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posted: 10/14/2012 7:29 AM

Career Coach: Tips for improving your public speaking

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By Ken White, Special to The Washington Post
Recently, when I told a high-level executive that I teach public speaking to young executives, he replie

It's amazing how many higher-level people have the attitude that they don't need to improve. But self-perceptions don't always reflect reality. Executives are often not nearly as good as they think.

Many executives spend their days running from one engagement to the next -- from meeting to presentation to event -- and inadvertently think because they speak to audiences often, then they must been good at it. They are confusing frequency with quality.

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To truly understand the way you look, sound and communicate, you need to record yourself. Broadcast journalists and news anchors have been using this technique for decades. Football coaches know it works, too. Go to a practice or a game and you'll find cameras recording the athletes' moves.

For executives, it can be as simple as propping up your iPad or smart phone and hitting "record" while you give a presentation or talk. Then play it back to critique your effort. You might be surprised at what you see.

There are several things you should examine during your critique. They can be divided into two broad categories: the verbal and nonverbal elements of your delivery.

Vary your tone: Remember Ben Stein's economics teacher role in the 1980s classic "Ferris Bueller's Day Off?" His monotone delivery is exactly what you want to avoid. Adding variation in the tone, rate and pace of your delivery engages your audience and can help emphasize your points.

Speech patterns: Some people speak in patterns and you should avoid that, of course. Patterns can include a sing-songy delivery. Or perhaps you end every sentence with a drop in volume, or inadvertently add a question mark to the end of a statement. These patterns sabotage your credibility as a speaker of authority.

Inflection: This is the most important in terms of verbal delivery. The words you choose to emphasize -- or not -- are critical to effective speaking and communicating. Any time you say something, there should be a point. The words that tie into that point are the key words that need to be accentuated. Stress those words to help your audience understand your point. Alter your pitch, slow down your pace or increase your volume when you get to those words. "Punch" the important words by employing inflection. When used appropriately, inflection tells that audience what's important. Inflection also ties into the visual side of communication.

Nonverbal: Use your body to signal important points to your audience. Use hand gestures, a fist on the podium, a lean into the audience, a change in posture, or a smile to highlight specific words and points. When critiquing yourself on video, use the mute button. You'll quickly see if you use nonverbal communication to your advantage.

It's important that executives and leaders avoid communication ruts. Regardless of how many times you address people on a specific subject, the key is to remember every engagement may be the first time (and only time) your audience is hearing your message. Take a page from the candidates on the campaign trail. The effective communicators give their stump speeches like they're saying their points for the first time every time. With some self-evaluation and preparation, you can be just as effective when communicating with your audiences.

• Ken White is associate dean of MBA and MS programs at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He holds a doctorate in communication from the University of Missouri. He teaches executive communication, personal branding and public relations. To see these tips in action, see White's video on YouTube at youtu.be/aRbKoeSsdQw.

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