It would be difficult to rank which is the most important principle of all, but if there's one it's this: Know Your Audience.
Success in public speaking, on a single occasion or over the long term, depends on matching the speech to the crowd. In theory, you could find a group of twelve-year olds who were fascinated by the economics of tin production in Africa. But the odds are against you.
Both the content and the style should mesh well with the intended group of listeners. Whether you use humor, and what type, will depend on the group. Whether or not you are easy going or 'all business' depends on who is in front of you and when. The time and circumstances are part of the event, just as are the people. That determines the audience.
Be prepared. The old Boy Scout motto captures a universal truth and so is still relevant today. You want to appear - no, really be - competent. You want to project assurance and confidence, and the air that you know what you are talking about. That requires that you know your material cold.
A certain amount of nervousness affects almost everyone, especially when they're first starting out in public speaking. But rehearsing and rehearsing until you know your speech backward and forward is essential. If you go to a play and the actor stumbles over the dialogue, it jars the audience.
Dress and Act the Part. This is related to understanding your material. In this case you are supplementing what's conveyed to the audience by how you present yourself. Remember, there's not just a speech being given. There's a person giving it.
Dressing according to the occasion is important for projecting the right image to the audience. That may mean dressing more formally than the audience or it could involve dressing similar to them. The topic and the occasion will guide you. Your behavior should follow the same principle. Act like an authority - knowledgeable, but not pompous - and you'll be perceived as one.
Focus On the Audience, Not the Speech. When you know your audience and your material, you can play to them the right way. Every speech is a performance. Except in those instances where the speech is simply recorded for later playback, you get feedback during the talk. Use it.
When you sense they're getting restless, vary the pace. Pick it up when you need to, but don't rush. If you know you have them hooked, you can draw out the suspense a little.
Practice, Practice, Practice. Like anything, your public speaking will improve as you gain experience. Don't be too worried if your first few speeches don't set the world on fire. Even the greatest actors had to learn their craft.
With experience comes confidence (and more speaking engagements). You'll be more effective and your audience will be on the edge of the seat waiting to hear what you have to say next.
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