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Steph’s Crash Course for Successful Public Speaking

Updated: May 14, 2019

If you have ever dreamed of sharing your story, but didn’t know where to start? The first step is simple: start by doing. These are my top tips and tricks to public speaking.

Nothing is harder than the first time you do real public speaking. Thankfully, it only gets easier. I’ve recently hired coaches and consultants help me do my best, but I started off with index cards and a few ideas at a small luncheon. No microphone, no fancy headshot, no real idea of what I was doing.

And as you consider speaking, hold this quote in your mind:

“Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle” - Jon Acuff

There are a million things to know about speaking publicly, but trial and error is an excellent teacher. And thankfully for you, I’m sharing my crash course for public speaking with you (in hopes you might avoid a few of my trial and error learning moments).

Don’t wear your outfit for the first time if you are speaking in public.

  • Test drive your whole outfit ahead of time to make sure it fits just right, your bra straps don’t hang out, you have the right undergarments, and it photographs well.

  • Stand and sit in it (on a chair and a stool), to see what the outfit does and where the hem falls.

  • The blockier the heel, the better. My new favorite speaking shoe is from H&M.  Protip: Nude shoes make your legs look longer.

  • If you wear Spanx, make sure they don’t roll up or down and make things more lumpy, instead of smooth. The only way to do this is to wear your outfit for a few hours and move around in it.

Look at how naturally Natalie Perkins perched on the stool at our conference in the fall of 2018. I don’t wear pants very often, but if you do, they are always easier to work from sitting on stools, to hem lines, to high stages.

Specific thoughts on clothing:  

  • Prints often don’t photograph as well as solids. See below.

  • Make sure the material of your clothing doesn’t wrinkle easily; you don’t want wrinkles on stage. If you need a good travel steamer I LOVE this one recommended by my friend Drewe, (a stylist and co-owner of Drewe + Kate, they are also Inspi Lab members).

  • Thin fabric is hard for mics to clip to, so pick a dress or top or blazer with good structure.  

A few more thoughts on wardrobe:

In May of 2019, I gave the commencement address for UNCW's Graduation for The College of Health and Human Services. When I put on the cap, I realized it was different from when I had spoken at other graduations...and it was different because I had it on BACKWARDS for two ceremonies back in 2017. The deep "V" on a graduation cap is for the back, not the front. LOL, you live and you learn. So, if you are wearing regale for your speech, double check with the pros in the robing room (that is what it is called) and make sure all your attire, cords, hoods, ropes and caps are all set.

This is the cap the wrong way. It is half way into my eyebrow...not sure how I missed it?

This is the right way to wear a cap!

Finally, a few other things I learned from speaking at UNCW in Trask Coliseum.

  • Practice a few sentences with the microphone so you can get familiar with the echo inside a coliseum. The first time I spoke on behalf of the Alumni Association in 2014 (just for one minute to welcome them as new Alumni) the echo was surprisingly hard for me to ignore. It gets easier the more you do it, but it is something to consider if you are new to venues with 4,500 people that were built for sporting events, not graduations and speeches.

  • Don't look at yourself on the jumbotron for more than a second or two, otherwise it is distracting. I will say the time my hat was so weird I looked more than once and kept trying to figure out why I looked so different from my colleagues.

  • If you are using sheet protectors to place your speech inside of, make sure they are anti-glare or consider taking them out and just avoiding glare from the lights altogether.

  • Speaking at a graduation is lovely for a few reasons: You get to wear a huge black gown, so no wardrobe worries, you don't have to worry about what the top of your hair will look like, you get to stand behind a podium, and you get your notes.

  • As I mentioned earlier, I rarely use notes so it actually took some practice for me to get used to page turning and referencing them. My coach taught me how to color block the different sections of the speech and then to go in and add icons (for example, the hurricane symbol when I was talking about Hurricane Florence) in the margins. I also write in "smile," "pause," and "deep breath" to remind myself to take these actions.

  • When I practice for any speech, I also boil it down to the bullet points, put it on the wall with a huge post-it note and practice with that, without any notes.

  • I purchased a podium that we use for Inspiration Lab events, but I also use it to practice if I am going to have a podium at the venue I am speaking. The more realistic your practice is, the better your performance. I often leave my cell phone on when I practice, so it will ring or send a notification on a text to distract me, which could happen in real life.

Don’t get a blow out by someone you don’t know the day of your event.

If they don’t get your hair quite right you will not be happy with photos and videos taken during the talk. See the halo of baby hairs I have from this event?

Get all the details about the stage.

  • How high is the stage? If you are above people, such as in a theater, make sure your dress falls past your knees, otherwise from below (where the audience sees you and photographs you) they’ll mostly see your knees. If you wear pants this is not a big deal.

  • Find out if you are sitting, and if so, what you’re sitting on. For example, if you are on a couch: Do not lean all the way back. Perch on the edge, cross your ankles, and sit up straight. And, if you are on a stool: You can either lean against them or hop up, but be careful of your posture and the hem line on your dress. Dresses can easily become va-va-voom on a stool—learned that one the hard way.

  • Move, don’t pace. Know when in your talk you want to move. Know where on the stage you want to move to.

Check out those knees—I should have worn a longer dress or pants for this talk on an elevated stage.

Make sure your smile is stage ready.

Check your teeth for lipstick, and drink out of a straw before you talk or go on camera to preserve the lipstick you spent time applying. We all want stage ready smiles!

If you know there will be Q&A, think through questions ahead of time.

Very few people are dazzling and concise off the cuff. Preparation is your friend when it comes to public speaking. At the same time, don’t forget to have fun with it and let your personality shine during Q&As.

Protect your voice.

If you are at a conference and don’t speak until mid-way through the 3-5 day event, you need to protect your voice. There is nothing like yelling through a cocktail hour and dinner in a loud restaurant and waking up the next day with a sore throat and tired vocal chords. I really love Entertainer’s Secret for days like that and never go to a speaking event without it. Hot tea is always helpful in a pinch.

HYDRATE like it is your job.

Starting 48 hours before a big speaking engagement, hydrate. This will give you more energy and is a no-brainer way to help your body prepare for the big day.

Get a coach or consultant if the stakes are high.

I have had paid coaching help for three occasions: when I was one of Wilmington’s Most Intriguing People, my TEDx talk this year, and my upcoming commencement keynote address at UNCW. I may save the pros for the life changing opportunities, but the accountability and feedback they give is invaluable. Sharon Delaney McCloud with Walk West is an excellent hire for media training and to help with your talk. She is an Inspiration Lab member and one of the best speakers I have seen in a LONG time.

Know your tech needs, and be prepared for anything.

My thoughts on the various types of microphones:

  • No mic: Project, and use gestures as much as you can; this helps the audience track.

  • Handheld mic: Make sure you are holding it close enough to your mouth. If you plan to use notes, it is hard to carry the mic and your notes around, so request a podium or stool for your notes. See below.

  • Lavalier: This is the one that clips onto your lapel. This could go in your pocket, clipped on the back of your pants, your skirt, or the top of your dress...or they could insist you put it on your bra strap. Again, try out your whole outfit, because it is basically like having a third boob, so if your dress is already tight, this is not ideal. Since it goes on your lapel, if you have long hair, you might want to consider pulling it back, and don’t wear crazy big earrings or necklace that may make sounds (the mic will pick those sounds up).

  • Countryman (or as I call it, Britney Spears mic): This is also going to be clipped similarly to a lavalier, except the microphone is in front of your face and wraps around your ear. Once it is put on you, check your hair to make sure it is laying flat. Hair can be up or down with this mic set-up, and you can where the necklace of your choice. Earrings should still be simple and non-distracting.

What if your microphone isn’t working? This happens to the most seasoned presenters. Don’t stress, just politely ask for another one from the AV/Tech team who mic’d you in the first place. Other than a TED Talk when you can’t stop in the middle, take a moment to get a new mic. Consider requesting a backup handheld mic on stage. If I am running an event, I always have handhelds as backups.

Misc Tech:

If you must have slides, make sure you have a backup copy with you, on a thumb drive, AND print out copies for yourself in case the screen doesn’t work. Also, consider saving a copy of your slides in an email draft.


  • Never, ever use them as a crutch.

  • Practice your whole talk with and without slides. Consider having your slides professionally designed. I recommend Elynor Monks with Design Strategist. She books out way in advance, which makes sense. For a big opportunity, the slides are an important element you don’t want to wait to create.

Practice Makes Perfect.

When I practice with slides I have three things set-up:

  1. My desktop computer running the slides so I can point my clicker, and use it, like at the event, and Otter running in the background to record the talk and transcribe it.

  2. My iPhone on Do Not Disturb mode so I can make a video of the talk.

  3. My laptop on the floor running a timer, nothing else on the screen.

I always, always practice in my shoes, even if I am wearing jammies. I try to do about 25-50% in front of a mirror. I also practice all the sitting, standing, etc. in my outfit in front of a mirror to see how the fabric moves.

When I don’t have slides (this is more typical for me), I have Otter.AI and a timer going, and if I can swing it, a camera. There is no sense in making a video of yourself if you aren’t going to go back through and (it is so painful) critique yourself.

Practice with any props. I loved when Lisa Brooks, an Inspi lab Member, and founder of Thrive Tribes, brought props to her talk! Be creative. Members, check out her talk in the member’s only area of our website. This is one of the best talks I have ever seen, and it is about self care. Who doesn’t need help in that department?

Time yourself.

DO NOT be the speaker that goes over their allotted time. NOBODY ever enjoys that, you are NOT Oprah. There is just no excuse for this.

Giving a TEDx talk has always been a dream of mine. SO EXCITING!

Find your Otter.

I use Otter when I practice my talks. My friend, Sharon, clued me into this. This will take your words, turn them into a PDF, and give you the time stamps throughout the talk. This is, legitimately, a game changer for me. I probably have 40 versions of my TEDx talk in my Otter account. SO HELPFUL and free (unless you use tons of hours).

Have someone, who you know, in the audience take photos or video.

  • This is key if you want live action photos or to get audio and visual feedback from your talk. I highly suggest getting live video of you so you can see what you are doing with your body, how the outfit looks from the audience perspective, and if your diction is clear. Pro tip: don’t forget to give them your pass code to unlock your phone.

Nervous is a good thing!

That means you care. Take deep breaths and try to keep your blood flowing (moving around backstage helps with blood flow). You don’t have to go crazy, like Tony Robbins does before his speaking (watch the documentary, "I Am Not Your Guru" about him if you want to see all the crazy backstage things he does).

You have to put yourself out there if you want to get on stages.

You need to apply to speak at conferences, volunteer to lead meetings, fill in for someone who is sick, and take any chance you can to learn how to be a better communicator. I have spoken, sitting on the floor, to a living room filled with 60-90 year old women. I have led my team meetings at my real estate company for 7 years. I used to lead a Women’s Ministry at church, and I never hesitate to give a toast at a wedding. Every time you get to speak in front of others, when they give you the gift of their attention, it is a chance to get better at your craft. While I haven't personally participated in Toastmasters, I’ve only heard great things about this organization.

Get serious with your time investment and resources.

If you already knew most of this, and want to be a paid speaker (YAS, girl!),  I recommend you take Jess Ekstrom’s Mic Drop Workshop. She gives you all the info on rates, contracts, tech requirements, one sheets, and the down low on the industry. I want to see more of you on stages, on panels, and leading our communities.


Life is the best teacher.

My first “big” speaking engagement was in 2015, at the Wilmington Convention Center, for the Wilmington's 5 Most Intriguing People talks. I am still happy with the outfit, yay for green! I didn’t love my hair or the design of my slides. I should have requested a full run through before the event, because their clicker was very touchy and I had a few hiccups. I was so nervous my legs were shaking, but friends in the audience said you couldn’t see. It has gotten so much easier since then, and I am so grateful to the Greater Wilmington Business Journal for selecting me.

So, you, with the story to tell (because we all have a story worth hearing) and the passion in your heart, take a chance on yourself and stand in the spotlight. I hope you will tell your story and share your heart. The world needs to hear you.