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The Psychology of Public Speaking: 3 Tips (& 3 Spoilers)
(Day 11, Speaking Palooza 2019)

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July is Freedom from Fear of Speaking Month and to celebrate, I’ve invited a team of speaking experts to share their best tips and tricks for improving your speaking skills and overcoming speaking anxiety.

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The Psychology of Public Speaking: 3 Tips (& 3 Spoilers)

By Guest Expert Ryan G. Van Cleave

When I first started out as a speaker, I worried more about uncovering new actionable tips and techniques. Between us, I think I was seeking the secrets and tricks that would catapult me to instant success. Spoiler 1: there isn’t any such magic. ☹

The more experienced I became at speaking—and the more I got to like and appreciate public speaking—the more I found value in pondering Big Idea issues, such as emotional IQ and human psychology. The more I thought about those, the bigger my paychecks and audiences got, too.

The Psychology of Public Speaking: 3 Tips (& 3 Spoilers)

With those Big Idea issues in mind, here are three speaking tips I generally only share with my clients. Carma Spence asked me to share some of the best things I know in this guest blog post, so here you go. Enjoy! 😊

1—We follow.

Malcolm Gladwell unpacked this idea in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, where he examines the phenomenon of US President Warren G. Harding—arguably the worst president ever, but people liked him because he, well, SEEMED like a president. Basically, he looked and acted like a leader, so people went with it.

Why? That’s what we do. Following those we perceive to be leaders is basic human psychology. (Ultimately, it’s a complicated concept that requires a lot of study to fully appreciate, but here’s a solid article about it from the Harvard Business Review.)

So, at the start of your speaking event, the audience instinctively gives you authority. But you have to accept it and own it immediately or that authority spills through your fingers like a pile of sand. Act like a leader (with confidence, precision, practice, positivity, etc.) from the get-go. They’ll follow. Because it’s what people do.

Following those we perceive to be leaders is basic human psychology.

2—We make snap decisions.

Yep, it’s Gladwell’s Blink again. The audience makes a decision about your ability to lead (see point #1 above!) within seconds of you stepping on stage. That means you can’t delay in proving them right in trusting you and your authority. Some professional speakers say you’ve got a minute to make this happen. Some say thirty seconds. Gladwell warns that it might merely be seconds. And this article on the Association of Psychological Science website suggests it might actually be less than a second!

Regardless of which source is correct, they all agree on the basic principle. You have to win the audience over FAST. That means your introduction has to be a well-practiced hook that reels them in. Plus:

  • You have to look the part.
  • You have to include appropriate nonverbals.
  • You have to use an effective tone.

Here, I’m reminded of Salieri from the movie Amadeus (remember him? The one so jealous of Mozart that he sought the musical genius’ destruction?). At one point, Salieri said that while he can play all the notes, he can’t make the music—not the way Mozart could. Salieri raged that God simply denied him the talent. That’s what the above bullet points are about. That’s where the magic—the music—happens.

Aspire to be more Mozart than Salieri, meaning don’t just SAY the words. Perform them in the right tone, with the right pacing, using the right cadence, while looking and acting the part. Aspire to greatness. Strive for excellence. That’s what pros do.

Spoiler 2: The Mozart version only comes with loads of practice and effort.

Aspire to greatness. Strive for excellence. That’s what pros do.

3—We yearn to connect.

I recently read an article about how the brains of birds synchronize when they sing duets. That’s a lot like what happens when an effective public speaker trusts their voice versus relies on an ocean of Powerpoint data, charts, and graphs. Audiences want to actively make the music—the beauty and meaning—together, versus sitting back and passively watching. In short, verbal communication is a joint activity. The birds know it. Make sure that you, as a speaker, know and use that fact too, if you want to deliver the maximum impact in your speaking events.

Spoiler 3: Some of us were born with a more intrinsically captivating voice than others. But here’s good news—you can improve what you’ve already got, as explained in this article at Psychology Today.

One of the strongest recommendations I make to both writers and speakers is to take the time to learn about psychology and find ways to empower your work with its core principles, even beyond those mentioned above. Do that, and the sky’s the limit for your success.

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About Ryan G. Van Cleave

Ryan G. Van CleaveRyan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books. He runs the creative writing program at Ringling College of Art and Design, and he’s a frequent speaker on writing, publishing, and creativity at schools, business, and conferences. For more info, visit his profile on this site or his own.


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About the author

This post is part of Speaking Palooza. Created by Carma Spence, author of the award-winning, bestselling book Public Speaking Super Powers, it is a month-long event bringing together a wide variety of speaking experts from throughout the English-speaking world to help you overcome the fear of speaking and become a better speaker.

Please see the "About" section above for more information about today's featured expert.

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