The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public. George Jessel
I was asked to give an internal “lunch and learn” at Pardot on becoming a better public speaker. Folks submitted questions they’d like answered when they signed up, so I structured my presentation around them. I imagine they might help you, too.
1. “Be the UI.”
This simple perspective from Serious Pony puts words to a difficult, but crucial concept: what your content can do for the audience is the most important part of speaking. So, if you think about your talk as an experience for users, then you can think of yourself as the interface. The best interfaces don’t get in the way of what the user is trying to do.
For me, this manifested in realizing that I didn’t need to become what I perceived to be the “ideal speaker”—which was honestly what kept me from ever trying to speak before. Instead, trusting that what I have to say is valuable for others and allowing my own personality to come through helped me take the leap.
2. Allow me to not introduce myself.
The amount of time I spend introducing myself at the beginning of a talk has diminished with every talk I’ve given. Why? Honestly, no one really cares that much—they’re already there. So long as you’re easily found online, people can do all the “background checks” their heart desires.
Now, what I try to stick to is my name and Twitter handle (it helps folks attribute quotes and start a dialogue), and will expand only if I know I need to. Again, focus on giving the audience value and trust that you’re credible enough to be there.
3. Keep calm and breathe normally.
To calm your nerves and speak confidently, focus on good breathing techniques. You will not believe how much of a difference breathing well makes, no matter how ridiculous that sounds. You won’t sound out of breath, you’ll pause properly, and you’ll think more clearly. I don’t even do this well, yet, honestly, but it helps every time I work on it.
4. Talk slowly and less.
First of all, if you’re not talking so slowly that it feels awkward, you’re talking too fast. I struggle with this, too. Slow down for everyone’s sake! Slow down even more if you’ve got potential a language barrier with the audience. Often, folks are taking notes, and they can’t do that effectively if you’re filling literally every second with five words.
On that point: don’t try to fill up your time slot. Plan on saying less than you think you’ll be able to, and try to stick to big, meaty ideas.
5. Manage the clock by making decent slides.
Instead of constantly trying to do pacing math in my head (“If I’m on slide 14 of 35 and I’ve been talking for 22 of 40 minutes…”), I have my talk split up into 3 or 4 major areas. When I get to them, that’s where I check in to make sure I’m progressing well.
Further, if your slides are designed well (i.e. there’s not seven bullet points on every single one), you can have extra thoughts and quips that are easy to cut out if you run short on time, and the audience is none the wiser. You don’t have to be an artist to make decent slides. Focus on your big ideas, and give words or phrases that are short and easy to write down (or tweet). Michael Hyatt’s got some great tips you should check out.
6. Engage conversationally.
I usually pick a person or so at every corner of the room to make eye contact with and move between them a bit. Whatever it takes to keep you from looking down or towards the back of the room where the ceiling meets the wall is a good plan. Start there.
From eye contact, engage in ways that make you feel comfortable and honest. A buddy of mine (who’s a phenomenal speaker) will ask individual audience members questions—that’d throw me for a loop, so I don’t. Let your personality come out in the way you interact with the audience, your slides, and your delivery.
7. Know what to do in an emergency.
If your slides are good and you know your own material fairly well, you should be able to operate even if you lose your notes (if you have them). Don’t panic! You can handle the inverse, too. If you have your notes (or, at least, a backup printout of all your slides), you can present even if the projector malfunctions or Powerpoint is crashing or the screen collapses or your entire city loses power. You’re the only one who knows what you were going to say, so just adapt.
Further, don’t create tiny emergencies for yourself by saying things like:
- “I just got my slides together this morning.”
- “I’ve got a mega hangover.”
- “We’re running low on time.”
- “I really should’ve peed.”
- “I’m nervous.”
Try not to create those situations in the first place, but don’t mention it even if it’s true. As Chris Coyier put it: show the audience some respect.
8. Embrace the awkward.
Did something just go wrong? Did you just burp? Is your fly undone, and you just found out halfway into your presentation? Did you trip and say an inexcusably profane word on stage?
Just laugh, friend. Everyone in the audience is a human being, and the best of them (if not all of them) will understand and laugh right along with you. An accident is much more easily forgive than a poor presentation.
And, because I was asked about it: two things can go wrong with Q&A, and I handle them very differently. If you lose the audience’s attention due to them starting conversations, and you can’t get their attention back, just wrap things up. No reason to stand up there looking out-of-sorts. However, if you get someone who starts shouting out of turn in disagreement, wait patiently to see if they’ll calm down, or end things and offer to answer questions outside the room. Don’t give your time to rude people to can’t talk in turn.
These tips have helped me, but the best thing you can do is to just do it. Do your best, solicit feedback, and make improvements. The first 30 seconds of any talk are still terrifying to me, but that fear goes away quickly and more easily with each go ’round.
If you believe you have something valuable to say, share it.