Four Behavioral Practices to Be a Better Public Speaker

By Scott Herbst, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer

One thing I got into when I was in graduate school was stand-up comedy.  It was always something that I had dreamed of doing.  When I was a kid I used to imagine myself onstage telling jokes.  If I was mowing the lawn, I would be thinking about funny things I could say about grass.  Power assist?!  What’s that about?  It never actually occurred to me that I could actually go do comedy, however, until graduate school, when two things happened.  First, I read an article about a local comedy open-mic in the alt weekly.  Oh, I thought, that’s where comics get started!  I had honestly had no idea.  The second thing that happened was that, during a study group for a neuropsych class, one of the women said to me, “You’re hilarious!  You should do standup.”  And then a lightbulb went off.  I could do standup!  I actually have everything doing comedy takes! 

Of course, I didn’t do it right away.  I put it in the “someday, maybe, but not now,” category of lifelong dreams.  But then a couple of months after that, someone from ABAI asked me if I would coordinate the Student Bash, which at the time was an evening event, produced by students, showcasing funny sketches, singing, and whatever else people might want to do.  I said, “sure!”  In the back of my mind I was thinking, “this will be my big break!”  Not only would I coordinate and produce, but I would also host.  It would be my comedic debut. 

And it was.  And it went pretty well.  The show was good.  Aside from the skits roasting our field, we had a really good singer perform and someone else did a belly-dance.  I did a few jokes about how hard it is to date behavior analysts and everyone laughed politely.  I’m pretty good at this! I thought.  When I got back home, I looked up when the next open mic would be, emailed all of my friends (that’s how we used to invite people to things before Facebook) to tell them when I would be going up, and set to writing some jokes.  And I killed.  I’m really good at this, I thought. 

I was NOT really good at this.  In fact, I was pretty awful.  The next time I went up, I didn’t tell anyone.  I reworked my jokes, made them a little tighter, practiced some more, and for the very first time went up in front of a room full of complete strangers.  I can count on one hand the number of laughs I got that night and still have fingers left to hold a bowling ball.  I was a little deflated, but thankfully the other comics there were supportive.  They told me that I had pretty good ideas, but needed to work on a few things, like tightening up my material but, and more importantly, taking out some behaviors I was doing and adding some things that I wasn’t.  And so I got to work, and I used behavioral principles to, I’m proud to say, develop into a decent comic.  There’s a lot I could share about that, but given that most of the people reading this probably didn’t dream of telling jokes while pushing a lawnmower, I’m going to focus on what I did that applies to public speaking more generally. 

Habit Reversal.  This was, far and away, the single most important thing I used.  About a year before I started standup, I was in a public speaking group, had delivered a short section of a presentation, and was now getting feedback.  This tall, powerful, beautiful, Israeli woman with a throaty, voice stood up, looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t know what it is about you, but when you’re speaking, I have the experience of choking.”  That stung!  I was expecting her to say, “You’re so powerful and sexy.  I want to run away with you and have your babies.”  It was a bit of a letdown.  Not only was it a letdown, but it was very unhelpful feedback.  When she said, “I don’t know what it is…” it didn’t leave me with anything that I could correct.  To me it felt like she was saying, “I’m choking on your soul.” 

And then I started doing comedy and one practice I took on was recording myself.  And that’s when I discovered that, it wasn’t my soul she was choking on, it was my behavior.  Animals (and I assume people), have these things called mirror neurons.  When we observe people doing things, the areas of their brains that are active while they’re doing them also become active in ours.  It’s why, I speculate, pornography works.  What I discovered when I watched myself doing comedy is that, when I got to a bit of a bit where I wasn’t completely comfortable or a little worried about how the crowd might react, after I delivered the line, I would swallow.  You could see my throat tense up for just a second before I moved on to the next line.  And, watching myself on video, when I hit those points, I had the experience of choking just a little.  And it was not comfortable!!  In fact, it had the opposite effect of what I wanted. 

However, being a behavior analyst, I thought, I can fix this!  And it wasn’t hard.  One powerful tool we have for changing habits (and I was doing this enough to call it that) is habit reversal (Woods, Miltenberger, & Lumley, 1996).  The two key pieces that I used were: a) awareness training and b) implementing an incompatible response.  The awareness training piece involved me getting in front of a mirror and telling my jokes.  What I noticed was that this behavior wasn’t isolated to being in front of people, but reliably happened in front of a reflection of me as well.  When I got to a piece of a joke that was a little edgy or felt a little personal, I would swallow.  What I noticed, however, was that it wasn’t just that I would swallow, but there would be all these bodily sensations that went along with it.  After observing myself in-vivo a few times, I had a pretty good idea about which bodily sensations predicted a swallow.  I became aware of the conditions under which I was likely to do something that would make the audience uncomfortable. 

That’s when I trained myself in an incompatible response.  I kept telling my jokes, but whenever I started to feel those feelings, I would say what I had to say then take a very deep breath.  It is impossible to swallow while taking a very deep breath.  It wasn’t long before (about two, 10 min practices), instead of swallowing, I was taking a very deep breath after those scary moments.  Following that, all I had to do was gradually decrease the magnitude of the response until, from the audience’s perspective, all they saw was a short pause while I took a short breath through my nose.  Again, this really didn’t take that long.  I spent about 15 minutes every day for five days, and the results were, if you didn’t see the work that went in, miraculous.  After doing the work, I did my first featured set (15-20 minutes – about 10 minutes longer than I was used to doing it).  Many of my comic friends who had seen me from week to week were there and they were blown away by how much I had improved since my last open mic set the week before. 

How you can use this: Video (am I dating myself here?) record yourself giving a presentation.  When you watch it, pay attention to when you get uncomfortable watching yourself.  If you’re like me, there will be parts where you wince.  Back up to those parts and see what you were doing with your face and your body at those moments.  Then, simulate those conditions as best as you can in front of the mirror.  When you choose an incompatible response, start with something exaggerated.  If you have a tendency to look down, tip your head up while looking down your nose to make eye contact with the person in the mirror.  If you tend to face your slides and look away, get right up in your own face.  If you tend to fold your arms and roll inward, hold your arms outstretched.  Once you’re comfortable enough doing those things, then you can reduce magnitude.  Again, it shouldn’t take long, and the results will be fantastic. 

Habituation.  I’m not sure this actually counts as habituation, but let’s go with it.  You can argue in the comments section below.  (And please do!)  One of the hardest things I had to deal with as a comic was how to stay true to my material while the audience wasn’t laughing.  Often, the first time I would try a joke, I would work out what I wanted to say beforehand, think it was hilarious, imagine the crowd falling out of their seats laughing, and me having to wait for them to calm down so I could continue.  Then what would usually happen is that I would tell the joke and I might get some mild chuckles or, worse, nothing.  Then I would get deflated.  I might lose energy, or I might try to “plow” through it and get overly animated.  Either way, what was really going on is that I would get nervous, and that would communicate to the audience, and they would get uncomfortable as well.  Damn mirror-neurons! 

To combat this, what I took on was failing spectacularly.  I dedicated particular nights specifically to bombing.  I’d get up and tell all my jokes as badly as I could.  I would leave out critical material.  I would speak flatly and purposely throw off my timing.  Other nights, I specifically instructed the audience to hate me and boo me.  And it was painful.  I got uncomfortable, and I would sweat, but any time I did this I would push myself through and do my complete set.  What I found is that it wasn’t long before I got more comfortable not making people laugh who were expecting me to make them laugh.  Then, in situations where I was actually interested in performing, if a particular joke didn’t land it wasn’t as aversive to me.  I could stay true to my material, “be myself,” and get them with the next one. 

How you can use this.  Look for situations when you are publicly speaking that “trigger you.” In other words, look for those situations where you get more focused on what the audience is doing than on delivering your message.  It might be if people look upset or angry.  Maybe it’s when people look bored.  It could be if someone whispers something to another person.  Find those situations, then arrange opportunities to practice talking in front of situations like that.  If you struggle when people look bored, practice speaking to a loved one and really delivering your content while they are texting or looking at the ceiling.  If anger rattles you, have them look angry.  If it’s something that you need more of a group for (e.g., the example of people whispering), then join a public speaking group like Toastmasters (it isn’t expensive) and when you give a speech, tell them you want them to act a particular way.  They’ll be happy to play along.  However you do it, arrange conditions that let you practice being in front of whatever you don’t want to be in front of.  You’ll get used to it, and it won’t occur as that bad when you’re in a real situation. 

Analog Environments.  I don’t really know why this works, but I swear it does.  You can put it in the “things left for us to explain,” column.  One thing that really differentiates great public speakers – the ones that can hold a room of thousands – is how they use eye contact.  What really works when public speaking is to, instead of talking to everyone, is to talk to one person at a time.  Whether I am onstage, delivering a training, or running a meeting, I always make sure that I make eye contact with one person, hold it, and share one thought with them before moving on.  If I was speaking that last sentence to a group, I would lock eyes with one person and say, “I always make sure that I make eye contact with one person,” before moving onto someone else and then doing the same thing with them.  I say that’s a complete thought because it’s enough that they can actually visualize something going on, and I was eye-connected with them while I was creating the visualization. 

Again, I don’t know why it works, but it does.  The way to connect with an audience is to connect with one person in the audience at a time.  And how that is done is with the eyes. Beyond that, it’s important to connect with people in different areas of the audience – people at the front and back, left, right, and center.  And, here’s a really neat trick!  If you’re speaking to a large room and are feeling particularly intimidated, you don’t need to make eye contact with people.  You can use objects, or look at their hats.  Just make sure you share a complete thought with the object or hat.  (And note, don’t do this in a smaller meeting, it will occur as weird.) 

How you can practice this.  To get in the habit of holding a room with eye contact, what I like to do is, when I am practicing a talk, is put objects throughout the room.  Personally, I like to make sure that they’re all the same.  A six-pack of soda or beer works great.  Spread them around so that you have a couple on different sides of the room that are about at the level you would be looking if you were looking several rows back, a couple that are a little lower, and a couple that would be at about the level of the front row.  Then, practice delivering your content while holding your gaze on one object before moving to another.  I never went beyond doing that, but to make the exercise more impactful, you could also print out faces to give you more of an effect of actually talking to someone.  Finally, if you have someone who loves you very much and is willing to help train you, get someone to take data and then provide prompts based on what the data show.  If you have a tendency to stay right, they can give prompts to move left, and then fade prompts as you begin to look that way independently.  By doing this, when you’re in a real situation, you’ll find it easier to hold your gaze in one place (preferably, someone’s eyes) while delivering content. 

Overcorrection.  I’m not, by nature, a very dynamic speaker.  In fact, when threatened by a large audience, I tend to get a little subdued.  My voice gets monotone and my speech slows.  In fact, I don’t think it’s limited to large groups.  People in my life tell me that it’s hard to tell when I’m excited or really happy about something.  If this fits for you (or there’s any particular pattern you fall into when you’re in front of people) one thing that can help is overcorrection. 

In “The White Book” (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007) cover overcorrection in the chapter on punishment, so many behavior analysts probably relate to it as simply a punitive technique.  Keep in mind, however, that one of the types they cover is called “positive practice.”  During positive practice overcorrection, the learner is, contingent on problem behavior, asked to complete the desired behavior and often in an overly exaggerated way.  The example they give is a child breaking a dish would be asked to wash a dish exceedingly carefully.  And, they have data that the behavioral changes that result may be the effect of punishment. 

While we tend to think of overcorrection as exclusively a punishment technique because of the way it’s presented in our textbooks, it’s uses can go beyond that.  It’s actually a very useful training procedure. 

How you can use it.  You may have to get over the weirdness of this (I did), but if you’re looking to be more expressive while you’re speaking, one great way to do it is to practice wild exaggeration.  Like I said, when I get a little threatened (you could also call it nervous or anxious), my expression tends to get suppressed.  When I’m practicing what I deliver, I find those sections where I really want a point to land and I practice delivering the material very, very dramatically. 

Again, get a mirror so that you can see yourself.  (Trust me, seeing yourself will help you get past your concern for looking ridiculous; you’ll get used to looking ridiculous).  Then, start by practicing what you have to say being really, really excited.  Be more excited than you’ve ever been.  Be excited like you were when you were a kid, before grownups started telling you it wasn’t ok to be that excited. 

Here’s an example:

It may take a little while and some practice before you can generate that much excitement.  So you may simply start with practicing that.  Then, practice delivering your material that way.  But don’t stop there.  You will increase your range if you also practice being angry, and being sad, and being really happy.  The more you can over-correct whatever your usual tendencies are, the more range you will have when you’re actually in front of people, and you’ll be that much more effective in communicating your message. 

To conclude, I said that I’m proud that I developed myself to be an effective speaker.  What makes me proud about that is that I really didn’t start that way.  There are people who are naturally good at public speaking, and when one of those comics came on the scene and effortlessly made people laugh the first time they would try, I was always a little jealous.  Why I’m proud is that it did take work, and I put the work in and saw pretty great results.  Beyond that, however, I’m proud because I was able to use this wonderful science that I love so much to fundamentally alter my own behavior and have one of my own lifelong dreams come true. 

When I graduated and moved back to Chicago, I kept doing comedy for awhile.  I entered a comedy competition at the Lakeshore Theater, a now-closed venue that probably sat 1500 people.  When I walked in, there were all these posters of my comedy heroes – people who had performed on that stage.  The theater wasn’t nearly full.  There were maybe – maybe – 300 people there.  And I got up, I did my five minutes, and it was a good, solid set that got laughs where I expected them.  Afterwards, a couple of comics who had seen me before said that was the best set they had seen me do.  And I got to do it on a stage where guys like Louis CK and Doug Stanhope had performed. That’s an honest-to-god dream come true.  And if that isn’t socially significant, I don’t know what is.  I’m proud to consider myself part of a science that makes that available to people. 

Tell us your stories of public speaking in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. 

Woods, D. W., Miltenberger, R. G., & Lumley, V. A. (1996). Sequential application of major

habit-reversal components to treat motor tics in children. Journal Of Applied Behavior Analysis, 29(4), 483-493. doi:10.1901/jaba.1996.29-483. 

Scott Herbst, PhD is the founder and Lead Trainer at SixFlex Training and Consulting.  After six years in academia, he left to pursue his passion of training leaders and managers to create, manage, and communicate in work environments where people are productive, excited, and vital.  As a course designer, he grounds his curricula in cutting edge research in language and thinking as well as decades of research in operant performance.  As a trainer, he is an engaging and powerful speaker who makes learning fun and exciting.   You can visit his company site at, or email at [email protected] for more information.

1 Comment on "Four Behavioral Practices to Be a Better Public Speaker"

  1. Kevin M. Fuller | May 24, 2016 at 6:10 pm | Reply

    Okay, I seriously want some tips on becoming a comedian.. loved your article! Thanks!

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