Today, after I’d done an IT induction talk at work, a new student asked me how long I’ve been lecturing because he would really like to get better at public speaking. I told him that I’m not a lecturer, but I often talk at technology user groups and conferences, so talking to the 150 people in the room today was now about as natural as talking to him afterwards. I said that it just gets easier with experience, but on the way back to my office I realised that I’d done him a disservice, because there are other key attributes that make a good public speaker, and there are people with lots of experience who aren’t that good at it (as he’s likely to find out the hard way from some long-time lecturers*).
Back at my desk, I sent him an email with the advice below, in the hope that it’s more immediately useful that simply “gain experience”. Some of them are things that I’ve worked out for myself; others are likely from other sites that I’ve read about presentation skills. I’m sorry that I don’t have any attribution for those – my intent was not to copy anyone else’s work, but simply to put together a list of things that work for me**, and may be helpful to you…
While the age-old tip of “imagine your audience naked” might be fun with some audiences, it isn’t going to really make you a good public speaker. Hopefully these should help:
- Keep in mind that aside from a few sadistic freaks, your audience isn’t waiting for you to fail. They are on your side and want you to do well because they want to get something good (useful information, entertainment, or both) out of your presentation.
- Know your material. If you use slides or notes, make sure they’re just bullet points for you to talk around. Don’t be reading long streams of text off the screen or a bit of paper.
- The hardest presentations to give are the ones where you fear that you aren’t telling anyone anything they don’t already know. Find a way to make the content fresh for them by including anecdotes from personal experience (or other people’s experience, but then you run the risk of them already having heard it again, so try to find obscure ones – something that makes the point but comes from another field, perhaps).
- If you do 2 and 3 right, you can go into it with the confidence that even if you’re talking to subject experts, they at least haven’t heard your take on the presentation before.
- Repetition helps, so rehearse. I was able to deliver my bit today so easily because it’s basically the same one that I’ve given half a dozen times before, almost word for word (that was my first one of the year, so all I did was glance through the deck this morning and remind myself of the key points). The rehearsing thing goes towards gaining experience – ask a friend to watch you rehearse and give feedback, or video it and then critique yourself.
- Try to use light and shade, even if the subject is very dry. I usually try to inject a bit of humour into a presentation, but if the content/audience doesn’t suit that, on the flip side, a good cautionary tale works well (eg. “Obscure Company X didn’t put enough effort into their SOX 404 audit compliance, and it ended up costing them TWO BILLION DOLLARS!”).
- Appropriately timed pauses help you make your point, but also help you work out what you’re going to say next and avoid “er”/”um”s. I came across a woman who had clearly had some coaching where she’s learned to replace a filler sound like “er” with the filler word “obviously”. It was terrible. Once you’d realised that she, obviously, said obviously a couple of times a sentence, it, obviously, became impossible to hear the point she was trying to make. It was even worse in her case because the things she was talking about were far from obvious! Pausing is best, but “er” is still better than “obviously”.
- Remember that even if you’re really well prepared and even if you’ve had a successful dress-rehearsal in the same room, with the same equipment (which you should do if possible), things can still go wrong. If you’re demonstrating anything live, there’s a good chance that it will manage to fail at the worst moment in a new and unexpected way. If a demonstration is critical to your presentation, record it before hand to use as a backup – that way, at least you can do a live demo with the confidence that you have a “get out of jail free” card if it goes all goes to crap.
- There are a million different tips that you can find online in terms of building a good slide deck. The most important thing, in my opinion, is to avoid too much text on a slide, and try to use supporting imagery where you can.
- Watch other good presenters and shamelessly copy the things you admire in their delivery. TED.com is a fantastic resource for this.
* For all I know, this student might experience only excellent lecturers – I’m just guessing that some won’t be as great.
** I don’t necessarily consider myself to be a great public speaker, but I try my best.