Mackay: The ABCs of public speaking

  • Article by: HARVEY MACKAY
  • July 6, 2014 - 2:00 PM

It’s been said there are two times in life when you are truly alone: just before you die and just before you deliver a five-minute speech. Stage fright can be terrifying, but it needn’t be paralyzing.

Delivering over a thousand speeches teaches a person a thing or two about getting through to the audience. Because I am often asked for advice from nervous speakers, I have developed my ABCs of public speaking:

A is for audience. Learn about those who will be in attendance and tailor your remarks to hold their interest.

B is for body language. Move around, gesture and use facial expressions to demonstrate your enthusiasm.

C is for creativity. Don’t be afraid to use props, Power­Point or audience participation to add spark and surprise.

D is for delivery. Have a focused message that leaves the audience with significant take-home value.

E is for eye contact, a critical feature of an effective speaker. Connecting with your audience can’t happen without it.

F is for feedback. Ask for immediate, unfiltered responses so you can continue to improve your skills.

G is for grammar. Pay attention to the language you use. Make certain it is correct.

H is for homework. Study the organization you are addressing: What are the problems, issues, concerns and opportunities? Mispronouncing names is unforgivable.

I is for introduction. Make sure that the person introducing you is a real pro. Provide a prepared introduction with your pertinent information.

J is for jokes. Try them out on several people to make sure they are appropriate and amusing. Humor, anecdotes and stories add much to a speech.

K is for knowledge. Speakers have to demonstrate a real grasp of the subject at hand in order to be taken seriously.

L is for lighting. People laugh more and retain more in brightly lit rooms. Dim the lights only if using PowerPoint presentations.

M is for masking tape. Seal noisy door latches to avoid distractions. Block off the back rows of chairs to keep the audience up front.

N is for noise, a real attention killer. After-dinner speakers especially have to compete with clearing tables and clinking glasses. Consult with the host organization about minimizing noise.

O is for opening. A spectacular opener will grab the audience’s attention immediately.

P is for practice, practice, practice. There is no substitute for preparation.

Q is for Q&A. Take questions five minutes before you are ready to close, so that you have the last word.

R is for room size. Insist the room seat only the planned size of the audience. A room that’s too big destroys rapport.

S is for smile. Let the audience see that you are pleased/happy/honored to be asked to speak.

T is for Toastmasters International, the organization that I recommend for anyone wanting to hone their speaking skills.

U is for unforgettable. Make your speech memorable, clever and well-organized.

V is for voice. Listen to yourself on tape so that you can adjust tempo, tone, timing and inflection.

W is for wisdom. You want to teach and inform.

X is for experience. (Yes, I know it starts with an “e.”) The best way to become a better speaker is to speak as often as you can.

Y is for you. Take pains to look your best.

Z is for zip it up. A smashing closing is as important as a gripping opening.

Another speaking tips handout, “Harvey Mackay’s 35 To Stay Alive,” is available at

Mackay’s Moral: The best way to sound like you know what you’re talking about is to know what you’re talking about.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or

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