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David Harkins

Dr. David L. Harkins is a social scientist researching the human experience in systems and culture. He is an experienced executive coach and consultant, passionate educator, and keynote speaker. Through his teachings, inspiration, and guidance, he helps individuals and organizations identify and connect with their potential to make a meaningful difference in their communities.

6 things that make me a better speaker

I was first asked to speak publicly sometime in the early 90s for a broadcasting trade association meeting. I had a small media-buying business, and my model was a little different than the local agencies. The association believed my thoughts on media buying would be useful to those who were trying to sell media. I was part of a panel, but I cannot recall what I talked about or how helpful my comments might have been to those in attendance. I do remember I was quite anxious about participation but managed to get through it because I understand how important public speaking opportunities were to help build credibility for my business and my entrepreneurial endeavors.

Public speaking does not come naturally to me.

It makes me uncomfortable in all sorts of ways, none the least of which is feeling unprepared regardless of how much preparation time I put into the talk. There are other challenges, too. I want everyone to find something of value in my talk, I want it to be entertaining as well as informative, so those listening don’t get bored. I want those in the audience to have at least one “ah-ha” moment or walk away with one piece of information that is useful. And I don’t want to hang around afterward to talk to people—the introvert in me needs to recharge—but I do. Public speaking, even for the most experienced, can be exhausting.

I am sure I fail at more than one of the things I noted above every time I speak publicly. That doesn’t stop me from continuing to do so. Practice breeds improvement, not perfection. Improvement should be the goal.

Six things I have learned that make me a better speaker.

Perhaps these learnings from my experiences speaking might be helpful to you:

You will not be perfect. You shouldn’t strive for that in your talk. You will forget critical points you wanted to make, and you may lose a thought or two. Usually, no one will know unless you tell them. Everyone listening expects you to be human, so imperfection is expected and allowed.

Know your audience. By knowing your audience, you can seed your talk with information and relevant personal stories that will be most interesting to that audience. That’s key to keeping their attention and engagement.

Be wary of humor. Humor can be useful, but it is also subjective. You don’t want to say something that will cause some of your audience to shut down or diminish your credibility.

Don’t allow PowerPoint to be a crutch. It’s okay to use slides, but use them to emphasize of your key points and not as a checklist of bullet points to read to your audience. If you’re planning to read bullet points, do your audience a favor and hand out your presentation and forget about speaking. However, if you emphasize your key points in your presentation, they will serve as reminders of the flow and pacing of your talk but not bore your audience.

Practice a little, but not too much. Practice is important, but unless you’re giving a TED talk, you want to seem authentic, not a cog in the speaking machine. If you know your topic, you will need less practice and will likely be less anxious because you’ll be talking about something you know. Of course, one way to feel comfortable in your knowledge is to practice. You’ll have to determine how much practice is enough.

For keynote speeches or any talk that goes over about 20 minutes, I practice by writing my speech in its entirety and then reading it aloud several times to pace delivery, plan vocal inflections and pauses for crucial points. Next, I put the top points from the talk on 3 x 5 index cards and rehearse the talk a couple of times as if I were making it in person to one individual. This helps with timing. I usually carry those index cards with me to help jog my memory if an audience question causes me to lose my pacing. Oh, and the most important thing to do with those cards is to number them in case they are dropped. I learned this the hard way.

Speak slowly. Most of us can deliver a 20-minute talk in 10 minutes if we get nervous. Take your time. When it seems like your talk is crawling by, you will have pretty close to the proper pacing for your talk.

Now I am often called upon to speak.

Since my first talk, I have given many. I regularly speak to user groups, at conferences, and at trade shows. I speak to groups large and small. I speak on many topics ranging from organizational culture and people development to branding and direct marketing, licensing, and trademark protection, and more recently on the challenges of nonprofits. I even speak on leadership and motivational topics.

I am asked to speak because my audiences seem to enjoy my talks. I seek speaking opportunities because it allows me to continue to expand my knowledge of a topic, and hopefully to build a little credibility in the topics of which I speak. There’s a Latin principle that applies here: Docendo discimus, which means “by teaching, we learn.”

And I am always trying to learn. How about you?


Some of my favorite resources for speaking and presentations include:

The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience (Business Skills and Development)

slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations

Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences

Note: The above are affiliate links.

And if you’re looking for a speaker for your next event, I am happy to discuss the opportunity with you. Click this link to learn more about my speaking engagements.


Featured image: David Harkins speaking at the Amazon Inventions Tour. Click here to see the talk.

5 thoughts on “6 things that make me a better speaker”

  1. Great post, David!

    A reflection on perfection – it’s is impossible to achieve, but it’s so hard not to strive for it! You are right…folks won’t know if you miss a point.

    A reflection on PowerPoint – there’s no better way to lose and insult your audience than reading your PowerPoint presentation to them.

    Thank you for your tips and authenticity!

  2. Thanks, Blanka.

    Regarding PowerPoint, it’s a visual tool. And yet so many of us use it as a text tool. If we can get something colorful and visual there to help drive home the point we’re trying to make, it will make it stick with the audience much easier. Wouldn’t you agree?

  3. David,
    Like you, I am not a fan of public speaking but it seems others always see that “potential” in me. I enjoyed your takeaways that you provided for making public speaking a lot easier.

    P.s. I actually have them on a notepad as things to remember.

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