Student Guide to Public Speaking

Tips, Resources & Inspiration for Giving Presentations & Speeches in School

Meet the Expert

Dr. Janet Heller Read bio

Glossophobia, the fear of speaking in public, affects 89 percent of the population. While avoiding presentations may seem like a simple solution, the fact is these fears can result in impairments in the areas of graduation rates, earnings and the likelihood of moving into a managerial or leadership role. College is a good place to overcome those fears and become a confident public speaker. This guide offers expert guidance, tips, and strategies for excelling in front of any audience.

6 Reasons to Take a Public Speaking Course

Whether learners are pursuing art or zoology, being able to speak clearly and confidently in public will always serve them well. Looking for other reasons to take a public speaking course?

  • You’ll use this skill your entire life.

    No matter the industry, companies always value employees who can express themselves well verbally. Even individuals who don’t work in communications frequently need to present their work or findings to various groups of people, and that’s not likely to change as they move up the career ladder.

  • You could have a leg up on the competition.

    When deciding from a group of recent graduates with similar educational and work experience, being able to communicate a company’s brand or mission could make the difference in who gets hired.

  • You’ll improve other types of communication.

    The focus of the class might be on public speaking, but this type of training isn’t limited to getting up in front of groups. Individuals who complete public speaking courses often improve their day-to-day interpersonal skills as they learn how to articulate and tailor what they want to say.

  • You’ll build confidence.

    Standing in front of a group of strangers sounds like an anxiety-inducing exercise to many, but not to those who are well-trained in the art of public speaking. By conquering fears surrounding public speaking, students can build confidence not only when it comes to giving presentations, but also in many different aspects of their lives.

  • You’ll learn things.

    Part of being able to speak confidently about a subject is knowing it backwards and forwards. In the process of preparing for a presentation or public speaking engagement, individuals often engage in deeper research than they would otherwise.

  • Your listening skills will improve.

    Public speakers who want other people to listen to what they have to say quickly learn that they must reciprocate to be successful. Listening to other people’s speeches helps learners understand differing perspectives, introduces new information, and provides ideas for better ways of delivering content.

How to Ace Public Speaking

Like many other disciplines, public speaking is an art. Learning how to stay focused, read audiences, and entertain while also educating takes time, but anyone can be a confident and engaged speaker if they put in the time needed to improve.

How to Give a Great Speech

Learn More about Public Speaking

Introduction to Public Speaking

This five-week, 10-hour online course covers topics such as understanding speech, how to make ideas compelling, the art of illustrating and delivering ideas, overcoming fear to develop great delivery techniques, and how to be memorable. Students can audit the class for free or pay a one-time fee to take advantage of course materials and receive a certificate.

Cost: $49 or Free
Pathways Educational Program

A national nonprofit with local chapters throughout the country, Toastmasters exists to help members improve their public speaking skills. The Pathways program includes tracks in communication or leadership and can be completed via a local Toastmasters club or online. The syllabus includes 10 speech projects and opportunities to learn about using dynamic communications platforms, such as podcasts, TED talks, and online meetings.

Cost: Free with membership, with additional paths costing $20 each.
Communication 2110 – Public Speaking

Nearly every college in America offers some type of intro-level speech class to help students build their skills. Oklahoma State University’s offering is a great example of what to expect, with required presentations including informative, demonstrative, and persuasive speeches throughout the semester.

Cost: Varies by college, can often be used toward general education requirements.
Give Amazing Presentations and Enjoy Public Speaking

Professor Chris Haroun, a university scholar, venture capitalist, and author, provides this free course. The focus of the class is to analyze some of the great speeches of our day by leading orators such as Ronald Reagan, Steve Jobs, and Meryl Streep.

Cost: Free
Public Speaking Resources

A national nonprofit focused on providing free and affordable public speaking resources, PSP offers a free online speaking textbook, a virtual classroom, and many other helpful services to students trying to better their presentational skills without spending lots of money.

Cost: Free

Get Inspired by Great Speakers

Outside of learning strategies and practicing delivery, listening to impactful speeches can also inspire a student to greatness. Whether addressing an impending war, celebrating the promise of the 20th century, or relaying harrowing tales of Nazi Germany, the speeches below are glowing examples of confident, articulate, and mesmerizing delivery.

John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address: January 20, 1961

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Elie Wiesel The Perils of Indifference: April 12, 1999

Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own. Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment.

And this is one of the most important lessons of this outgoing century’s wide-ranging experiments in good and evil.

Winston Churchill We Shall Fight Them On the Beaches”: June 4, 1940

The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Hillary Clinton Remarks at the Fourth Women’s Conference in Beijing: September 5, 1995

If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely and the right to be heard. Let me be clear. Freedom means the right of people to assemble, organize, and debate openly. It means respecting the views of those who may disagree with the views of their governments. It means not taking citizens away from their loved ones and jailing them, mistreating them, or denying them their freedom or dignity because of the peaceful expression of their ideas and opinions.

Giving a Great Presentation

If you want to give a great presentation, a well-written speech is a must. But there’s a lot more to a presentation than just words. Learning how to engage with audiences, work within time restraints, and say goodbye to pesky nerves are all part of the process.

From the Expert: What Makes a Great Presentation

Doctor Janet Heller has more than 35 years of experience teaching public speaking, English, and many other topics around communication and has presented at dozens of national conferences and workshops throughout the country. Her insider tips on how to give a great presentation are relevant to anyone looking to step up their game.

Learn More about Giving a Great Presentation

How to Give a Killer Presentation

Harvard’s Dr. Chris Anderson provides a step-by-step plan for developing excellent stage presence and delivering a killer speech in this helpful article. He also includes lots of video examples to help students envisage what they’re working towards.

Cost: Free
10 Tips for Better Slide Decks

Straight from the mastermind behind all TED Talk slide decks, this list of top tips will help any speaker create a meaningful presentation that truly adds to the topic at hand. Aaron Weyenberg covers not only the overarching goals of effective slide decks, but also delves into the nuances of consistency, transitions, and meaning.

Cost: Free
How to Give Good Presentations

Harvard University Professor Dr. Daniel Jacob provides a comprehensive PowerPoint about the mechanics of presentations, what should be included, how to structure a talk, and how to meet the expectations of different audiences.

Cost: Free
How to Give Highly Effective Lectures, Talks, and Conference Presentations

This thorough article discusses what makes for an awful talk, why good people give bad talks, rules of thumb for being effective, and the secrets of communicating information effectively. The guide also hones in on how to use visuals in meaningful ways to draw in an audience without distracting from the speaker.

Cost: Free
An Introvert’s Guide to Better Presentations

Giving a presentation as an introvert may seem like the worst assignment ever, but the truth is that introverts are often the most prepared since the idea of being in front of people can seem so scary. Speaker Matt Haughey provides tips tailored specially to introverts and includes videos of himself speaking at large and small events throughout the country.

Cost: Free

How to Conquer Public Speaking Anxiety

Communication expert Dr. Janet Heller has spent years working with college students to conquer anxiety and stop letting fear hold them back. She offers a few tips to learners who are struggling with the limelight. “I always tell my students that most audiences are friendly and supportive to speakers,” she says, noting that listeners want presenters to succeed. “If students are still nervous, a great way to calm fears is to practice their speeches or reports in front of a group of friends and ask for feedback.” Questions to ask listeners include:

  • Could they hear you from every corner of the room?

  • Did you look at all of them at least once?

  • Do they have suggestions for improving the speech?

  • Did the transitions within the speech make sense?

  • How did they feel about how you ended the presentation?

Dr. Heller also notes that she invites students to practice their speech and receive feedback in her office, and many other professors would be willing to provide these same services. Lastly, Dr. Heller stresses the importance of focus and balance. “Most students benefit from breathing deeply because that is soothing and prevents panting during presentations,” she notes. “I also suggest that students imagine an experience that they love before doing public speaking to get their minds to a happy and relaxing place.”

Resources

National Speakers Association

The NSA offers members access to in-person and virtual learning opportunities, a 3,500+ member community of accomplished speakers, and a range of other educational resources.

Oral Communication Center

Hamilton University’s OCC hosts a truly expansive array of resources designed specifically for college students who want to better their public speaking and presentation skills.

Prompster Public Speaking

This app, which is priced at $1.99, turns any smartphone or tablet into a teleprompter that displays text and can be easily moved up and down during a presentation.

PublicSpeaking App

Provided by HiveBrain via GooglePlay and iTunes, this app provides guided meditations and a self-hypnosis program to help reduce anxieties surrounding public speaking.

SpeakerClock

Students who struggle to stay within time limitations can use this this app, which displays large red LED digits showing how much time has elapsed and/or how much time is left.

Public Speaking Advice from the Expert

Dr. Janet Heller offers some final advice for delivering great presentations and speeches.

In your opinion, what’s the best way to learn how to speak publicly with grace, clarity, and panache? 

Students need to practice public speaking as often as possible. They should participate in class discussions, do oral reports, and take courses on public speaking. Students should join clubs or nonprofit organizations that require public speaking events. Students should also try to speak up and give presentations during meetings at their place of work. The more people practice speaking to audiences, the easier this process becomes.

How can students use their time in college to become better public speakers? 

Students should participate in class discussions, do oral reports, and take courses on public speaking. They should also consider joining clubs and other student organizations that require public speaking events, such as debate clubs, model political conventions, Model United Nations, etc.

What advice do you have to students who will soon be graduating and are worried they will relapse?

It’s okay to take time off between college and your career to take care of yourself. Be clear about long-term goals (health, life) versus the short-term (finding a job). Find a team (therapist, registered dietitian, psychiatrist, doctor) to support you through this big life change. Depending on the job you get after school, consider sharing with your company early in employment (maybe not during interview) that you have struggled with an ED in the past so they are aware of this if you need to take time off to take care of yourself.

Is taking a class the best approach or are there more organic ways that are also effective? 

Because practicing public speaking is so important, students can benefit from a class that focuses on public speaking. The professor may have advice that helps the students deal with anxiety, make a presentation stand out, and use audiovisual aids when doing oral presentations.