Working on your public speaking skills is something every small business owner knows they should do, but rarely ever does. This is probably because, for most small business owners, public speaking occasions are infrequent. It’s more likely that SBOs will be speaking in front of small groups or to individuals while in business-casual or social settings.

Good public speaking skills can help small business owners improve their charisma during meetings and conversations by:

  • Adapting body language to convey confidence when instructing employees.
  • Using their hands to help visually describe ideas and concepts.
  • Mirroring another person’s body language and gestures to help make a personal connection.
  • Speaking in a more rhythmic pattern to keep listeners interested.

Unfortunately, there just isn’t the same amount of information and resources for becoming a master of business-casual conversation as there is for becoming the next Tony Robbins or Joel Osteen. But who says you can’t work on both sets of skills at the same time?

Here are five of the best public speaking tips to help you become a master of business-casual conversation.

Say It With Your Stance

Your body language says a lot about you – good or bad. Here a few tips to take control of the message when speaking in front of a group or to an individual.

Stand with your feet wide, roughly shoulder width apart, as this will give you an appearance of confidence.

Keep your hands by your side. This may feel awkward, but this position will make you look comfortable in any situation. Avoid fidgeting with anything in your hands such as a drink or pen and definitely do not put your hands in your pockets. Even if you’re holding a drink, keep the drink down at your side. Holding it in front of you can give the impression that you’re guarding yourself.

Oftentimes, you hear people say not to talk with your hands. This is bad advice because your hands can be used to visually describe what you’re talking about. You’ll want to keep your hands in the “strike zone,” the area between your shoulders and the top of your hips. Moving them outside of this zone can make you look a little wild and in a crowded area, such as a party, could even result in a clumsy mishap.

Use your hands to visually describe what you’re talking about. If you’re referencing a number under six, hold your fingers up to represent the digit. You can also use your hands to describe the size, big or small, of whatever you’re talking about – even if the subject is metaphorically big or small.

If you’re speaking behind a podium, make sure that your hands are always visible. Use your hands to visually represent your subject, or keep them rested in sight on the podium.

You can also develop a stronger connection in one-on-one situations by mirroring the body language of the person you’re speaking with. For example, if the person is standing at a slight angle to you with his hands on his hips, you could stand at a slight angle to him, with one hand on your hip. By reflecting the person’s body language, you help to mirror their mood and can begin to develop a connection with them.

Eye Contact: Is there such a thing as too much? Kind of…

Eye contact is one of the most important ways to indicate that you feel confident and comfortable speaking to someone. One of the biggest mistakes people make when speaking to a large audience is not maintaining eye contact. Of course, it’s impossible to maintain eye contact with an entire crowd at once, but making eye contact with individual members of the audience can help build rapport. If possible, try to give every member of the audience 3 to 5 seconds of eye contact.

You should make eye contact with the members of your audience in a Z pattern. Start by making eye contact with someone at the back, left side of the room. After 3 to 5 seconds, move your eyes to someone at the back, right side of the room. Three to 5 seconds later, move your eyes to the front, left side of the room. Finish the Z pattern by moving your eyes to someone at the front, right side of the room. Repeat this pattern, focusing your eyes on a different individual each time.  In large groups, this will make everyone feel that they are being spoken to even if you are not able to make eye contact with them. Even if you don’t make eye contact with everyone, allowing your gaze to move over sections of people will help them feel included and acknowledged.

In personal conversations, you want to hold eye contact for about five seconds before casually breaking it. When you do break eye contact, you can look slightly to the side or up, but you should never look down as this can send mixed messages.

It’s just as important to maintain eye contact when listening as this will make the person speaking feel that they have your attention. Imagine a triangle that connects the eyes and the mouth of the person you’re speaking to. Move your eyes to one point of the triangle roughly every five seconds while listening to another person speak.

When speaking publicly, or walking through a social setting, it’s never a bad idea to give a quick smile once you have made eye contact. If you’re making eye contact in a Z pattern while speaking to a larger group, you can give a quick smile each time your eyes pause on an audience member.

Finding the Right Rhythm

Most people are told to slow down when speaking. It is true that people have a tendency to speak quickly when anxious, but the key to great speaking involves a varied tempo. You should slow down the pace of your speech when you’re trying to emphasize a point or to summarize. If you want to show urgency, excitement, or emotion then you should speed up the pace.

Holding eye contact for 3 to 5 seconds will also help you pause more often.  It will also draw you back to the moment and help you slow down your speech rate. If you really want to add emphasis to one of your points, raise one of your hands, to the audience in a way that says “just one moment, please” (more on this later).

It may sound obvious, but don’t forget to breathe when you talk.

People sometimes forget to inhale while they speak, remembering only to exhale. Then, they run out of breath, inhale, and then return to exhaling while they speak. This not only weakens the voice but it can create anxiety and cause the voice to sound nervous.

To prevent this, inhale through your nostrils, allowing your stomach to expand. Try to create a relaxed rhythm for breathing by spending 2-3 seconds on each the inhale, pause, and exhale. This will help you maintain your tempo, and create natural pauses as you speak.

When you’re speaking in a more casual situation, you’ll want to match the pace of the person you’re speaking with at first. Speaking much faster, or slower, than the other person in the conversation can leave them feeling frantic or bored. By matching the speech rhythm and speed of the person you’re talking to, you also match their energy level.

Talk to Your Audience One-on-One

Matching another person’s speaking pace as well as maintaining good eye contact and confident body language are great ways to develop rapport. But, how can you build a relationship with a large audience?

You can start to develop rapport with your audience at the beginning of your speech by sharing a personal story that shows a slightly vulnerable side of yourself and focuses on emotion.  Choose a story that most of your audience can relate to, such as running late to work or waking up on a Friday and thinking it’s Saturday.

Adding humor, especially if it’s slightly self-deprecating, can also help your audience feel more comfortable with you.

You’ll also want to select an outfit that’s slightly more formal than whatever your audience is wearing. For example, if your audience is wearing dress pants and button-down shirts you may want to go with dress pants, a button-down shirt and a tie or blazer. Wearing a full suit in this situation would distance you from your audience. Dressing at your audience’s level, or less formally, may not emphasize your importance and their need to pay attention to you.

One last thing you can do to connect with your audience is to raise your hands so that the audience can see your palms. Raising your palms is something that people will naturally see as a sign of trust as it indicates that you have nothing hidden in your hands.

You can use these tips to help build comfort and a connection in casual settings. It’s always helpful to be dressed properly for a situation. For example, on a construction site you probably won’t to get very many people to trust you if you show up wearing a business suit.  But if you’re meeting a client for lunch at an upscale restaurant, showing up in a T-shirt and jeans may be off-putting.

If you’re looking to develop a rapport with an individual or small group, telling a funny story about yourself that most people can relate to will help build a connection. Be sure the story is something that is relevant to the topic you’re speaking about.

“Just relax.”

Most people are aware of the anxiety that comes from public speaking, but having a one-on-one meeting or small group discussion can also be somewhat nerve-racking.

You can instantly boost your confidence by assuming a power position.

Two of the best power positions to get into are the “hands on the hips” and “the leaning sit.” With the hands on the hips position, your body will automatically begin to assume an authoritative and assertive attitude. The leaning back in your seat opens up your shoulders and your chest, making you appear more confident and comfortable. Try either of these before a meeting or speaking event, but be sure not to hold the position while talking with others, as you may come off as intimidating or arrogant. Give it a try when you arrive at a meeting early and no one else is there yet or when you’re anxiously staring at your phone waiting for a conference call to start.

You can also practice some deep, diaphragmatic breathing. To do this, inhale through your nostrils and fill your belly with air. You may feel a stretching inside your chest; that’s okay. By breathing like this, you are activating your diaphragm which then stimulates your vagus nerve. This will send calming signals to your brain to help you relax. Give yourself a few minutes to work on your breathing before a presentation to help calm any jitters.

These tips will help you lead an audience and captivate listeners. The more you practice, the more automatic these habits will become and you’ll appear more relaxed and confident. A good way to practice these five tips is to try them while reading a book out loud. Try setting aside some time to do this as prep before an important meeting.

As you read, pretend you’re speaking to an audience. Make eye contact with “them” and remember to breathe as you speak. If you’re really serious, you may even want to record yourself with a smartphone to pick up any bad habits you’ve developed like hands in your pockets or fidgeting with your shirt.