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Public speaking is the number one phobia in America. Some people insist that they “just can’t do it.” Others are afraid or nervous, or may not know how to prepare.

Because of these excuses, the same activists end up speaking at all events, and doing all the media. They are typically white males. This is a problem.

Public speaking is one of the most important tools for activists, and everyone needs to improve their communication skills. Whether we are speaking to a large crowd at a demo, doing a TV interview, speaking to another group about joining our campaign, or talking to some students while tabling, communication skills are crucial.

Public speaking is something you learn through practice and through listening to good speakers. That should be the primary source of your education. But here are some written tips to get going.

    Before you go any further, who is your audience? Are you talking to another progressive group? Are you speaking on the West Mall to a bunch of random students? You need to think about who your audience is. Do you share any beliefs or experiences with them?

    How do you want to affect your audience with this speech? What do you want them to feel/think/do? Are you introducing a panel of well-known academics? Or are you trying to motivate people to follow you in occupying the Tower?

    Think of your audience and how “radical” your message should be, and then turn it up a notch. Try not to alienate people, but don’t let this hinder you from saying what needs to be said.

    How you speak is as important as what you say. Shouting and waiving fists could be good to motivate a sympathetic crowd. It could also alienate passersby that are new to the situation.

“Writing” a Speech

    Some speakers insist on writing on speeches. Others speak from an outline. Others don’t use either. It’s up to you. You may want to write out a speech, to get your thoughts straight. Don’t worry about spelling or word choice, just write it all down. Then, go back and pick five or so main points.

    Pick statistics and anecdotes that will prove these points. Try to “show” the audience rather than “tell” them. In other words, a great story, a powerful statistic or a thoughtful quote can mean more than 5 minutes of your rambling.

    Make this into an outline and practice speaking from it. Reading a speech is problematic: it looks fake, it’s easy to screw up, and it separates you from the energy of the moment. Sometimes it’s OK to go off on a tangent, or alter your speech.

    Establish your credibility by briefly giving your qualifications/experience or have someone introduce you. Saying, “I’m Jane with Radical Action Network. I was an organizer of the protests of Henry Kissinger” is pretty good.

    Open with an attention-getting fact, rhetorical question, story, or quote. Don’t feel the obligation to make a joke if it isn’t appropriate.

    You may challenge your audience, but don’t sound too hostile.

    Keep it short and simple. Tell the audience what the problem is, what your solution is, and what actions they can take to bring about your solution.

    Don’t give new info. at the end of the speech.

    Don’t trail off at the end. End with an appeal to action.

    When you’re writing the final version, use large font and type size. Only write 2/3 the way down the page, so it isn’t that obvious if you look at your notes.


    If you will speak to a crowd, practice the speech standing up.

    Practice in front of a friend, and ask what you did well, and what you could improve on.

    Pace yourself. Use pauses and changes in volume.

    Remember eye contact, gestures and movement.

    Move briskly and purposefully, but don’t be afraid to stand still. Stand straight, and keep your feet shoulder width apart, shoulders back (no this isn’t boot camp). Your voice projects better this way, and you look confident, and feel confident. Don’t point, put your hands in your pockets, or make gestures below chest level. Don’t touch your face.

    Look at your audience, smile and make eye contact. Focus on one friendly face for a complete sentence, then move to someone else. Don’t look at the floor or ceiling or stare at one person.

    Don’t look at your watch. Take it off.


    Try not to speak from the lectern. Learn to be confident with your posture.

Visual Aids

    Don’t use them unless it adds something to your speech that you can’t get from your voice alone. Otherwise, you risk looking like a boring professor.

    If you use a visual aid, explain to people what they are seeing. Talk to the audience, not the visual aid.

    Aids should be simple and colorful (but red and green are hard to see from a distance). Don’t reveal visual aids until you are ready to show them, then remove them.

    Too many visual aids are distracting.

Preparing for Question and Answer Sessions

    Q/A sessions can make you or break you. They can increase your credibility and demonstrate your knowledge, or the opposition can use it to make you look flustered and confused.

    In preparation, play the devil’s advocate with other activists. Write down the hardest questions you can think of, and have others ask them in an aggressive way. Practice your answers out loud.

    Remember, tough questions aren’t necessarily hostile. Someone may be generally interested, but not trying to burn you. So, don’t be defensive in answering. If someone is hostile, stay cool. You must look calm and reasonable even if you don’t feel that way. Listen carefully, be tactful and avoid using emotionally charged words like “obviously” when you answer.

    Use the “feel, felt, find” method to disagree with someone. “I understand how you feel. Others have felt that way. But I find in my experience that…”

    Answer to the entire audience, not just the questioner.

    If someone tries to monopolize the session, ask “what’s your question” or “I’d be happy to hear comments afterwards, but this time is reserved for questions.”

    You can “buy time” or collect your thoughts by repeating the question.

    If you speak sincerely and with conviction, you will reach your audience. They may not agree with you that day, but you will plant an idea in their minds.