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.

abcs1A is for audience.  Learn all you can about those who will be in attendance so that you can tailor your remarks to hold their interest.

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

C is for creativity.  Don’t be afraid to use props, PowerPoint or audience participation to add sparkle and surprise.  Even the most serious topics can benefit from a creative approach to make them memorable.

D is for deliver.  Your presentation needs to 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.  And don’t forget to debrief yourself after the event, including what worked well and what didn’t.

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

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 so much to a speech as long as they are not offensive.  Plays don’t open up on Broadway, they open in New Haven.

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 you are using PowerPoint presentations, and only as long as necessary.

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, which is 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 interruptions.

O is for opening.  In order to grab the audience’s attention immediately, you need a spectacular opener.

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 and control the ending.

R is for room size.  If you have any control over the venue, insist that the room seat only the planned number of audience members.  A room that is too big destroys rapport.

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

T is for Toastmasters International, the organization that I recommend for anyone who wants to hone their speaking skills.  It’s tremendous training for speakers at all levels of ability.

U is for unforgettable.  Make your speech memorable with a well-organized message peppered with clever stories and examples, sprinkled with humor, and wrapped up with a great summary.

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 your message to teach and inform.  I’m particularly fond of starting the lessons in my speeches with a “Mackay’s Moral,” words of wisdom that drive home my point.

X is for experience. (Yes, I know it starts with “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.

I have another speaking tips handout, “Harvey Mackay’s 35 To Stay Alive,” 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.

About the author Harvey Mackay

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.

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