12 Deeper Tips for Great Public Speaking

Half an Hour

Steve Wheeler posted a nice article called 12 Tips for Great Speaking today.He's had a lot of experience on the public speaking circuit and there's no doubt his tips hit the mark. I've also had some experience on the circuit, so I thought it would be useful to add to his remarks. So, here are his tips (in italic, abridged) with my additions.

1) Start out with a humorous story or funny remark. 

This is a classic tip that applies not only to public speaking but also to long-form magazine writing. I tend to avoid trying to open for a job, because humour doesn't travel well, but I do add a paragraph or two to set the stage before I summarize the talk as a whole or introduce my main point.

Why? I apply Mike Bullard's three steps to a great joke to public speaking. The three steps are: find something you have in common with the audience, bring them around to your point of view, make them laugh at themselves. In my cause, instead of making them laugh, I try to make them learn about themselves.

So I'm trying in those first two paragraphs to find a point in common. This point in common will create a theme which I'll return to throughout the talk. It's where we connect. It can be a joke or a story, but it can be something I've seen, something I've experienced, or something I can imagine or dream about.


2) If you're using slides, make sure you minimise the text on them... use images and other evocative visuals...

The text on any slide must be easily read from the back of the room, which means it has to be pretty minimal. If you have more than six or eight lines of text, you definitely have too much (and the text is too small). There's no point having any text if people can't read it.

I also like to have images on my slides. Typically, I'll allocate half the slide to an image, and the other half (the top or bottom, left or right) to an image. Not always, but typically. For me, the images provide a parallel story that can be read alongside the text. Sometimes the images illustrate the text, but more often the images say something different.

I have two major reasons for doing it this way:

- first, when speaking to international audiences, it's essential to have some text that helps people follow along. People who are weak in English might lose track of the talking, but the text helps them follow along (this also helps me a lot when I'm watching presentations in French or Spanish).

- second, not all people in the audience are at the same level. So I want to offer different 'tracks' in my talk: a simple message offered by the text, a deeper message offered in the talk, and an animation of the message offered in the images.


3) Don't be tempted to read straight from it. People have come to hear your ideas, not listen to you read text from a screen that they can read for themselves.

I generally don't read from the slides, but I make some exceptions. Why? Because I'm also recording my audio. So I can't simply say "you can see this for yourself on the slide" because people listening to the audio recording can't. Also, I might have blind people (or almost blind, like me)  in the audience.

Specifically, if I'm quoting someone else, I'll often read the quote word for word. This way, I'm putting the exact quote into the audio recording. I'm also quoting the person exactly to my audience, ensuring that they hear directly from the source.

Otherwise, yeah, don't read from the slides. Especially don't turn your back on the audience while you read from the slides.


4) Engage with your audience. Maintain eye contact, by sweeping your gaze across the group as you talk. Move around a little rather than standing stock still...

I used to walk around a lot while I presented but once I started doing audio and video recordings I started staying still (unless being professionally recorded) in order to stay in the frame.I do tend to gesture a lot and speak with my hands, because this is yet another track to my message, the non-verbal track.

I don't sweep my eyes across an audience. I look at individuals. I pick out a few individuals who are supportive of me (you can tell - they smile, they nod...) and look at them, each for a few seconds. These are my main source of confidence and support during the talks. I also pick out people who are scowling or with their arms crossed. These are my challenges - the sceptics I want to reach.

I'm sure there are tutorials that will teach you how to look and how to move, but I've never used them. What I do is to speak as though I'm having a conversation with a few people, so my expressions and movements are natural. I smile and engage and remind myself that this is fun (my real smile, not the big fake toothy smile some people like so much).


5) Don't speak too quickly, but do speak clearly...

There are two tricks to this: keep your sentences short, and pause between each sentence. You need to do this in any case if you're working with an interpreter (even simultaneous interpretation) but it's also really important for audiences generally. The pause is usually shorter than the sentence, just a second or so (that's enough for the interpreters, who have learned to listen to one thing while saying another).

Speaking clearly is important. You need to speak loudly enough to be heard. You can't mumble. Keep your hands away from your mouth (this muffles the sound). Keep at least six inches between your mouth and the microphone (so it doesn't muffle) and keep the microphone below your mouth (so you don't get breathing sounds and don 'pop' your Ps). Pronounce the Ts and Ps and Bs in your words.

Yes, it takes practice, but more important, it requires paying attention to how clearly you're speaking.


6) Repeat key points if you think you need to. You can do this in various ways, by reinforcing your points with images, video, sound, or repeating important words or phrases.

I'm not a fan of repetition. If you're trying to get people to remember something, then sure. But I'm almost never trying to get people to remember. I want to take them on a journay, or give them an experience, which will inspire them to think about something.

At best, repetition is a signpost. It is a marker to help people follow where they are in the talk, or if a digression has ended and we're back on the main road.

And sometimes, repetition is a rhetorical strategy. It creates a vivid landmark. It marks the edges of a significant theme. It creates a rhythm or pacing to the talk. But again, this has nothing to do with remembering, and the words being repeated can be almost anything.


7) When planning your talk, find out how long you are required to speak, and stick to it. It's difficult sometimes, but prior rehearsal of your talk can often highlight where you can remove some points, or reduce images or text to improve your timing.

Yes, stick to the time constraint. Yes, this is hard, and I've had my fair share of misses. But if you pay attention, you should be fine. It takes two things: a clock (which I often forget to bring with me, which is why I miss) and a structure (more about that below).

And then keeping time requires only a sense of pacing. For example, if  your talk has three parts, and thirty minutes, then each part should take 10 minutes. Make sure you have a clock. Don't depend on your computer; sometimes the clock disappears.

I never rehearse my talks. Some may say that I should (heh) but my experience is that the rehearsal never looks like the final product in any case. I prefer to be able to watch the audience, to react, to take advantage of the setting, of previous talks, of my mood and my imagination.


8) Try to stick to a maximum of three main points. 

Actually, your talk should have one main point, supported by three (or maybe four) main sub-points. This is the key to planning your talk, giving your talk without memorizing it (or rehearsing it), and to finishing it on time.

If you have an hour, plan for 45 minutes, and give ear of your three main parts 15 minutes (if you have half an hour, give each part six minutes). The idea here is not that you're cutting things, you simply go into less depth everywhere.

You don't need to memorize any of this - you can keep three points in your head, right? Like, say, 'past, present, future'? Or 'good, bad and ugly'? Or 'fact, fiction and forecast'?

For each of your three parts, think of three subparts. Like this: three facts about blogging, three fictions about blogging, three predictions about blogging. If you have an hour, each of these will be five minutes. If you have half an hour, each of these will be two minutes, so be quick!

I could say a lot more about structure, but this is the basic point. If you do nothing else, do this. Do this a few times and you'll experience how easy it is, and then you can start doing more with this basic structure.


9) Leave time for questions at the end of your talk if you can. 

It's nice to leave time for questions. I don't always, but I always take time to talk with people after the talk.

When you answer a question, restate the question - this shows you've understood the question, and also helps people who may not have heard the question (usually most of the audience, and definitely people listing to audio and video recordings).

Take the questions seriously and respect the questioner. It takes a lot of courage to ask a question.


10) If you are asked a question and you don't know how to answer, be honest and say so. 

Yes, definitely. You don't need to apologize for not knowing everything. Indeed, I often make a point to say that there are things I don't know and that nobody expects anyone to have all the answers.

I rarely say I'll get back to people with an answer. If I don't know the answer, then the questioner and I are in the same situation, and I don't feel an obligation to do research for the questioner. They can do it as easily as I can. But if they write me after, I do promise to answer them.


11) Your last slide can contain your own contact details such as email address, social media accounts, website URL, and even your phone number if you feel brave enough!

I never post my phone number. I hate telephones.

I do post my website address. That's where I want people to start. Most of the time people can find the answers they need on my website. They can also subscribe to my newsletter or find my email address on my website.


12) Think about sharing your slides after the event... your audience numbers are far greater than the number who were present in the room! 

This is true, and also true for my audio and video recordings. My audience after the event may be in the thousands, even if there were only a couple dozen people in the room (which means that, for me, a small talk is just as important as a large keynote presentation, and I treat it equally seriously).

I use slideshare (http://www.slideshare.net) to upload my slides. I use Audacity (https://www.audacityteam.org/) to record my audio, which I then upload to my website (you could use SoundCloud) I use xSplit to record my videos, which I either stream directly or upload later to my channel on YouTube. The most important thing when you record is to use a decent microphone.

That's it! I hope this was useful.

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