or your favorite author and reading it out loud so as to emphasize the key words or express a particular emotion.

Get online feedback as you practice your speech

The Poorvu Center offers free access to PitchVantage, an online program designed to improve public speaking skills by providing real-time feedback on a practice speech. PitchVantage also offers tutorials on delivery, design, and responding to your audience.  Access PitchVantage here.