Book Review: How to be brilliant at public speaking by Sarah Lloyd Hughes

Why authenticity trumps all other elements in successful communication

How to be brilliant at public speaking
Author: Sarah Lloyd Hughes
ISBN-13: 9781292087962
Publisher: Pearson
Guideline Price: €16.99

Being able to speak well in public and building a rapport and following in the process is one of the greatest skills that a leader can possess. Public speaking, however, is also one of the most feared tasks imaginable for many. This book by business coach and experienced conference speaker Sarah Lloyd Hughes aims to quell fears for those who feel them.

Refreshingly, Lloyd Hughes admits that she was not a natural when she first began speaking. This led to formal coaching, learning about correct body language, how to deliver a buzz phrase and how to close. In her case, this training didn’t succeed and made her more nervous.

Moreover, while the speakers she saw taking this same training did indeed look professional – on the outside at least – they didn’t inspire her. Rather, she was impressed with those who were spontaneous, full of character and managed to connect with the audience. They had developed their own unique style.

Authenticity lies at the heart of good public speaking is one of the key messages of this book. Authenticity means speaking from the heart, communicating with passion and humanity rather than through logic and reason.


You can't fake authenticity. It involves a match between your message and your behaviour. Lloyd Hughes cites Gordon Brown, who, as British prime minister, was often shown to have incongruent, inauthentic body language. Yet, when he campaigned successfully for a "No" vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, it was obvious he believed the message.

TED speaker Brene Brown is quoted saying: "Vulnerability is the first thing people wish to see in others – and the last thing we wish to show of ourselves." While we are taught that showing our emotions is a sign of weakness, in public speaking it's a sign of strength, even in the business world.

A sense of purpose is important. Key questions to ask are: how will I benefit from public speaking? What possibilities does it open for me? What excites me about speaking? What will I miss out on if I avoid speaking?

Fear is a natural element of public speaking and needs to be channelled. The author suggests that speakers confront the source of their fear and reframe their self-talk. For example, “I’m too young” can be reframed as “I’m playful, let’s use that”. “I don’t know enough” can be switched to “I don’t need to know everything”.

Fear is sensed more by the speaker than the audience. Sure, audience members want a confident, knowledgeable speaker, but they want it for their own sake so that they can benefit. They see only a fraction of the nerves the speaker is feeling and they certainly don’t know what’s coming next. If you concentrate your attention on the audience, rather than on yourself, you should find your fear should melt away, she suggests.

Perfectionism is another psychological trap speakers fall into. This includes taking failure to heart, ruminating over failures from the distant past and treating ambiguous or neutral feedback as a negative and catastrophising or over-emphasising the possible negative outcomes of public speaking.

Lloyd Hughes has a lot of specific advice about good body language and eliminating bad habits. Maintaining strong eye contact is vital – rather than focusing on your PowerPoint slides or notes. Failure to maintain eye contact disconnects you from the audience.

Bad habits, meanwhile, include pen- clicking, scratching, playing with your clothes and over-repetitive gestures. You need to become aware of these by asking trusted colleagues and friends or watching yourself on video.

Good public speakers don’t hide, so stage positioning is key. Don’t hide behind a lectern or at the side of the stage or focus excessively on the PowerPoint presentation behind you. These are all strategies for focusing attention away from you.

Timid volume, dull expression and fillers (“ums” and “erms”) should all be eliminated from your presentations. Shrinking from full height is another pitfall to avoid. There is a huge difference between a speaker who stands proudly at full height and one whose posture is pinched and contracted. This is a useful and highly accessible guide to public speaking that will be of benefit to a wide range of people.