Public speaking consistently tops lists of Americans' greatest fears, beating out heights, bugs, ghosts, and even those scary clowns that keep popping up in the woods.

Many people are thrust into a public speaking role without any real training or guidance. Fortunately, speaking well is a communication skill that can be improved upon with practice. Here are ten tips to set you on the path towards building powerful public speaking skills.

1. Before the actual speaking engagement, practice your speech or presentation OUT LOUD. Don't make the mistake of just running through a speech in your head, giving yourself permission for mental tangents and asides that you think you will remove in the spoken version.

You will also engage more of your brain when recalling and speaking aloud, which in turn will help you to better synthesize your own information so you can present without copious notes or word-heavy slides.

2. Regarding those copious notes and word-heavy slides - if you are leaning on those as a crutch, your presentation will be boring and void of personality. If you need some notes, reduce them to bullet points. Don't script yourself into boring reading mode.

Reducing your reliance on extensive notes or slides also reduces the risk of a crisis should your computer not work on the day of the presentation, or should your notes go missing. Don't be lazy and lean on notes. Learn the material or you may find yourself in a situation where you are exposed as a less-than-prepared, subpar speaker.

3. Acknowledge the butterflies in your stomach as an acceptable biological response. Having butterflies does not make you weak. Your fight-or-flight response systems are preparing you for a perceived challenge. Your body is redirecting energy to help you get through this. Thank your body and get back to focusing on the task at hand.

4. As you start your talk, you may have a moment of overwhelming nervousness as those first words come out. Resist the temptation to share that with your audience. Don't joke about it. Doing so is rarely funny and only shifts their attention away from your material and over to whether or not you are about to have a catastrophic performance fail.

5. A game-changing bit of advice that I received around public speaking was to always remember that speaking is about giving to your audience, not receiving judgment. This shifts your focus from you to your audience, and correctly reminds you that you are doing this because someone agreed that you have valuable knowledge to share. You're not doing it to be judged; you're doing it to serve.

6. Promise yourself that you will not jump into a downward spiral of self-doubt when you inevitably stutter, forget a word or thought, or stumble on a section of your presentation. You can, and will, replay it in your head later. Learn from it then. For now, just keep talking. Move forward.

7. However, if you do find yourself falling into a panic, find a friendly face in the crowd and speak to that person. Stay there until your heart rate comes down a bit. Then find another. Move from face to face, connecting with your audience one by one. They are human beings just like you, and that one-to-one connection can cement the bond that helps you feel confident in sharing your words.

8. Take questions as you go. A conversation usually beats a lecture. This goes against the advice of old-school speakers who encourage you to maintain "control" over the presentation and hold questions until the end. But if you have an audience member who is so engaged that they are actually speaking up with a question during your talk, honor that. You are there to serve them, so they often can help guide your content so that it aligns with their expectations of your session.

9. Use a feedback form to welcome critique of your content and delivery and to bring your audience into your marketing machine. Let them answer questions around content that was useful, what was missing, etcetera - and then give them the option to provide an email sign up for your newsletter, a request for a consultation, or whatever makes sense for you.

10. Last but certainly not least, if your talk is recorded, watch it. It's a learning opportunity. You'll find that the moments where you thought you hesitated for upwards of 30 seconds were actually just brief pauses. You may notice a nervous habit like giggling or touching your face that you can work on fixing. Watching yourself is not comfortable, but it will make you a better presenter the next time around.

Preparation is key to being a confident and successful speaker. Take these tips to heart to hit a home run on your next speaking gig.

Published on: Sep 16, 2016