A Public Speaking Alphabet

A Audience. Fitting that it comes first. The most important part of any speech. A speech is for the audience and about the audience. Always.

B Books. There are so many resources available these days for public speakers. Invest a small amount of money in yourself and pick some up. Here are three of my favourites: Presentation Zen; Made to Stick; Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln.

CConcreteness. Cut out the jargon and doublespeak. Use simple words, images and props to get your message across. Remember what Leonardo da Vinci said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Here is a post that talks about how to be concrete and has a great five-minute speech that serves as an excellent example.

DData. Learn to handle it and present it properly. Do not overwhelm your audience with figures. Choose what is most important. Put the data into context to make it relevant for the audience. Here is a great presentation by Hans Rosling in which he takes enormous amounts of data and presents it in a way that the audience can understand.

E – Emotion. Speaking with emotion is one of the best ways to connect with the audience. People are tired of lifeless speakers who are just going through the motions. They crave speakers who can touch them with their words. One of the best examples: Martin Luther King.

F Focus. Always ask yourself two questions before you begin to prepare a speech or presentation: (a) What is my key message? (b) Why should the audience care? The answers will help you stay focused on what is most important. Don’t lose that focus!

G Gratitude. Public speaking is a privilege. People are giving you one of the most precious things that they have – their time. Be grateful for the opportunity. Genuinely grateful. That gratitude will shine through and help you make a better connection with the audience.

HHumour. People love to laugh. Well placed humour can make all the difference in the world in a speech or presentation. I’m not talking about doing a stand-up comedy routine; I’m talking about humour that is relevant to the subject being discussed and respectful of the audience. Lots of ideas here.

I Interaction. Speakers can, and should, interact with their audience in a variety of ways. The goal is to “shrink the distance” between the speaker and the audience. How can you interact with the audience? There are several ways, including the following: (a) eye contact; (b) using the stage effectively; (c) exercises for the audience to do (usually in the context of longer presentations); (d) asking rhetorical questions: “How many times have you ever found yourself in this situation … ?”; (e) inviting volunteers to the stage, if appropriate; and (f) having a Question and Answer session at the end, or stating at the outset that people may interject with questions during the presentation, or checking in with the audience from time to time to make sure that everything is clear.

J Jazz. This idea comes from Garr Reynolds, who wrote the international bestseller Presentation Zen mentioned above. “Jazz, of course, is about dialog and a kind of conversation with other musicians and a connection with the audience. Jazz is inspiring to me; it’s lessons can be applied to other aspects of life, even the art of presentation.” Read more about what Garr thinks that we can learn from jazz here and here.

KKnowledge. Know your subject-matter. Know your audience. Cold.

LLectern. I think that the poor lectern has a bit of a bad rap these days as being a “barrier” between the speaker and the audience. There are times when it will be perfectly appropriate to use a lectern when speaking. Did the lectern create a barrier between Steve Jobs and his audience in this speech? I think not. Having said that, there is no question that stepping out from behind the lectern and using the entire stage will allow for greater interaction with the audience. Practice getting comfortable both with and without a lectern.

M – Malleability. Good speakers are able to adjust to changing circumstances. Sometimes the schedule is upset; sometimes there are technical glitches; sometimes you have to speak in a different location than originally planned. Learn to accept the unexpected as part of the job and be prepared to be flexible.

N Notes. Sometimes you might need them. That’s OK. Refer to them but do not read from them. Here are some tips for how to use them.

OOratory. The art of public speaking. It’s about ancient history and modern times. It’s about passion and persuasiveness and eloquence. It’s about moving minds and winning hearts. It’s about making a difference in the lives of those who listen to you.

PPreparation and practice. Two indispensable habits for anyone delivering a speech or presentation. You must prepare so that you know the material on the day and are able to deliver it in a meaningful way to your audience. Being unprepared will not only make you more nervous, it is disrespectful to your audience. Practice is essential to becoming a better public speaker. It’s like riding a bicycle: You can read all the books and watch all the videos about it, but until you actually do it (and until you actually take a few bumps along the way), you’ll will never be able to improve.

QQuotations and questions. Well chosen quotations can add richness to your speech and credibility to your message. As for questions, welcome them. It means that the audience is interested in what you are saying. Prepare for them in advance. If you were hearing the presentation for the first time, what would you want to know? When you get a question from the audience, be sure to listen actively.

R Rhetoric. The art of using language to communicate effectively. It involves three audience appeals: logos, pathos, and ethos, as well as the five canons of rhetoric: invention or discovery, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. For more on rhetoric, click here. For more on logos, pathos and ethos, see this post.

SStories. Tell them. Lots of them. How many times have I said this? Plenty, like here and here and here.

T – Toastmasters and TED. Two great resources for public speakers wherever you are on the learning curve. (And by the way, everyone is on the learning curve – it never ends.) Toastmasters is a worldwide organization that gives you an opportunity to give prepared and impromptu speeches in front of other and get immediate feedback. TED is an incredible organization with a website that has hundreds of fascinating talks that can be viewed in their entirety. I have analyzed several TED Talks by people such as Ken Robinson, Shukla Bose, Philip Howard and Elif Şafak.

UUniqueness. Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” And he was right. When I was a young lawyer, I received some great advice from my mentors. They told me to study the other lawyers that I saw in court, but to never try to imitate them. The same holds true for public speaking. By all means watch other speakers and learn from them, but always be yourself. Always be unique.

VVoice. Nobody wants to hear a speaker drone on in a monotone voice. Practice using inflection. Speak more loudly or softly at key points during the presentation. Speak fast enough to maintain a rhythm that keeps people’s attention, but slow enough to allow them to understand. And don’t forget to pause!

W Words. The backbone of any speech. Choose them carefully. Craft your speeches with the same care that an artist would create a masterpiece. Words count. Choose ones that enhance your message. Speak fluidly and avoid “filler words” like “um” and “ah”. More ideas on finding the right words can be found here and here.

XXerostomia. Abnormal dryness of the mouth resulting from decreased secretion of saliva. (Not bad for an “X” word, eh?) Remember to stay well hydrated for your presentations, especially the long ones. Also remember to eat properly beforehand. Here’s one food that might be of more use than you thought.

Y You. With preparation, practice and patience, anyone can become a more competent, more compelling public speaker. Even you. Especially you. Make the effort for yourself. You will receive much more in return, both professionally and personally.

Z – Zimmer. John Zimmer. (That’s me.) Please keep reading this blog for more informative and entertaining tips on public speaking. But don’t just read my blog. There are many great blogs out there that are packed with solid advice on how to improve your public speaking and presentation skills. You can find dozens of the best on AllTop and Speaking Pro Central.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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14 Responses to A Public Speaking Alphabet

  1. Lucky Carpio says:

    Hello Sir John Zimmer,
    While I was looking for best materials for public speaking, I found one which is great for me. This is your Alphabet of Public Speaking available in the internet. This is a great piece. More power to your craft.

    Lucky Carpio

  2. Rex Ntekim says:

    Hi john great one I love your public speaking alphabet. it takes a beginner through the public speaking in a flash . Please can I use this article of your as a gift to those I train in public speaking.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Rex. Many thanks for the comment. Glad you found the post useful.

      Please feel free to use anything you find on the blog in your trainings. The only thing I ask is proper attribution and a link back. By the way, have you taken a look at the app for Rhetoric – The Public Speaking Game? You might find that useful as well.


  3. My name is Adamu Bashiru the Initiator of Dream Again Prison and Youth Foundation.
    Our vision is transforming prisons in Nigeria from an institute of punishment to an academy of change.
    One of the things we teach inmates is public speaking, and i trust you will help my materials and guidance on how to do this more impactfully.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thank you for the comment and best of luck with your foundation’s work. Please feel free to use any of the materials that you find on my site.



  4. Paul Moura says:


    Greetings, from a former intern! Just wanted to mention that I have loved reading your blog. Your advice on public speaking is useful in so many areas. In fact, it has been really useful to me during my interviews for legal jobs here in Los Angeles. Even though I usually speak with just one or two people at a time, I need to engage the listeners and try to impress them as best as I can. Your words here have been very enlightening and inspirational!


    • John Zimmer says:

      Paul, great to hear from you and thanks for taking the time to drop me a comment. Much appreciated. In fact, you raise an excellent point about public speaking. One does not have to be in front of hundreds of people to be involved in public speaking. Even if it is an audience of one, it is still an audience. And you are absolutely correct about the need to engage.

      Best of luck with the interviews! I’m sure they will go very well.



  5. Debby Dutilh says:

    I especially agree with Jack, about the last letter “Z”, and hasn’t it been said that an audience frequently remembers the end of a performance more than the rest? Clever and creative!

  6. Anke Tröder says:

    Nice one. Thanks for including »W« for words! They sometimes tend to get left behind a little … yet there’s so much more to a talk than slides.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Anke. In fact, I believe that “W” was one of the last letters to be filled. (Some letters took longer than others!) Then I thought about “words” and it seemed like an obvious choice, even if I was a bit slow on the uptake.

      Of course, there are lots of other words that I could have used. For example, I “delivery” for “D” came quickly, but I rejected it because many of the other letters deal with aspects of delivery and I thought it important to say a word about data and numbers.

      And yes, there is so much more to a presentation than slides!

  7. Jack Vincent says:

    Great piece, John. Creative, with good rhythm. I particularly like the “Z”. Have you been saving that one all your life? 🙂

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Jack! Being at the end does have its advantages. I consider it partial payback for all those times in primary school when I was always the last one to present his assignment!


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