By Liz Wainger – President, Wainger Group, Washington Business Journal
Jul 2, 2013, 5:06pm EDT

This article originally appeared on

If ever there was a spokesperson malfunction it was Miss Utah’s response to a question on gender inequality and lower pay for women in the final moments of the recent Miss USA Pageant.

She needed some communications coaching in a big way after talking about the need to “create education better” and that men are the leaders of this and other incoherence. Anyone who speaks before a crowd, whether it’s an internal meeting or a keynote address to hundreds, could feel the pain of her fumble, which ultimately cost her the crown.

Fear of public speaking was the number one fear of Americans ahead of death, according to an August 2012 poll conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health. It is that fear that tends to do speakers in, causing them to freeze, misspeak or stumble. As Jean Miller, a professor of communications at George Washington University notes, “Butterflies are OK. You just want those butterflies to fly in formation.”

So here are a few tips on how you can improve your public speaking skills.

Prepare: Take the time to think about your topic and what you want to say. Ask yourself your purpose. Are you trying to inform, persuade or entertain others with your speech? Who is the audience and what matters to them? After your speech, what would you like them to come away with?

Write it down first: Invest the time to write down your thoughts in complete sentences. The act of doing so will aid in your thinking. You won’t necessarily bring full text notes with you to the speech, though some people do. Use it as a way to see your thoughts and gain clarity around your remarks.

Practice: Once you know what you are gong to say, practice the speech. You can’t overpractice. The repetitive act of giving your speech will help you commit all or most of it to memory. You don’t want to be in a position to have to read a speech off your notes. You want to be able to make eye contact with your audience. When you are confident in your content, you should be able to speak without the need for notes. Practice in front of a mirror and even better in front of a friend or colleague. When you do this, you will become aware of any ticks, rocking and facial expressions.

Bring notes of some kind: Hopefully, you will have committed your speech to memory but just in case bring a few notes. Again, don’t write out the speech verbatim—consider writing the first sentence of key points or making bullet points. The notes are just in case you freeze up so you can get back on track.

Warm up before you give your speech: Speaking coach Christine Clapp once told me that just like a singer who warms up before a performance, public speakers should also warm up. Stretch, take deep breaths about 15 minutes or so before. She also suggests tongue twisters — say “red leather, blue leather” or “sushi chef” 10 to 15 times. This warms up the muscles in the mouth and throat.

Acknowledge the nerves or a gaffe: If you do freeze up or make a mistake, instead of trying to pretend it isn’t happening, own up to it. Miss Utah clearly had a deer-in-headlights moment. She started speaking without focusing on what she wanted to say. She might have been better off saying, “That didn’t come out right, what I want to say is … .”

When you own a mistake, it shows your humanity and audiences will cut you some slack. What they can’t tolerate is arrogance, incoherence and a lack of authenticity.

Miss Utah has been savaged on the Internet for her gaffe, which is unfair. Sure she messed up, but it was probably a lack of preparation and practice that did her in more than a lack of intelligence. She had a chance to redeem herself on the “Today” show, and she did — she answered the same question beautifully. Practice does make perfect.