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Public speaking in the 21st century

5 min read


Speakers who stand behind a podium glued to the floor, reading from slides and addressing a less than enthusiastic audience are so last century. It’s 2013, and successful speakers need to be aware that audiences have changed — drastically! They are better informed, crave connection and expect to be actively engaged in the “conversation.”

Today, a great presenter is authentically present and ready to connect with their audience. Keeping this in mind as you prepare for your next presentation consider these two qualities a must: Delivery and engagement.

Delivery refers to how you express yourself: your gestures and posture, vocal delivery and facial expression, movement and energy.  Each of these skills makes a difference in how you are perceived and how your message is ultimately heard. There are several elements that are key to developing these skills. If you ignore or fail to cultivate these skills, the strength of your message, and ultimately your success, will suffer.

  • Think the thought: Your words may be coming through loud and clear but are you engaged with what you say? It is the difference between simply reading a book to a child versus telling them a story. Next time you step up to speak; think about what you are saying as you say it. Become involved in your message. After all, how can you expect your audience to be engaged if you are not? This technique alone will keep your presentation fresh and your delivery real.
  • Be spontaneous: What distinguishes a presentation from a written report? You, of course! As a speaker, you bring facts and details to life. Your personality, thoughts, and recognition of what is happening in the room real-time are far more interesting than a script, written notes or even PowerPoint or video. When presenting, take advantage of what is happening in the moment. Interact with your audience, acknowledge their presence, learn what is important to them, and be spontaneous.
  • Make it personal: It’s about remembering that you’re speaking to human beings. How can you assure your listeners that you are there for them? While it may sound obvious, few do it — direct eye contact.

Eye contact is all about inclusion, so be sure to look at everyone — leave no one out. Turn to your right, pause, return to the center, pause again, and then look left. With each pause, make direct eye contact — just as you would while sharing a cup of coffee or a cold beer with a close friend. You want the connection to be sincere and natural.

Smiling is another basic yet powerful gesture. A smile communicates your approachability to listeners. So smile, and invite your listeners to join the conversation!

Finally, you can make your presentation more personal through offering little known facts as you speak, or through building in anecdotes that reflect your listeners’ needs and interests. It is these little touches that show you have taken the time to personally know your audience. It reflects that they are unique to you.

Engagement. Presenters that achieve results in today’s world create experiences that challenge listeners to think, discuss, and even question what’s being said. They create opportunities to let their audience experience what they’re talking about first-hand. This means it is not all about you and what you have to say.  It IS about how you invite your audience into your conversation.

  • Steve Jobs engaged his audience as he introduced the original MacBook Air. Do you recall when he picked up an office envelope and pulled out the world’s thinnest notebook?  In those few moments he invited thousands to “open a gift” and be awed with what they received. It worked. We were engaged!
  • One of my favorite examples of engagement is a client who used humor to make a point and had 4,000+ listeners shouting about it. To elicit support for an important initiative, Richard invited the entire audience to stand up and yell the famous line from the movie “Network”: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take [this] anymore.”  They did it and he made his point!
  • If you are looking for ways to be more interactive and to engage your audience, watch some TED talks. Joe Smith, delivering his short TED talk titled “How to Use One Paper Towel,” uses props and startling statistics to grab viewers’ attention. He divides the audience in half, giving each group an assignment as he physically demonstrates what he is asking people to do.  That’s engagement!

Do you have to do all these things to be effective? Absolutely not. Start by recognizing the today’s listeners crave interaction, and the benefits of bringing them into the conversation. Challenge yourself by asking, “How can I engage my audience?” Be bold and try something different to gain their involvement.

Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication adviser specializing in high stake presentations. She has 25+ years experience of coaching experience and 8 years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Stephanie holds a bachelor’s in speech communications & education and a master’s in organizational communications & business. Learn more at and