Current Affairs & Business

The Northbank guide to public speaking


At Northbank, we work with some of the world’s leading keynote and after dinner speakers, including Nina Schick and Camilla Cavendish.

But most of us find public speaking daunting. We’ve talked to a cross-section of the speakers we’ve worked with in the past few months, to discover their tips, habits and best practices.

The result is Northbank’s PUBLIC SPEAKING CHEAT SHEET which includes expert advice for crafting and delivering a killer keynote speech or expert presentation, starting with preparation and ending with performance.

This isn’t a comprehensive guide – there are many styles of successful talks, and it’s most important to find your own voice and develop it into a confident presentation:


1. Know your audience
Storytelling is often about understanding audiences, not the demographics but the actual people in the room. Know a little bit about the environment and culture they’re coming from, use their names. Make it easy for people and put them at ease with self-deprecating humour.

2. Do your homework
Brainstorm your material. Research your subject matter. A good work ethic means you won’t stumble because you have ‘read around’ your topic. It’s good for you, your confidence, sets an example, and shows depth.

3. Be clear about purpose
Fix on something you are trying to achieve with the talk. How are you trying to persuade the audience? How will you do this? What is the intended result? What do you want your audience to feel and say afterwards? What should they take away?

4. Catch attention
Think about how you can set yourself apart from other speakers on that day, people who have spoken to this group previously, or people the audience would usually hear. Do something not the norm, even a small thing like asking an interactive question, to wake people up. Hans Rosling was great at this by using brilliant and memorable visuals in his presentations.

5. Notes and rehearsal
Cards, prompts or notes should generally be kept to a minimum, in large type and only reminders – most of your speech should be memorised. Read your material through and have someone listen, or record it for yourself on a smartphone or computer and listen back during your commute or on a walk. For advanced students, try transcribing every word of this recording, leave it for a few days and then read it back while you are fresh. The insights from this process will surprise you.


Always hydrate, warm-up, and take a quiet moment to review notes, however fleetingly – a silent tongue-twister, deep breathing or a stretch perhaps. Jennifer Lawrence, who has spoken about her battle with anxiety, told the New York Times that she centres herself by taking time to think of her public self as a kind of avatar.

1. Keep it simple
Use the rule of 3 (making points in threes, with the third point slightly longer). Use oppositions for clarity (it’s not about this, it’s about this). Avoid cliché and fillers words and phrases.

2. Involve your audience
Use direct and rhetorical questions, make people think about how your speech applies to them, refer to individual people or groups in the audience, work through riddles or puzzles with them. Joe Twyman uses the example of online dating to get his audience thinking about how best to use data and statistics.

3. Be creative on the fly
Bring the talk to life by imagining you are delivering the material fresh, for the first time. Use images and metaphors, paint a picture with similes, analogies, anecdotes, alliteration. Use specific dates, quotations, synonyms, antonyms.

4. Slow down and project
Stand still unless there’s a reason to move, and slow down. Breathe and focus on controlling your speed and intonation. You show confidence through your tone, clarity and audibility. Use gestures sparingly but confidently to illustrate points. Make eye contact with your audience throughout.

5. Be aware of your setting
Make adjustments on the fly if you need to, and have a quick look around the venue before you start speaking. Be prepared for things to change, and roll with it. People are not put off by tech problems, just how speakers deal with them. Confidently move on and adjust accordingly.

6. The ending
Measure out your speech and arrive at the finish. You can use pause to point to the structure of your speech, keep your audience engaged and signal for applause. We love Reza Pakravan’s measured ending to this motivational speech (“if you have a dream, the biggest risk you can take is to play it safe”).

We always remind our clients to remember to follow up afterwards – whether a quick word with your host after the talk, or a brief reflection on what went well, what could have been better, new ideas and lessons learned for next time.

Lend Me Your Ears: All you need to know about making speeches and presentations by Max Atkinson

Insider Secrets of Public Speaking: answers to the 50 biggest questions on how to deliver brilliant speeches and presentations by Nadine Dereza

5 Quick Ways to Structure a Speech by Nick Morgan (Public Words)

TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson

What Bill Clinton Wrote vs. What Bill Clinton Said by Dasheill Bennett (The Atlantic)

Ways to Get Over Your Fear of Public Speaking by Mark Bonchek and Mandy Gonzalez (Harvard Business Review)

Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenge
by Amy Cuddy

To book Northbank’s speakers, contact Tom Copson at 

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