Public Speaking Secrets for ESL (2015)

Chapter 2: Practice your English Before you’re scheduled to Present


MIlosh sat at his favorite coffee shop reading his notes. His public speaking engagement was fast approaching and he wanted to be doubly sure that he was prepared.


Some of his friends chided him for taking the event so seriously. “Just relax and be yourself,” they told him. “There is something called over-preparedness. You already know the material backward and forward, inside and out. What more can you do?”


Milosh, the wise man that he is, ignored this advice. No one needed to tell him he was an expert in his area. That aspect of his public speaking engagement gave him little concern. The part that kept him up at night, figuratively speaking, was the actual speaking.


You’ve probably have heard this particular advice over and over again. I’m betting you’ve been told this so much that its full implications may not even register with you much anymore.


It comes to you in two words: be confident. Not only will your friends and family tell you this, but go to any website on public speaking and they’ll tell you the same thing. Self-confidence is the key to a speech well presented.

Unfortunately, few of these well-intended people and sites actually tell you how you gain this self-confidence. Sure some of them start out by saying, “act as if” you already have it and it will eventually settle on your shoulder like a butterfly.


Excuse me, since I’ve never had a butterfly settle on my shoulder, I’m not sure I’m going to depend on this method. Sure, I can act as if, but I sure hope I have something else in my pocket to bolster my confidence.


What many people don’t tell you is that you need to be thoroughly prepared in order to gain that elusive self-confidence.


It’s true. The more you prepare, the more self-confidence you’ll gain. So instead of lecturing you on the fact that you should have self-confidence, like it’s a commodity you can go to the corner store and buy off the shelf, I’m going to provide you with a few tips on how you can thoroughly prepare for your public speaking engagement. If you follow and practice these even occasionally, you’ll find your self-confidence about talking in your second language grow.


No Time Like the Present.


This is a politely subtle way of saying “this is not a time to procrastinate.”


Indeed, it isn’t. When should you start preparing for your engagement? If your answer is the moment you’re assigned or invited, then you get a gold star. You’re absolutely right.


Waiting till the last minute to prepare a speech may work for some people. But it seldom works for those who are presenting in a second language. Allow yourself as much time as possible to prepare.


In fact, it isn’t that outrageous of an idea to give yourself an extra week – even two – if you can to focus on this presentation.


Don’t Trust Your Memory to Speak Off the Cuff


You may have notice that some individuals have the talent of speaking extemporaneously. Just jumping off on the spur of the notice and presenting a perfectly structured, finely delivered speech. Or so it may seem so to the audience.


It’s true. Some individuals can do this, but more often than not, somewhere along the line, these people have been planning this moment. Sure, they probably weren’t scheduled, but in their minds they’ve probably rehearsed what they would say if they ever got the chance to speak.


Not only that, but they’ve probably been practicing their English skills as well, in hopes of one day being able to speak in this manner. What appears to be unplanned and off the cuff was probably months in the making.


Write the Speech Out in English.


No, you won’t read your speech from your notes, but there are so many advantages to writing it out. First and foremost, the simple act of writing it out will clarify your thoughts.


If you opt to write it in your native language and translate it, you may find that, upon translation, may lead to improper sentence structure as well as some poor phrasing.


Read Your Speech Out Loud


Once you’ve written your speech, then it’s time to read it out loud. This will help you feel more comfortable with the pronunciation of words that may give you a difficult time. This also is valuable in listening to the proper sentence structure of these ideas in English.


And by the way, read it more than once. Reading it more than once provides you with the familiarity you’ll need in order to give a first-class, professional style. But more than that, this form of preparedness will give you the confidence you probably never knew you had.


Create a Set of Notes based on your Speech.


Yes. You read that correctly. Once you’ve written the speech out and read it a few times, then you’ll want to take notes on it. These don’t have to be extensive notes. They can be fairly simple – enough even to give you a hint of where you’re going next in the presentation. If you even create an outline, you’ll find this to be of great help. These notes should not be written out in full sentences as much as you think that method would be better.


Instead, the purpose of these notes is to help you keep track of where you are in your presentation as well as where you’re headed. If you write out full sentences instead, you may discover this method awkward when you consult them.


Practice Presenting your Speech


Did you really think I would neglect to tell you this? This is one of the most important steps to preparedness. In fact, the ultimate practice session is to give this presentation to a native-speaking friend or two.


This may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, the more often you can give these practice presentations, the better your presentation will be. In turn, you’ll find yourself gaining self-confidence not only in your trial runs, but when you eventually stand in front of that audience.


There is a key to this suggestion, though. Many individuals read their speech in front of friends and family who tell them how great it is. Before your trial run, explain to your “beta listeners” that you want feedback – honest feedback.


Of course, we all want positive feedback, but not at the expense of the quality of our speech. Explain to your listeners that you want – indeed – need their honest criticism. Promise them you won’t take it personally. Then, don’t take it personally. Instead, think about the reason for constructive criticism for what it’s meant to be– a means to make you a better speaker in English.


Record your Presentation during your Practice Sessions


This is critical in truly learning how you sound when you speak in public. Your first thought upon hearing this is to simply record your voice. Give consideration, though, to actually video-taping yourself as well. When you do this, you may find your body language is less than inviting. Or it could be that your body language or posture doesn’t match with what you’re saying.


You’ll also discover when you do this, you may become your worse critic. Take your own criticism with a grain of salt. Sure, you may never get to the level of perfection that you desire, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. It may just mean, for one thing, that you’re expecting a bit too much from yourself at the moment.


Remember, too, that you’ve started earlier in preparing than most people just because you know it’s going to take you a bit longer to get yourself to the point where you’re satisfied.


Reverse Accent Mimicry


Many speakers who present in their second language tend to worry about their accent. English has a few sounds which no other language has – perhaps some of these sounds are new to you. On top of that, though, when you speak English you may become confused by the stress or emphasis of syllables within the words. This is exactly where reverse accent mimicry can help you overcome these hurdles that so many ESL students seem to stumble over.


It could be that right now, knowing you have a speaking engagement in your future, you’re concerned about how your listeners will accept and understand your accent.

The concept behind this practice is easy enough. The method simply involves analyzing an English speaker who has a strong English accent speaking in your language. If Spanish is your first language, for example, then you’re o searching for someone who speaks Spanish with a thick American accent.


What you’re going to do is to speak your native language, in this case, Spanish, as your model is speaking it. Be sure to imitate everything – and I mean everything – the person is saying and how he is saying it. Incorporate all his “mistakes” from difficulties in pronunciation to the grammar issues and the structural difficulties.


The problems that this person has when speaking your language, can reversibly reflect the problems that you will have when speaking English.


When you do this, you’ll discover, much to your surprise, that this is a quantum leap in perfecting your own English pronunciation and reducing your accent.


Practice. Record, repeat. Review.


Ask any language instructor. The best way to become fluent in a language is to use it – as often as possible. So it should come as no surprise to learn that by reading your presentation out loud, recording it, then listening to is one of the quickest and easiest ways to become proficient at delivering your speech.


Not only that, but the instructions for doing so, are as simple reading the instructions on a bottle of shampoo: lather, rinse, repeat. In this case, practice, record, repeat, and review. You’ve no doubt taken more than enough courses in the English language that these instructions are a well-worn mantra. But just because it isn’t a creative approach to practicing for your big day, doesn’t mean it’s not an effective one. Because it certainly is. In fact, it’s one of the most effective, despite its mundane and tedious application.

When you’re using this method for your presentation, you simply record yourself reading or better yet, presenting it from your outline without notes – and then listen to the recording. While you should be critical, don’t be overly so. Choose one or two areas you’d like to improve in initially and study these diligently. See how many items you can improve upon in the time you have.


Do this until your comfortable presenting your speech, not only the material itself and the outline, but also the intonation of your voice and the stress you place on the syllables of your words and the pauses among your words themselves.


Alternate your Practice Material


But you can take this form of rehearsal one step further. Because inevitably your presentation will become routine for you, alternate reading and repeating your speech with reading other materials. You may want to read a novel, using all the forms of emotion the author intended for the characters to possess.


Do everything you did with your speech, but just practice it with the book. This will keep you speaking English and not boring yourself or sliding into bad habits because you’ve read your material too many times. Choose a book you’ve been longing to read and this should keep your interest for a while. In fact, if you choose your reading material wisely, it won’t seem the least bit tedious, it may even become a pleasure.


Of course, your selection of exactly what to read out loud and how you do this are only limited by your own imagination. Below are some materials as well as ways to institute this practice if reading novels get boring.


Are you a news hound or a political junkie? Then why not try reading a newspaper or even a web site devoted to news or politics. Select a story in a printed newspaper or magazine or one on a web site. Read it out loud recording yourself as you go along. Play the recording back, listening to yourself critically. Then record yourself again, searching for ways to improve your speaking.

Do this at least once a day once you’ve been assigned or committed yourself to the public speaking engagement. This is a form of rehearsal you can easily start even before you’ve written your speech simply by reading books, magazines, newspapers as well as web sites out loud.


Once you begin composing your speech, you then can record snippets of the speech, listen to yourself – and to the actual writing – and know how you sound and, as an added bonus, how well your speech is written.


If you’ve given yourself the two-week practice time as we’ve suggested earlier, you’ll have plenty of time to correct any words that may be tripping you up. So, there’s no need to get frustrated or worried.


Listen to Four Areas


As you listen with an ear to improve your speaking voice, there are four areas in particular that are critical. They’re listed below:


Pronunciation and Enunciation

You may think that this goes without saying, but when you speak in public it’s doubly important. For one thing, your first goal is to make it as easy as possible for your audience to understand – and not question – what you’ve just told them. This means that when you express yourself you place the emphasis on the proper syllable or syllables in the words. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You don’t want your audience questioning what you said and entirely missing a chunk of vital information that follows.


Make sure you’re not mumbling and that each and every word is pronounced clearly. When you are doing this correctly, you may feel as if your mouth is working overtime, exaggerating the movements of your jaw and lips. Don’t worry about that. Record yourself. If your words sound clear when your listen to them, then you can rest assured your mouth isn’t in any exaggerated position.




I know. I know. You’re going to have a microphone to amplify your voice. You really don’t need to worry about that. But you do – even with a microphone. When you learn how to project your voice, speaking from your diaphragm, then not only will you sound naturally louder but more authoritative as well.



This means, should any mishap occur with the electronics you will still be able to carry on. Not only that, when you speak louder, people automatically assume you’re more knowledgeable about a subject. Any doubts you may have in your own mind about them not taking you as seriously as you wish because of the way you speak English will vanish. And that’s always a good thing!


Your use of inflection


You might not be able to provide a good definition off the top of your head of the word inflection, but you know it when you hear it. Let’s just say you immediately recognize it when you don’t hear inflection.


You’ve probably sat through enough college lectures in which the professors couldn’t or felt they didn’t need to utilize this tool. The result? Boring courses in which very few students learned much if anything at all! You were subjected to monotone speakers who had more than one student sleeping and many struggling to stay awake. That’s not exactly the reaction you want from your audience, now is it?


Instead, you want to make your presentation as entertaining and engaging as possible. And before you say that it’s impossible with your topic, think about the TED talks that have become increasingly popular thanks to YouTube and NPR or National Public Radio.


What does TED stand for? Technology, Entertainment and Design. Notice that the “E” stands for entertainment – not education. While it’s a given your presentation will educate your audience, consider that in order to maintain their attention, it should also entertain. Part of the way in which to do this is through a vivid presentation. And that definitely involves the inflection of your voice.


Listening to your Cadence


You’ve no doubt heard the word cadence before as well. Sometimes it’s used when individuals talk about the pace of soldiers walking together. While we’re talking words, the meaning is similar. When I mention cadence, I’m referring to the pace of your delivery. Just like you can bore your audience without using varying degrees of inflection, you can do the same with your cadence – or lack thereof.


Listen to your presentation paying strict attention to the speed of your delivery. Is every sentence spoken at the same pace? Is it excruciating slow or do you quicken the pace every now and then based on the emotion you’re conveying and on the content of your presentation?


When you can slow what you say at critical points you want to emphasize and want the audience to truly comprehend, you can feel comfortable they’ve received the message. By the same token, if you’re telling a story involved in your topic, you might want to speed your pace or cadence to indicate a higher degree of excitement. Again, this is where the TED talks are one of the best examples around of this.




A well-defined pause is as important in a talk as the use of any other form of communication. Pauses, when positioned correctly, can build tension if you like (watch any television reality show to confirm this) and to allow your audience to really concentrate on what you’ve just said.


They’re also critical if you’ve added humor into your speech. A well-timed pause will give your listeners the time to laugh without worrying that they’re missing something you’ve just said.