Got Something to Say? 8 Tips to Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

As Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out, most people consider public speaking their greatest fear, which means that if you go to a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than deliver the eulogy. But if you find the right audience, hone your message, and spend plenty of time preparing, you can avoid a fate worse than death. It’s also a great way to make new contacts, bolster your resume, and gain confidence, which is critical to anyone who spends their day selling ideas—and that’s you.

Public speaking isn’t just for those of us with grey hairs. If you’re a junior designer, go talk to high school or college students thinking about graphic design as a career. If you’ve been an in-house designer for 3-4 years, give a presentation to your coworkers, explaining your schooling, your approach to design problems, and your value as a strategic partner.

If you’ve got 10-15 years under your belt, seek out design conferences or your local AIGA chapter, and find a way to share your story. Most of us come about career knowledge slowly, drop by drop, and we fail to realize that, over time, that knowledge can fill buckets. There’s always someone starving for the career knowledge that you’ve come across on your journey.

I started giving presentations after an article of mine appeared in HOW magazine, and ever since, I’ve been obsessed with the ingredients that go into good presentations—and bad ones. Here are a few things to consider before you attach that lavaliere microphone to your lapel.


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Tell stories.

This one seems like a no-brainer in the age of TED Talks and Creative Mornings presentations, but I can’t tell you how many people forget to apply it. I spoke at a conference in Cleveland last year, and the headliner was an author with much more impressive credentials than me, but he bored the audience by rattling off tips and tricks without a single narrative. The tips were all quite good, but nothing we hadn’t heard before.

Near the very end, he started talking about his family, and how scared he had been to make the leap from an agency to pursue his dream of flying solo. That’s where he finally engaged all of us, but by then it was too late. If you tell stories—good stories—the audience will eat up the details of your own personal challenges, failures, and discoveries, and they’ll walk away with their own revelations.

Practice. A lot.

So many people put off preparing for presentations, writing their talking points on the plane, staying up late in a hotel the night before. This is crazy. You’ve got the attention of dozens, maybe hundreds of people, and you need to show them some respect. Start preparing six to eight weeks before the talk, just 30 minutes at a time. Plot out your main points, come up with relevant stories, create some engaging graphics, rehearse in front of a mirror, then invite some friends or colleagues to sit in as you present to them.

When my graphic designer, Annie Riker, and I prepared for our HOW talk last year, we started working three to four months in advance, and we rehearsed four times—twice in a room alone, once with a few close coworkers, and once with colleagues who knew only a few details of our story. We learned something new every time. Friends and colleagues will tell you where they were bored, or confused, or just wanted to learn more—and they’ll say it in a nice way. Listen to their advice. By the time your actual presentation comes, you’ll know it inside and out, and you’ll have the confidence that comes with a few of your peers giving you a thumbs up.

Be human.

Unlike many professions, graphic design involves personal expression, so find a way to show people a few pieces of yourself. Share some of your early inspirations, including favorite books or the bands you enjoyed as a kid—the more embarrassing, the better. Show a picture of yourself at age eight, finger-painting. Share a drawing from your middle-school art class. Show the invitations you designed for your own wedding.

There’s this idea that audiences all want to see perfect people in their perfect suits get up and say perfect things to us, like a local news anchor, but really, we just want to LIKE you as a human being. If you open up with some honesty and humility, we’ll be able to connect with you, and we’ll be rooting for you before you even get to the third slide.

Ditch the script.


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If you’re telling stories, coordinating your visuals with your words, and keeping your key points limited, you’ll have no problem getting up and talking. If you must bring a few note cards, that’s fine, but don’t prepare five to ten pages of typewritten notes. You can’t possibly read all those words verbatim—you’ll just be skimming the page anyway.

When you speak, we want to see your face, we want to believe that you know this stuff inside and out. Imagine if a stand-up comic took the stage with a joke book—it just wouldn’t work. If you were going to dinner to catch up with an old friend and talk shop, would you prepare notes? No, you’d tell some stories, hit some key points, and share your insights. Public speaking is no different. (And if you forget one or two smaller points, don’t worry—no one will notice. Really.)

Create stunning visuals.

You’re a graphic designer, for crying out loud. If you can’t produce amazing visuals, you’re in the wrong business. You can devote a few slides to text (in a nice typeface, or compelling hand-lettering), but it’s so much better to share examples of your best work and offer up some visual metaphors to keep people’s eyeballs engaged. And don’t forget to show examples of BAD work—either your own mistakes or the substandard work that preceded yours. People in the design industry immediately recognize bad photography, poor kerning and controlling clients who insist on making the logo bigger; they all get the joke, so don’t be afraid to share it.

Talk about mistakes.

There’s nothing more boring than listening to some expert drone on about all the brilliant things he knows and all the wise decisions he made in his career. No one is born brilliant. Good stories involve a challenge, a struggle (i.e., plenty of mistakes), and resolution. If you just discuss the challenge and the resolution, you’ve left out the best parts. One of the most engaging portions of our HOW talk revolved around the redesign of our organization’s logo, which took forever and forced us to endure some really horrible suggestions from really powerful people. Everyone in the audience could sympathize.

My favorite AIGA:DC event from a few years back was led by the principals at Post Typography, who got up on stage to share some of their greatest hits along with their “greatest misses”—designs that didn’t make the cut due to timing or clients’ fickle tastes. As you might guess, even their “failures” were pretty damn good. They won over the audience with their humility, and the lively stories surrounding each project.

Focus on results.

Measuring the impact of design can be really difficult: I work at a nonprofit where the goal is often changing behavior or getting money for a cause, and I’d be hard-pressed to prove that those things came about solely because of my efforts. But I can show results in the evolution of our design, in incremental increases to our budgets, and in the results of staff surveys, and I can quote our clients’ positive responses to the work. If you haven’t gotten any results, you probably wouldn’t have been invited to speak, so dig a little and find a way to show that you’re worth listening to.

Stick around.

Public speaking is scary, and can be really draining, especially for newbies and introverts; you may want to crawl into a hole as soon as you’re done. But some of my favorite moments—the ones that made it most worthwhile—were those brief conversations after the talk, where someone said they had been feeling really disheartened about their workplace, but saw opportunities for change. Or the person who looked bored the entire time I was talking, but came right up to me to ask if we could meet for lunch to discuss their challenges. Even if the Q&A at the end of your talk is terribly quiet, that doesn’t mean people don’t have questions—they may just want your attention one-on-one. Give them a chance.

One thought on “Got Something to Say? 8 Tips to Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

  1. John Hartwell

    I’ll add three more tips: Join a Toastmasters club. As a 10-year veteran, I cannot emphasize enough the value of Toastmasters’ communication and leadership training. It is an experience from which all creative professionals can benefit, and benefit greatly.