A Public Speaking Alphabet

Public speaking alphabet

Audience alphabet

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

Books alphabet

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.


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.


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.

Emotion alphabet

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.


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!


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.


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.

Interaction alphabet

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.


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.


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

Lectern alphabet

I think that the 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.


Good speakers are able to adjust to changing circumstances. Sometimes the schedule is upset; there might be technical glitches; 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.


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.

Oratory alphabet

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

Preparation 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.

Quotations 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.


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.

Stories alphabet

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

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.

Uniqueness alphabet

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.


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!


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.


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.

You alphabet

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.


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 several of the best on Speaking Pro Central.

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    1. 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!

    1. 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!

  1. 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!

  2. John:
    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!

    1. 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.

  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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.


  5. 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

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International