Career Builders: How to be great at Public Speaking

What makes a great speaker?

I had the privilege to listen to an amazing line-up of top speakers at the Forward Ladies ‘Celebrating Women in International Business’ in Liverpool as part of this month’s IFB festival – from HSBC’s Amanda Murphy, who started the day off with her inspiring story to the IoD’s Chair Lady Barbara Guest CBE, who rounded the day off with her remarkable talk about the journey she has made in her extraordinary life.

These fabulous women were superb examples of how the best speakers do it. Here are the ‘Top Ten’ habits they demonstrated through their engaging and entertaining talks.

1. Tell stories

Engaging speakers tell stories and share their experiences so we can relate to their message and remember it. Whenever you can, try to use stories to get your point across. Barbara Judge’s talk was one story after the next about her career and the lessons she has learned – and everyone was captivated.

2. Be conversational, refer to universal experiences

The best way to be conversational is to behave as if you are chatting to one person as you share your experiences. And, just as you would in a conversation, you can quickly get into rapport with your listener by drawing on things you have in common – things that you can be confident everyone in the audience will have experienced – as Deborah Leary OBE did in her fantastic talk about her Forensic Pathways. She asked us “remember the interview we all had with the careers advisor at school?” before sharing her story in a context we could easily relate to.

3. Speak with passion, energy and warmth

Channel your nervous adrenaline into energy by getting passionate about your beliefs and your point of view. Think about how the audience will benefit from hearing your message.   Amanda Murphy of HSBC was brilliant at this – she radiated warmth and humanity from the start with her story of how she found her first job in banking and how she managed the demands of work and family throughout her career.

4. Stand strong, talk with your hands

This was a direct tip from Barbara Judge, who shared her story about her poor performance as a speaker until she took lessons – and one of the key changes she made was to start speaking with her hands to add energy and interest to her delivery.

5. Be humble and vulnerable (as well as awesome!)

These were all women who have achieved fantastic success in their lives and careers and yet it was their humility and vulnerability on the stage that we were most connected to as people. Their achievements screamed louder because they were humble. Karen Melonie Gould shared how she experienced failure and frustration in her early attempts to get her business off the ground – but didn’t give up. As she put it, “It’s not over until you decide it’s over”.

6. Look the part

Another great tip from Barbara Judge, based on advice she received from her mother at the start of her career. She said “70% of a first impression is how you look; 20% is how you sound; and 10% is what you say”. When you want to convey authority of your subject and instill respect for your knowledge, don’t look like you are off to the beach, dress like you mean business.

7. Start strong

Penny Haslam got the party going straight away with her positive energy and engaging delivery. We immediately knew we were in good hands.

8. Be useful and interesting (have a point)

Ali Gayward, Commercial Manager of Easyjet, shared how she manages her grueling schedule of international travel with advice that was relevant to even the most deskbound of workers. She reflected “It’s all about your mindset. You decide: ‘Am I going to be excited or going to be tired by doing this?’ because you are telling yourself how it will be.”

9. Be generous (credit others, share the stage, refer to other speakers)

Leisa Docherty, director of diversity and inclusion at Sage, was a brilliant example. She started her talk by immediately complimenting the previous speaker on her talk by saying “Well, you’re a hard act to follow! And funny too!” It was generous, confident and we instantly liked her. 

10. End Strong

Deborah Mills must surely win the inspiring quote of the day from her closing remarks. After a riveting talk on her experiences working in advertising, she imparted some great advice on how to climb the corporate ladder and then closed with “Finally, it is sometimes difficult, but you have to just pick yourself up, pull up your big girl pants, think ‘teeth & tits’ and head out the door!”. Brilliant closing.

Caroline Hopkins is a presentations coach who runs workshops in the North West of England. Her clients include many brilliant presenters who were once nervous and rambling – until they learnt that public speaking, like driving lessons, is a skill you learn so you can get somewhere. For further tips and ideas go to