Be A Better Speaker

I've taken a bit of a break from the conference circuit. With my previous job at InMobi I was attending 10 different events per month (on average). Some were merely hosting, others were presenting.

It got really tiring after a while. As much as I love the UK tech scene, it can be a bit repetitive to see the same faces and answer the same questions over and over again. It also took a toll on my personal and social life. It's rare that you take someone on a date to a mobile conference :-)

So I gave myself an enforced break. I have almost completely withdrawn from meetups, launch parties, conferences, or workshops for the last few months. The ones I have been to, I attended as a spectator rather than a speaker. That's much less stressful.

That said, I think it's time to start getting back in the saddle! I've created a profile on dex.io which lists some of my more recent public speaking gigs.

I have noticed that some people are really intimidated by public speaking. This blog post is an aide-mémoire for a BarCamp session I want to run on how to be a better public speaker.

So, here are my top tips:

Warm Up

Perhaps the most important. Before any talk I warm up my voice. There's nothing worse than hearing someone's voice break, or listen to them trip over a sentence. I do tongue twisters, humming, sing scales (badly). Anything so that my voice is clear for the audience.

Learn Your Material

You need to be confident in what you're saying. Knowing the general gist of what you want to say isn't enough - you must know your material backwards. If the slides break down, you still have to present.

I can't stand it when people say "errr... now... errr the next slide is about dogs" *click* "errr... I mean cats!"

You have to respect your audience - they want to hear a talk from someone who knows what they're talking about.

Don't Disparage Yourself

My number one pet peeve is speakers who start their presentations by saying:

I'm not a very good public speaker.

Or

I'm really nervous.

Or

Thanks for having me - I hate public speaking so this probably won't be any good.

How many times have you heard similar sentiments expressed at the start of a talk?

Essentially, you're telling the audience that they're wasting their time by listening to you. If you don't respect yourself, the audience won't respect you either.

Stand Still

People who rock back and forth.... ARGH! It's so distracting watching you sway like a metronome! Plant your feet shoulder-width apart, back straight, stand STILL!

If there's a podium, cling on to it. Anything to make you stopping looking like a daisy in the breeze!

Move About

If you have the space - and are confident - move around. The audience are looking at you and it can get pretty dull watching someone in one spot. This is especially true if you're on a large stage.

You need to fill up the space with your presence and one of the easiest ways is to move to the centre of the stage, talk, pause, move to the side, repeat.

You don't need to dance, skip, or hop. Own the space.

Don't Read From Slides

Everyone in your audience can read. You're doing them no favours by reading densely packed slides. Each of your slides should illustrate an idea - preferably with an image or chart.

It's fine to explain what's going on in the image and how it relates to your talk. If you have a really important Einstein quote - stick it up, but don't just read it aloud; talk about what it means.

Resolution

Before going on stage, set your laptop to 800*600 resolution. Make sure you know how to set the screen output. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

For some reason, people with MacBooks are incapable of doing this. They always end up with a ridiculously high resolution, spend 10 minutes fiddling around with adapters, and then can't fit all their slides on screen.

Make sure your laptop is set to the correct resolution and you have your "display pre-preference" setting open and ready to use.

Microphone

If you're lucky, you'll get a clip on microphone. That way, you won't have to worry about it.

If you get a microphone on a podium - speak in to it. Don't turn your head away, don't lean back, don't assume that it can pick you up.

More likely you'll get a hand held microphone. Hold this like you would an ice cream. Talk at your normal volume - don't whisper or shout. Don't hold the mic at chest height or by your side. The mic needs to get a clear signal from your mouth.

Never Turn Your Back

You know how they say that if you're afraid of public speaking, imagine your audience is naked? I want you to imagine that they're armed to the teeth. Never turn your back on them.

Humans can tell a lot about a person from their face - when you turn around, you cut off 90% of the audience's access to your body language.

Don't turn and look at your slides - you know what's on them, don't you? You are talking to an audience - not the projector screen.

Be Enthusiastic

You audience has either paid to see you or they've given up some time to learn from you. They don't want to see someone who is bored with their own material.

I don't mean fake smiles, an over abundance of insincere joy, or jumping around like a sugared up tween! Show your passion and share your enthusiasm. Let people know why they should be excited about what you're talking about.

If you aren't interested in your subject - why should your audience be interested in it?

Timing

If you have a three minute slot, don't you dare go over 180 seconds. Everyone hates the presenter who can't fit their demo into the allotted time and begs for special dispensation. You have to respect the audience and teh other speakers. Your phone has a stop watch app on it, right? Use that to make sure you can fit everything in without running over.

Conversely, don't worry about being short. No one minds a short talk and - if you were interesting enough - a shortfall can easily be filled by asking "any questions?".

Make A Note Of Everyone's Mistakes

Whenever you watch a presentation - see what you don't like about it. Figure out what turns you off and make sure that you don't do it.

Here's the hard part - do that with your own talks. Video every presentation you give. Then watch it back.

You will hate it. It's the hardest thing to do - your voice sounds funny, you have that annoying tic, you do that thing which reminds you of your parents.... ARGH!

But, sadly, it's the best way to learn.

Practice

Finally, practice. Go to BarCamps, put yourself forward for speaking roles, get a webcam and upload a talk to YouTube, give a small demo to people you work with, practice practice, practice.

Practice your words, practice your timing, practice your pauses, practice your slide order, practice practice practice!

Speaking in public can be hard. As with anything, the more you practice, the easier it will get.

And, in the end...

I don't claim to be the world's best public speaker. But I have been doing it for a while and my talks generally gather good feedback.

If you're interested in speaking in public for the first time, or if you want to improve how you present, drop me a line or come and see me at the next BarCamp I do.


2 Responses to “Be A Better Speaker”

  1. James Whatley Image of James Whatley

    I reckon this is a great post. Good work sir.

    A slight variation on the 'watching yourself back' that I use is to have someone else (someone you trust and respect: a friend, colleague or loved one) sit with you while you watch the video and critique it first.

    You're not allowed to respond until the end meaning they don't get interrupted and also, by having someone else take a look, you get a good second opinion too.

    Reply

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