How to improve your public speaking skills: Tips from an award-winning speaker

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Vijay Narayanan
  • Focus on topics you’re passionate about and don’t procrastinate writing your speech, says Hong Kong debate champion Markandaya Karthik
  • There are no bad ideas, so write down everything that comes to mind - you never know what will work
Vijay Narayanan |
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These tips will help you become an expert at public speaking. Photo: Shutterstock

Public speaking and debate are vital components of many secondary school extracurricular programmes. However, public speaking can be a daunting task for a beginner, as people often get caught up in their mistakes or get nervous about what the audience will think of them.

We sat down with Markandaya Karthik, a Hong Kong Schools Debating and Public Speaking Community member and World Champion in the After Dinner Speech Category, for a few tips on how students can improve their public speaking skills. He gave some advice about how to write and deliver speeches, as well as habits contestants can form that will help them for the big day.

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Passion is key

To start, you need to have a topic you care about.

“Focusing on topics you’re passionate about persuades the audience to agree with your view, which is what public speaking is all about,” he said.

The star student took part in the Junior Public Speaking Championships in Hong Kong in Year 8. He won the persuasive speech category for his speech on child trafficking – a topic he was interested in and cared about greatly.

“During my research, I continued to develop my interest in the topic, which allowed me to be naturally enthusiastic and more sincere in my speech. This is a great way to earn style points.”

Choose a topic you’re passionate about to capture the audience’s attention. Photo: Shutterstock

The importance of style

Style points reward how you communicate your arguments. Although content and strategy are important, they mean very little unless you can confidently deliver your content.

“In almost every speech competition I’ve been to, I’ve memorised my speech beforehand,” Markandaya said. “Memorising your speech increases the number of style points you get from judges because they would rather you look at them when you’re speaking than at your notes.”

Markandaya also recommended practising your speech in front of teachers, friends or family members.

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“When I went to the World Public Speaking Championships with Team Hong Kong in 2019, we had a category for interpretive reading. So to practise, I performed my reading for several of my teachers and got their feedback,” he said.

“Each teacher had different tips to help me improve different parts of my reading, such as my modulation or pitch. This was a great way to fix things that I didn’t know were a problem.”

Practise your speech over and over so you get used to doing it in front of a crowd. Photo: Shutterstock

How to write an effective speech

Start writing your speech early, Markandaya. “I know many people who write their speeches the night before the competition. It’s never worked for me.”

“I think this technique doesn’t work for a lot of people because you could write something the night before a competition that sounds really impactful and powerful to you, but the next morning, it seems like absolute nonsense.”

“That’s why it’s important to take the time to do thorough research, write drafts, proofread and memorise your speech. Don’t procrastinate; it’s a process that takes time.”

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He also advised following a basic writing format that can be applied to any speech competition.

“My main structure is a hook and an introduction, which gives the audience a rundown of what I am going to talk about, then moving to the body and sharing my content with the audience.”

“In the end, I close my speech, linking back to my hook and introduction.”

Having a go-to writing structure can be very useful for the speech writing process, Markandaya said. “You don’t have to worry about how your content will flow; you can focus on getting your information down.”

Style matters just as much as content when it comes to debate and public speaking. Photo: Shutterstock

Last-minute preparation tips

It might sound counterintuitive, but the best thing students can do to prepare the day before the competition is not to look at their speech.

“I find that if you keep reading your speech before the competition, you tend to forget a lot more when you go to deliver it,” he explained.

“I prepare a lot before the competition, but not the day before or the day of the contest. Instead, I take the time to collect my thoughts,” he added.

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Other things to keep in mind

“I recommend contestants read a variety of books because it can improve your language and vocabulary skills and give you a deeper grasp of different terminology. This allows you to use a wider range of words and helps you appear less boring to the audience.”

Finally, Markandaya wanted to remind students that there’s no such thing as a bad idea.

“The biggest tip I can give is to write all your ideas down on paper because you never know which ones could work. Even if some sound ridiculous, it doesn’t hurt to write them down. Always have your notes accessible when you’re writing your speech. Don’t filter anything because that never helps.”

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